Toolbox 3 – Using culture and the imagination


This tool has to do with how the telling of stories expresses and transforms identity, connects people and conveys knowledge at the personal and community levels.

What is this about?

Storytelling is something human beings do everywhere, independently of age, class or culture. It is a means for sharing and learning ideas, values and practices. The storyteller tells part of his story or someone else’s story; the audience can then relate to this story and tell it again if they wish, usually adding some of their own experiences and stories. In this way, stories connect people and also construct the common history and the memories shared by and within communities.

Psychologist Jerome Bruner (2002: 16–7) identifies five components in a story:

  • the characters, who can be people or any imagined beings, situated in a determined context;
  • an expected order of things, which is usually how everyone expects things to be in a context, the taken-for-granted;
  • a disruption in this normal order: an incident, a transformation, an accident – anything that triggers a change;
  • the set of actions and events that follow to handle the disruption, which is then the plot of the story;
  • the outcome, or the ‘end’ of the story, which usually gives people the lessons they take with them from the story.

Telling stories is always social; there is a storyteller and an audience to whom the story is directed. This relationship between storyteller and audience builds new meanings, as the audience may later on become the storyteller or protagonist of the story. In this way, stories can be handed down from one time to another as we listen to stories about our community’s history. They can also go around from one place to another, from one person to another very quickly in the present and become widely known, through social media, for example.

Anyone can tell a story, but not everyone has their stories heard

This is why storytelling works on different levels. When we think of whole cultures and societies, we see that they have their own stories that convey their values, important historical events and things they wish to achieve, such as freedom, or even political ideologies. At the level of community, stories carry shared trajectories about how the community emerged, what happened to it, dilemmas and difficulties as well as the ways in which people face these. As we will see, telling these stories to different audiences inside and outside the community is very importantfor bottom-up social development organisations. At the level of the individual, telling a story can have multiple functions of expression, reflection, healing, ‘getting things off your chest’, as it were. In this way, storytelling is an exercise in building voice, learning how to express this voice and at the same time, by telling, being able to imagine how stories can be rewritten.

Popular culture conveys stories in many ways: soap operas, rap songs, children’s fairy tales, to name just a few. Social memory is also conveyed by stories, such as those told in national anthems, folk songs and mythologies or legends.


The imagination refers to the human capacity to go beyond the immediate present and play with possible realities. It involves the projection of hopes and anticipation of futures that challenge the present and actual configuration of things. Given that art and creativity constitute a crucial component for social regeneration in favelas, the imagination is a central concept to building bottom-up social development.

Imagining other worlds is a key adaptation unique to modern humans (Bloch, 2008). We know that in ontogenesis the human capacity to imagine alternative possibilities and to work out their implications emerges early and fundamentally transforms children’s developing conception of reality. It allows children to switch between frameworks, from reality to make-believe and back, and establishes a relationship of mutual inspiration between pretend-play and reality. For the child, pretending is not a distortion but a playful relationship with reality that is central to a healthy cognitive, social and emotional development (Harris, 2000; Winnicott, 1982). Fantasy, play, daydreaming and imagining are essential for the healthy development of thinking and rationality. In this sense, the work of the imagination is central for producing the visions and alternative representations that move individuals, communities and public spheres into social action for positive social change. Through play and art, bottom-up social development organisations are repositioning favela life in the agenda of Brazilian society and utilising the work of the imagination in developing resilience and resistance to contexts of poverty.

Why does it matter?

Storytelling can change the way in which people and communities are presented and re-presented. Stories help to open the understandings and imaginations of people and communities in multiple ways. Sometimes they express positive elements of a community, enhancing self-esteem; sometimes they convey stories of failure and loss, so that people can reflect and learn from other peoples’ experiences; sometimes they convey potential futures, things to aspire for, so that communities can dream and use their dreams to fuel action for change.

