An Interview with Theresa Williamson

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Profession: Executive Director of Catalytic Communities
Age: 38
Location: Rio De Janeiro, Brazil


What is Catalytic Communities? The organization works to bring visibility to the positive qualities of traditionally marginalized communities in Rio de Janeiro and to support local projects there. These communities, favelas, are seen as slums; they are associated with a level of precariousness and violence. But these perceptions aren’t grounded in reality, and actually the favelas have enormous value.

There’s been a lot of attention on Rio lately because of the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Yes, and because of it, the city government went from a policy of ignoring these communities to dramatically intervening in them. Rio is going to be getting huge influxes of people for these mega-events, and the government sees them as a deadline for cleaning up Rio’s negative image. And the way they aim to do that is by making the city attractive to investors and tourists. Favelas are seen as an eyesore, so in many areas they’re pushing gentrification, removing the communities entirely, or moving their people to the extreme west and north zones of the city, which are two hours away from the city center by public transit.

In response, CatComm started Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch (RioOnWatch) to shift international perceptions about the favelas. We have a website and a blog where we publish community perspectives. We’re able to take voices in neighborhoods in Rio that nobody would have heard and amplify them by translating them into English and publishing them online. International media, researchers, urban planners, and activists use the site as a resource to develop understanding, to find people to interview in the favelas, and to craft stories, so in the last couple of years we’ve been able to help drive the way the international media covers the issue.

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