Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Melissa Brough and David Nemer (Part I)

Indigenous woman creating a participatory video with the Chiapas Media Project. (Photo courtesy of the Chiapas Media Project)

Indigenous woman creating a participatory video with the Chiapas Media Project. (Photo courtesy of the Chiapas Media Project)


I came to participatory politics through Henry Jenkins’s Civic Paths research group at USC, but more historically from participatory media -- not the digitally-determined kind, but the kind of participatory media that has been practiced for decades in marginalized communities, using photography, radio, theater, video, etc. My first experience with participatory media was as an intern for the Chiapas Media Project in 2000, supporting Zapatista-affiliated indigenous communities to produce their own documentaries about human rights abuses, collective organic coffee farming, and the impacts of privatized eco-tourism on indigenous communities.

To me, the proliferation of discourses of participation that occurred with the marketing of Web 2.0 was both exciting and suspect; exciting, because participation, citizen journalism, and other forms of what Manuel Castells calls “mass self-communication” were becoming the new norm -- and this seemed promising for direct civic/political engagement. Suspect, because social media corporations were using the trope of participation to sell Web 2.0, and in doing so the term lost some definitional clarity and practical meaning -- particularly as a tool for social change and democratic practice. (For instance, Zuckerberg’s 2009 video address to Facebook users compared Facebook to a nation state that needed a “more open process” with users having “a voice in governance”. Uh-huh. Or for fun, check out this description of the “participatory marketing” campaign for Mountain Dew called “Dewmocracy”.)

“DEWmocracy” on Facebook. [Source: ]

“DEWmocracy” on Facebook. [Source:]

Historically, what has made media participatory was how they were used and by whom, not the technologies themselves. Similarly, if we construe participatory politics as a mostly new phenomenon, implying that digital technology is what makes participatory politics participatory, we overlook a longer history of participatory politics that have been forged in a variety of other contexts. These concerns -- along with the fact that much of the work on digital age participatory politics has been focused on the US and the global North -- prompted me to carry out my dissertation research in Latin America. I spent a year studying participatory communication, culture, and politics as they played out in Medellín, Colombia. While Medellín first became famous on the world stage for being the home of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in the 1980s-90s, in recent years (particularly 2004-2011) the city gained international recognition for its urban renaissance based largely on discourses and practices of participation. Decades of narcotrafficking, paramilitary violence, and the urbanization of Colombia’s civil war (including violent military operations carried out indiscriminately in some of the most densely populated parts of the city), had shredded the social, civic, and political fabric of Medellín. But the crisis also created a political opening and sparked a shift in civic engagement.

Sergio Fajardo and the Compromiso Ciudadano party (Citizens’ Commitment, an independent alliance of community leaders, academics, local business leaders, and activists) won the 2003 mayoral election. This administration brought an unprecedentedly diverse group of actors into city government, including academics and community activists, rather than the traditional elites who had governed the city. The new administration’s first strategic priority for stabilizing and developing the city was entitled “Medellín, governable and participatory”.  They launched a participatory budgeting process which allowed any citizen age 14 and up to participate in allocating a percentage of the city’s annual budget to priorities set by citizens at the local subdistrict level. Along with private sector and other partners, they also invested in public spaces such as the now famous Park Libraries (a series of strikingly designed libraries with public spaces intentionally located in some of the poorest parts of the city). And they invested significant resources in prosocial youth programs, including some youth-led colectivos (collectives).

Santo Domingo Library Park and metrocable, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: ]

Santo Domingo Library Park and metrocable, Medellín, Colombia. [Source:]

So I spent most of a year studying how discourses and practices of participation were wielded by a wide variety of actors in Medellín during the two Compromiso Ciudadano administrations (2004-2011), from government officials to youth activists in the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. I studied a range of cases, from the municipal government’s digital citizenship initiative and participatory budgeting, to citizen media and youth hip hop activist projects. What I learned is detailed in my forthcoming book, Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics (Duke University Press).

As we have seen elsewhere, I observed instances where participatory politics were being enacted in an authentic and empowering manner, and instances where rhetoric of participation was co-opted to maintain a status quo that could not rightly be described as participatory. But the picture wasn’t that simple. What I found in Medellín (but is not exclusive to this city alone) was what I have come to describe as a civic polyculture. In agriculture, the term “polyculture” refers to the practice of cultivating distinct crops in the same place to enhance the ecosystem. I use the term to draw attention to the potentially productive relationships that can be cultivated between grassroots activist networks and institutions. While research has shown (and we commonly hear of) a significant disconnect between public institutions and today’s youth in most of the world, Medellín illustrated a highly participatory civic life in which many youth -- particularly low-income, marginalized youth -- were engaged in grassroots activism at the same time as they interfaced with government processes and institutions.