Key facts from the favelas

In the favela context, the production and performance of stories is a central tool deployed by grassroots organisations and bottom-up movements. It is used all the time and across different activities. Organisations such as AfroReggae and CUFA use storytelling constantly to achieve their objectives. Projects are defined by verbs such as to divulge, disseminate and give visibility, which clearly have the function of conveying and promoting specific narratives.

  • Stories are used as examples of what happened to someone and what this person learned through the experience. Leaders and activists tell their personal stories again and again: how they faced difficult times, how they coped and how they transformed those experiences in positive action. They are repeated so frequently that many achieve the status of legends of the community.
  • Stories are used to convey the experiences of the community to the wider public sphere. Favela organisations collaborate with multiple partners such as the media, film makers and international organisations to put forward their story.
  • Stories are used as identification and learning platforms. Stories go around the favela so that people can identify and learn from each other.
  • Stories are used as platforms for hoping and imagining alternative realities and futures. Positive narratives are selected and widely disseminated to offer young people of the favelas role models and strategies for their life projects.

AfroReggae and CUFA


Storytelling is present across interventions in the favelas:

Arts. Music, dance and theatre are used to produce stories and to convey them to other people. Rhythms such as rap, hip-hop and break are used to engage youth in the production and telling of their own stories. Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance that combines elements of martial arts, is a powerful conveyor of social memory used by NGOs. Other artistic manifestations such as graffiti are also deployed through workshops for participants to have their say and, in doing so, to transform physical spaces.

Radio, television and social media. These communication channels are widely used to promote a sense of pride about all the positive aspects of living and working in a favela. Stereotypes are challenged by openly using the word ‘favelado’ (from the favelas, frequently used in a pejorative way) and the phrase ‘I am favela’ to reclaim the positive identity associated with territory and to tell a story of hard work, creativity and community solidarity.

Prizes. Grassroots organisations use prizes and ceremonies to recognise publicly those who work for the common good or those who represent the best of their communities in terms of beauty, creativity or achievements. Through partnerships they have been able to take their prizes to the city’s main theatre, Teatro Municipal.

Jornal Voz das Communidades


Rene Silva Santos, a young communicator who has lived all his life in the community of Complexo do Alemão in Rio de Janeiro, started the community magazine Jornal Voz das Comunidades when he was 11 years old to tell others about the realities of his community. He began by reporting what was happening in his community, and gradually began to make use of social media to reach out. Today, the community magazine is a reference point for inhabitants of Complexo do Alemão and for anyone who wants to know about developments in this favela as they happen. To read stories from the Jornal Voz das Comunidades, follow

Storytelling in action


Storytelling refers to the production and expression of narratives built by communities to convey their experiences, histories and projects.


Multiple actors engage in storytelling:

  • Grassroots organisations can provide safe spaces for narratives to be told and shared.
  • Any member of a community can collect and present stories of their everyday lives; here, however, attention must be paid to cultural context, as different cultures treat disclosure of personal information in different ways.

What for?

Bottom-up initiatives of social development use storytelling for multiple purposes:

  • to enhance self-esteem;
  • to convey lessons without being too prescriptive;
  • to trigger discussion of delicate issues of relevance to the community, such as decisions to be made (regarding housing or community regeneration, for example);
  • to hand down national or regional identity and factual knowledge to new generations;
  • to build narratives that convey pride, positive futures and aspirations.


Action points:

