Key facts about bottom-up social development in the favelas

Brazil has a strong history of civil society participation and associational life (Fleury, 2011; Lavalle et al., 2005; Novy & Leubolt, 2005). The country emerged from a dictatorship in 1985 and since then has developed a strong institutional framework for citizen participation (Avritzer, 2009; Baiocchi, 2008). However, the emergence of organised groups of favela dwellers in the early 1990s is widely considered a new development in the Brazilian public sphere, differing from all previous associations of civil society in Brazil (Ramos, 2006; Vianna, 2006).

Characteristics of these novel movements are:

  • Introduction of a new social actor in organised civil society: young, black favela dwellers, who create their own new organisations, including AfroReggae, CUFA, Nós do Morro, Voz da Comunidade amongst others (see Citizenship).
  • Identity and territory: these groups are different from traditional social development organisations because they are made and led by people who come from and live in the favelas and whose identity is connected to these territories. The life history and experience of the leaders and activists match the trajectories of people living in the favelas (see Storytelling).
  • Hybrid organisations with multiple roles: these groups combine different models and identities, being a mix of NGOs, social movements, cultural entrepreneurs, social business, parents by proxy, teachers, life coaches and connectors to the State and its services (see Contact and dialogue).
  • Emphasis on personal lives: bottom-up experiences of social development in the favelas bring individual lives back to the agenda, emphasising self-esteem, emotional support and the development of individual skills and competences (see Psychosocial scaffoldings).
  • Pride and exposure: these groups work to make ‘the invisible visible’ by emphasising the culture and identity of their communities of origin. They are proud of their territory and work to present it in a positive light in the public sphere (see Self-esteem and networks).
  • Border-crossing and multiple partnerships: these groups engage with multiple partners outside favelas, including the private sector, the State, the media and the arts (see Opening up borders and partnerships).

Download the ‘Bottom-up social development in context’ exercise

When engaging in cultural activism with communities, leaders, facilitators and educators should be careful to avoid…

  1. Criticising a reality they ignore. The power of grassroots organisations comes from their knowledge of context.
  2. Ignoring how local people account for the reality in which they live. For this, basic research techniques, participatory approaches and social media are helpful.
  3. Criticising just for the sake of it. Energy must be spent on actionable points rather than empty statements.
  4. Suggesting an alternative reality without having a plan for an actionable project. Proposals to address needs should work in practice.
  5. Leaving people behind. Social development actions need the participation of people to not only denounce and plan projects, but also to implement and lead them.

Source: Adapted from Freire, P. (1972). Cultural action for freedom. London: Penguin.

Social Representations

An important concept for those working on bottom-up social development is that of social representations, which are defined as systems of ideas, values and practices constructed by social groups with the twofold function of enabling orientation and communication. Introduced by social psychologist Serge Moscovici (1961/2008) in a study about how ideas change in the public sphere, social representations are ways of thinking and acting in the world; they express the mentality of a group, the thoughts and behaviour patterns, the identities and the culture of a community. Our contemporary world is made of a plurality of social representations, all expressing projects, identities, ways of life and different levels of power in social fields. How representations meet, compete with and transform each other in public spheres is one of the most interesting problems of our time (Bauer & Gaskell, 2008; Jovchelovitch, 2007). Favela communities are staging representational struggles in relation to the overall public sphere of the city, trying to re-signify how they are seen and perceived by society at large. Central to bottom-up social development is the transformation of social representations of favelas and favela dwellers, actively demonstrating that crime, drugs and violence are far from being the dominant features of favela culture. By pushing what is invisible into the open public sphere, these groups are challenging dominant symbols and stereotypes and making a significant contribution to changes in social identities and inter-group relations across the city.