The result was a rich civic polyculture in which youth voices were having remarkable impacts on the city. For instance, one of the hip hop activist youth collectives I studied participated in the city’s participatory budgeting process. Each year they would work strategically to place their youth members as delegates who could vote on key sub-committees to advocate for funding for youth programs such as youth-led hip hop “schools” and other activities that were providing effective alternatives to gang membership for children and teens by creatively engaging them in public life. In 2010, through its participation in various participatory budgeting working groups, this youth collective helped channel nearly US$120,000 toward a hip hop festival promoting non-violence and prosocial youth engagement. In another instance, following the gang-related murder of a hip hop peace activist in their neighborhood, this and other youth collectives used Facebook and Twitter to call out and demand action from the municipal government. Within a couple of days, they organized a march and concert, with logistical resources provided by the municipal government.

Members of youth-led hip hop collectives in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: author]

Members of youth-led hip hop collectives in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: author]

To be clear, the relationships between grassroots youth collectives and the local government were both productive and conflictive; their perspectives were often times opposed or at least in tension. But the ecology of participation that was the result of the work of these and other actors was very rich -- and as a result, young people’s voices were having a much greater, prosocial influence on public life in the city than ever before. There was not always consensus between grassroots and institutional actors, but there was interconnection and a mutual interest in building a stronger civic ecosystem.

I’ve come to see polycultural civics as a lens through which to think about how relationships between different civic and political actors can exist in both symbiosis and tension. I am excited to join this blog series because I wonder if others in this conversation might see polycultural civics as a way to think through the (dis)connections that prompted this series. I see resonance with similar ideas that have already been expressed in this series, such as Andrew Schrock’s discussion of tech geeks acting as “tempered radicals” (borrowing from Debra Meyerson) to bring about change within public institutions. Or Eric Gordon’s discussion, drawing on Hannah Arendt, of the significance of trust in public institutions at a time when institutional uses of digital technology is undermining public trust. (And for more on the current Colombian context, check out Andres Lombana-Bermudez’s conversation with Arely Zimmerman.)

More recently I’ve been shifting away from thinking about participation as an expression of voice (as in Paulo Freire’s writing that participation is “an exercise in voice, in decision making at certain levels of power” (1999,p.88). Instead, it feels like it’s time to think about participation in its most potent form as a way to cultivate connection. Not surface-level connection, as in ‘social media connects people’; I mean participation that cultivates connection that feels meaningful to participants, and that enriches their lived experiences -- connection that both validates and challenges (or opens) participants’ perspectives and forges a deeper mutual respect for their differences and commonalities. Clearly these are not the current design goals of the social media platforms that are often referred to as “participatory media”. As several others in this series have pointed out, one of the most pressing questions of our time is how to connect across vastly different, and increasingly polarized, perspectives and ideologies. Doing a better job at designing and cultivating communication -- and civic -- ecologies conducive to these kinds of connections is the task at hand.


My first experience with participatory politics happened through the teachings and guidance of David Hakken. I remember our meetings, during my PhD program, where we used to discuss the “culture question in participatory design.” The question is a critique to the field of participatory design which tends to conceive of culture as a single, unified “thing” with ontological status. Hakken used to argue that cultural perspectives were produced via use of analytic constructs, and participatory design could develop culturally appropriate senses of both participation and design by learning to decompose totalizing notions of culture (see Hakken & Mate, 2014). Hakken’s claims stayed with me during my ethnography in the favelas (urban slums) of Vitoria, Brazil, as I was trying to understand the engagements of Favela residents with social media. I brought these same claims in order to critically examine the affordances of participatory media in the process of social inclusion and/or exclusion.

It was 2013, and the actors behind Web 2.0 platforms had proliferated the discourse of participation, as highlighted by Melissa. Even though scholars had already raised concerns about the promises of the Web 2.0, it still led the general public, especially the late adopters, such as Favela residents, to the notion that Web 2.0 platforms would bring some grand authoritative social change, in which they would promote democratic and inclusive discussions and activities. Although Web 2.0 platforms may afford a more democratic and decentralized process of producing, sharing, and consuming information, they don’t necessarily bring such emancipatory promises to those who face social and digital marginalization. In the following, I describe three cases of participatory media engagements that didn’t end so well for those who needed the most: favela residents.

During my fieldwork, I noticed that Facebook groups were popular especially with favela teenagers, as they perceived it as a way to freely communicate with friends and other teenagers from the same social class without fear judgment. Some teenagers went beyond the communicative aspect of groups and shared self-made digital content in order to become what was called famosinhos. Famosinhos were the most popular teenagers from the favelas. They dictated fashion trends among teens within the favelas, and actively cultivated their reputation by producing videos and content to promote ostentation. Such access to material good put them in a higher power position when compared to other teenagers, some of whom became fans. Famosinhos from the favelas organized meetings on Facebook so they could hang out with friends and meet their fans. These meetings were called rolézinhos (meaning “little strolls”) and later became a phenomenon throughout Brazil.

At first, the rolézinhos were taking place in public squares in the peripheries of the city, but they turned out to be popular enough that the famous teenagers dared to organize the strolls in local shopping malls, or just “shoppings” as they were called. In Brazil, shoppings functioned as a situated activity where the upper class demonstrated their purchasing power and social location. Based on my observations, favela residents perceived shoppings as a place to feel more included in society. These places allowed them the opportunity to show that they also had money (purchasing power) and access to expensive, trending goods, and not just cheap and old garments. The shoppings were located centrally in the cities and not in the favelas. Since this meant to cross social if not political boundaries, it was not well received, and the famosinhos and their fans were soon labeled as troublemakers, thieves, and rioters because they were in big groups and were targeted as favelados (favelado is a derogatory term to refer to favela residents. It implies that a favela resident is uneducated and uncivilized) (Nemer, 2016).