  • Production of stories. Hold activities in which participants engage in the creative production of text, music and image-based (drawings, photography, video) artistic expressions through which they tell their own story, that of their community or of potential worlds or imagined realities. See Apoena.
  • Storytelling within the community. Bring about events that allow storytelling in common spaces and outlets in the community such as parks, community centres or libraries. These events can be held regularly, as in the case of reading groups or seasonal events such as theatrical representations, exhibitions of children’s drawings and singing performances. One possibility is to hold thematic events so that they focus on, for example, peacemaking, academic success, or goals collectively achieved by the community.
  • Storytelling outside the community. Develop actions and partnerships that take the story of the community to the outside world. These include:
    • Provision of suitable physical spaces in the city where narratives from ‘the peripheries’ (artistic performances and exhibitions, for example) can be shared with wider audiences.
    • Engagement with mainstream marketing strategies to disseminate stories about who they are and what they are doing. Consider possibilities such as programmes in radio, television, publications and social media.
  • Reward events. Provide spaces for award ceremonies and contests in which a particular community narrative is highlighted. For example, community institutions might like to commend a person for a particular action or service to the community, or might like to hold contests of what is attractive or worthy of praise in a particular context. In focusing on some events and not others, the community expresses a particular narrative of what is important to its members.
  • Social memory. Work with historical facts, cultural movements and traditions conveyed through artistic manifestations. These elements can be combined with the previous action points.

Download Storytelling checklist

Download Workshop exercise on storytelling

Download Workshop images

The arts

This tool draws on the cultural capital of communities and their manifold forms of creative and artistic expression. Through the arts, individuals and communities use the imagination as a resource for individual and social development.

What is this about?

The arts are about creative expression and using the imagination. They are about the culture and everyday life of a community and go well beyond the idea of ‘fine arts’ or the gifted genius. Anyone can use the arts because they involve expression, connection and enjoyment, all of which are important for social development. The arts:

  • offer a platform for self and community expression, which enables individuals and communities to make sense of who they are and imagine who they want to be;
  • connect individuals to their community as well as to different communities: being part of an artistic collective links the self to the group and unites people in telling stories, performing and producing beautiful artefacts. This attracts audiences and connects people across geography, social position and time;
  • involve beauty, pleasure and the experience psychologists call ‘flow’, being completely absorbed and focused on the action. The pleasure evoked empowers, heals and opens up the imagination.

Bottom-up social development showcases the art of local communities, their aesthetic patterns and preferences as well as what they feel to be culturally relevant. At the same time they engage the fine arts, historically seen as alien to marginalised populations.

Scientific studies have documented the social, economic, educational and health benefits of community arts (Daykin et al., 2008; Newman, Curtis, & Stephens, 2003). Recent research suggests that artistic interventions, including both fine arts and crafts, humanise social change by linking people to their culture (Clammer, 2014).

Download The arts – What can we do in the community?


Why does it matter?

Using the arts as a tool expands the actions of bottom-up social development to dimensions of human experience that go beyond addressing basic needs. The arts operate with the imagination, which is a psychosocial asset that heals and protects the self from the harshness of difficult contexts and opens the mind for alternatives, dreams and aspirations. The focus here is not on surviving only but on living and living well, building actions that develop people to their full potential.

Key facts from the favelas:

Artistic manifestations permeate most of the social development initiatives implemented in the favelas. Through the arts, favela organisations build on cultures of celebration and joy to counteract experiences of suffering and to create empathy across audiences, attracting both the community and the wider city. Examples below.

AfroReggae artistic groups


AfroReggae’s artistic initiatives include:

Afrolata, ‘the art that was born out of rubbish’, is a drumming group of boys that was born inside the favela. They make use of disposable and disposed-of materials, recycling cans and using them creatively for artistic expression. The group draws on the rhythms and beat of favela life to showcase its culture and potential. Shouting their motto, ‘I am favela’, young, mainly black, favela dwellers play the drums, dance  to their rhythm and sing their own stories and concerns.

AfroCirco. This initiative emerged from the partnership between AfroReggae and Cirque du Soleil. Community members receive training on classical ballet, percussion and acrobatics, and have now imprinted their own distinctive approach to circus. They perform in Brazil and internationally, offering young favela dwellers opportunities for expanding networks and crossing borders.