The rolézinho of November 2013 didn’t end well. What was supposed to be a fun stroll, ended up with the cops being called to arrest and repress the participants: poor and black bodies were tamed and humiliated as a statement that Brazil was a place that diversity was celebrated, but diverse bodies should stay in their designated space. Rolezinho was a phenomenon that helped me understand that favela residents were not only marginalized due to their social conditions, but they were also marginalized by place — both online and physical. In summary, this case highlights how favela residents were able to creatively and actively engage with social media in a way that made sense and was of value to them, however, it did not help them cross social boundaries through rolézinhos.

In June 2013, an avalanche of protests led more than one million people to take to the streets in over a hundred cities in Brazil. The wave of protests began in early June in the city of São Paulo and spread throughout the country. The protests were motivated by an eight percent increase (R$0.20) in fare for public transportation. The protests grew to include a much larger set of issues faced by Brazilian society. For instance, the protesters were dissatisfied with the government due to either a perceived or real increase in corruption and impunity. They were also frustrated by the cost of hosting the upcoming World Cup and Olympic games in light of this economic disparity and the lack of decent public services, such as health care, education, and security. In Vitória, the first protest took place on 17 June 2013. University students and members of the Brazilian middle class organized it; they used Facebook to form two popular groups: “Utilidade Publica — ES” (referred to as UP; translated as Public Utility — ES) and “Não é por 20 centavos” (referred to as N20; which translates as “It’s not just 20 cents”). The initial protest attracted 20,000 people, and the protestors started marching at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES). They marched 11 kilometers, passing through the most important avenues in the city until reaching the official residence of the Espírito Santo’s governor, Renato Casagrande. I was not able to identify anyone from the favelas. The protesters were mostly white and wore clothes that resembled typical upper-class citizens. The following day I went back to the favelas and questioned some of the residents about the protests. Most of them knew little about the protest.

Due to a large number of participants on June 17, the protest organizers gained interest and attention from channels of mainstream media, and they announced the new protest for June 20. Since the information about the new protest was available through less exclusive and mass channels, favela residents became interested and organized their own group on Facebook. The protests of June 20th made history by gathering more than 100,000 protesters in the streets of Vitória. This formed the largest public demonstration ever registered in the state of Espírito Santo. I also joined these protests with 21 favela residents. They demanded better living conditions in the favelas, more respect as citizens, and they called for an end to the drug war in their communities.

The protests of June 2013 were a good example of social segregation. The organizers of the first protests belonged to an upper class that did not overlap with lower classes, online and offline, and thus the marginalized joined in late to the streets and their voices and requests were not as privileged as the ones shouted by the rich- who already had the protest agenda set since June 17. In Vitória, when the favela residents joined the protests, they joined a group that already had demands stipulated by members from upper classes, who were the first adopters of the protests. Also, besides the lack of social ties between people from different social classes, the social conditions in which the poor lived also influenced their political engagement.

As these two cases illustrate, participatory politics empowered the marginalized to organize to protest and cross social boundaries, but when this happened, they faced something much stronger — a social exclusion marked by police brutality against blacks and the poor, and limited civic engagement. Which leads me to believe that, although “participatory media” seem to be a more democratic approach to engaging with media, it will not fix these social problems because it did not cause them. These problems are rooted in deeper issues that go beyond the domain of media.


Freire, P. (1999). Education and community involvement. In M. Castells, R. Flecha, P. Freire, H. Giroux, D. Macedo, and P. Willis, eds. Critical education in the new information age (pp83-92). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

D., & Maté, P. (2014, October). The culture question in participatory design. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Short Papers, Industry Cases, Workshop Descriptions, Doctoral Consortium papers, and Keynote abstracts-Volume 2 (pp. 87-91). ACM.

Nemer, D. (2016). Rethinking social change: The promises of Web 2.0 for the marginalized. First Monday, 21(6). doi:


Melissa Brough is Assistant Professor of Communication & Technology in the Department of Communication Studies. Her research focuses on the relationships between digital communication, civic/political engagement and social change. Much of her work considers the role of communication technology in the social, cultural, and political lives of youth from historically disenfranchised groups. Her research has been published in Mobile Media and Communication, the International Journal of Communication, and the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, among others. Her book Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics is forthcoming from Duke University Press.  

David Nemer is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching interests cover the intersection of Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies (STS), Information Anthropology, ICT for Development (ICT4D), and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Nemer is an ethnographer whose fieldworks include the Slums of Vitória, Brazil; Havana, Cuba; and Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia. Nemer is the author of Favela Digital: The other side of technology (Editora GSA, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in Informatics (track Computing, Culture, and Society) from Indiana University and an M.Sc. in Computer Science from Saarland University. Nemer has written for The Guardian, El País, and The Tribune.