AfroReggae Symphonic Orchestra is a complete musical orchestra with a variety of instruments and repertoires. The initiative brings classical music to the favelas and breaks away from the stereotype of favela dwellers as unable to engage with fine arts. The project has been very successful in attracting children and young people to instruments such as the violin and the cello, and demonstrating the benefits of classical music in an unconventional setting. It has also enabled artists to come into the favela to give lessons and workshops on posture, breathing and other techniques that support playing in the orchestra. Under the tutelage of maestro Guilherme Carvalho, a conductor and social activist, the community has engaged in partnerships with the government and multilateral organisations such as UNESCO.

Rap, Break and Crafts: CUFA’s use of arts


Using culture as its main medium, CUFA works on citizenship, skills and income generation. Among its portfolio of activities are workshops on photography, film, fashion, dance and music. In addition, CUFA builds on traditional crafts linked to upcycling materials. Examples include:

Projeto Rapensando (Rap-thinking, a pun between the Portuguese word pensar (thinking) and rap): this project draws on the presence of rap in the community to encourage reflection, establishment of routines and activity, friendship networks and to support access to the job market. According to CUFA, Rapensando aims to rethink the role of youth in society through the resources of their own culture as well as to provide them with a contained space for expression, physical exercise and meeting people. It is sponsored by Petrobras (Brazilian Petroleum) and provides a good example of how the arts are combined with partnerships as tools for individual and social development.

Break workshops are similar and usually go together with rapping. With break, CUFA promotes an important cultural manifestation, coming from the peripheries, and at the same time places young favela dwellers on a pathway to professional development. Break offers an inroad into becoming a professional dancer, something that is valued and in demand in Brazil.

Crafts Workshops: CUFA uses the creativity of the community to build skills, upcycle materials, and offer occupation and social exchange as well as income generation. Community members use these spaces for keeping themselves busy and productive, developing cognitive skills such as concentration, focus and attention to detail. They use the imagination to visualise the final product, build project management skills, recycle and market their outputs. This is done in partnership with local government and sponsors.

The arts in action


The arts draw on culture and the imagination to express individual and community identity, to establish connections inside and outside the community, to offer the chance to produce something beautiful and useful and to engage with alternative realities.


The arts can involve and bring together multiple actors:

  • community residents who either are performers or are learning how to use artistic expression;
  • artists and cultural producers who engage with the community training, producing or performing;
  • sponsors and external partners who support artistic activities and partnerships;
  • multilateral organisations that support and disseminate the artistic expression of communities.

What for?

The arts are instrumental as a tool for:

  • self-expression, elaboration of trauma and healing;
  • building skills and developing competences;
  • fostering experiences of beauty and enjoyment to counteract stereotypes and suffering;
  • building communication across difference through shared artistic experiences;
  • imagining alternative realities; building dreams and aspirations that potentially change the public sphere.


Action points:

  • Identifying the art and culture of the community. Find out what the cultural resources of the community are and use them to form artistic and interest groups that come together to perform or to enjoy a creative activity.
  • Training and professionalisation. Consider workshops and other routes to develop and hone competences and skills related to the arts, whether that be playing an instrument, writing, traditional crafts, etc.
  • Building partnerships and sponsorships. Approach mainstream artists committed to social change and ask them to work with you in the community; seek support from artistic bodies in bringing workshops and training to the community; engage the public and private sector in sponsorships.
  • Connecting artistic expression to wider social issues. Stimulate links between artistic activities and social issues and practices that foster participation, agency and the expansion of networks. For example, a group that works on crafts such as painting ceramic objects can also focus on lobbying for a crèche, or put together a proposal for an income generation project.

Download Workshop exercise on the arts

Figure 3 Embroidery by Apoena Fashion, a collective of women in Brasilia. It reads: “E o bonito desta vida é poder costurar sonhos, bordar histórias e desatar os nós dos dias” (And the beauty of this life is to be able to sew dreams, embroider stories and untie the knots of the days).

Figure 3 – Embroidery by Apoena Fashion, a collective of women in Brasilia. It reads: “E o bonito desta vida é poder costurar sonhos, bordar histórias e desatar  nós dos dias” (And the beauty of this life is to be able to sew dreams, embroider stories and untie the knots of the days).