Solidarity Economy Part 3: Expanding Citizenship in Brazilian Favelas

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This is the third and final article in our three-part series on Solidarity Economy in Brazil.

Solidarity economy enterprises move beyond the “any job is a good job” logic sometimes found in efforts to address labor market exclusion. Instead, these more holistically supportive workspaces can help solidarity economy entrepreneurs move beyond “consumer citizenship” into a deeper participatory citizenship, becoming protagonists.

But what does citizenship mean in the context of untrustworthy political institutions and isolation from quality education and basic public services? While some scholars have referred to the condition of people living in peripheral urban areas of 21st century cities as “subcitizenship,” Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues that citizenship cannot be obtained via the concession of rights for people living in such conditions, but instead obtaining citizenship demands the transformation of global processes of socialization and models of development. In effect, rights may not be sitting there waiting to be accessed. Even with ascension in socio-economic status, for instance, they may instead require collective action.

Anthropologist James Holston writes of what he sees as a uniquely Brazilian “inclusively inegalitarian citizenship.” This combines two conflicting components: formal membership and principles of incorporation into nation-state (largely established in the 1988 Constitution as the country transitioned to democracy), together with “substantive distribution of rights, meanings, institutions, practices that membership entails to those deemed citizens.” Given that these two factors are so often at odds, Holston investigates what he calls “insurgent citizenship,” a form of confronting this gap in formal and substantive rights in an insurgent way in the peripheries, through the auto-construction of the periphery, through protest and petition, and through identities that challenge exclusionary norms of society and citizenship.

It could be argued that solidarity economy initiatives are an example of “insurgent citizenship,” and of transformative models of socialization and development. Sociologist Pedro Demo summarizes the capacity to access citizenship rights as a type of agency, describing citizenship as the “human capacity to become a subject, to make your own collectively organized history.” He argues the bases of this kind of critical capacity are constructed via education, political organization, cultural identity, information, and communication.

So, which rights are actors in the solidarity economy organizing to access, or to establish in a meaningful way for themselves and their communities? Sociologist Paulo Henrique Martins divides citizenship rights into three categories: civil rights (individual liberties of freedom, equality, property, security), social rights to access well-being and social good (the right to work, to health, to education, to retirement), and political rights (electoral participation and freedom of association, meeting and political and union organization).

Social rights and the solidarity economy

In terms of social rights, solidarity economic enterprises, or empreendimentos econômicos solidários (EESs), offer member-workers means to build access to dignified working conditions, both in the physical workplace and in term of informal benefits as far as schedule flexibility and the absence of the threat of unexpected termination. 

EESs also provide workers a channel for access to continued education through support organizations, such as university-based solidarity economy enterprise incubators or, in Rio’s case, the Municipal Secretariat of Solidarity Economy. Relatedly, another social right that EES participation can lead to is exposure to new physical spaces through commercialization opportunities such as Circuito Rio EcoSol, with the potential to alter a member-worker’s relationship to their city, and to themselves as a protagonist.

Working conditions go beyond dignified (non-abusive) to being generative of positive gains in wellbeing, such as therapeutic benefits of socializing, with reference to trauma, depression, and drug addiction. “Fuxico saindo da boca, criando fuxico com as mãos.” I first heard this in a Porto Alegre tailoring collective. One woman grazed her throat and another touched her tongue, as they explained what this meant to me: “Fuxico—gossip—coming out of our mouths, making fuxico—small fabric flowers for adornment—with our hands.”

Fuxico. Photo from

I heard this again as Clarice from Devas, the sustainable clothing association based in the Complexo da Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, told me that the origin of Devas was a “fuxico group.” She explained that a project at Maré’s health clinic in the early 1990s taught women how to sew, including fuxico flowers, and they together engaged in the other meaning of fuxico, discussing “personal dramas, children who had died, children who had become involved in crime, discussing the impact of trafficking on the community.”

A social worker who works with the Univens seamstresses in Porto Alegre relayed that the first thing she noticed about the group was that it “goes beyond production.” This “beyond” includes, as she put it, “the exchange of information and the strengthening of these women as people.” The conversation in the group is not just gossip, but is an airing of personal challenges, a space to give and receive advice, and a space to talk about community issues.

While the value of women getting together to gossip and vent about their lives could be downplayed, taking into consideration the context of some of these women, it becomes clear why this space is so critical. As the social worker put it, “this is the space.” She explained that many of the women have become socially isolated, due to safety issues in their neighborhoods and overburdened schedules between work and caregiving, especially for female heads of household.

Though this isolation is not a universal reality in favelas or other low-income neighborhoods, which can be highly social spaces, many of the women I spoke to in my research referenced it, and have perhaps sought out collective work for this reason. Even in communities with high degrees of social interaction, there may be a difference between solidarity economy workspaces and strictly social spaces in terms of the the themes being substantively discussed.

One of the member-workers at the Porto Alegre seamstress collective echoed these themes: “Because I take care of my disabled son, I don’t have other spaces in which I see friends.” Another member of the same group teared up explaining how the group is a family to her.

Clarice of Devas explained that she believes that “belonging to a group” outside the family is critical for anyone. She identified part of the importance of group belonging as dealing with violence-related trauma: “If there was a shootout today, violence makes you sick, but the group makes you strong, you have people to talk to, people to go out with.” 

Univens workspace

Indeed, depression and the therapeutic nature of the group came up in interviews with Clarice from Mulheres Guerreiras de Babilônia (Warrior Women of Babilônia), and with both the seamstress and food production collectives in Rio Grande do Sul. In Devas, one woman who suffered from debilitating depression and panic attacks has assumed a leadership role within the association. Clarice said of her story: “Society tells us as women that we are not capable of anything, and here we work against this.” The Babilônia seamstresses said of their work, simply: “It is therapy.”

In the food production cooperative in Rio Grande do Sul, member-workers said of their work: “it is a pure time” and “it is a paradise, you forget everything, and do what you like. Before, I felt alone; here, I speak what I feel.” One member-worker who has suffered particularly from debilitating depression said: “This work represents not staying focused only on the things that bother me. Getting out and being active, so things that bothered me internally go away. It is hope.” Indeed the leadership of this cooperative had this dynamic in mind from the outset: “The cooperative is a dream, it is companionship, it saves things that can only be spoken in the group. With whom else would you say these things?”

EESs also support continued education, through intentional skills-building. Often member-workers teach each other new skills. And through training processes with civil society or public sector actors, member-workers learn new technical skills, business management, and how to navigate other services.

Mara Adell, a leader of Mara Adell Sustentável in Complexo do Alemão, told me that the training course she did through the SEDES was “everything.” She explained: “Before, I wasn’t separating home income from business income, I didn’t have a sense of how much profit my products were making.” In the case of the Rio Grande do Sul EESs, they were more engaged with university-based solidarity economy enterprise incubators than government agencies. While at times that technical assistance felt exhausting, in other cases, it was welcomed both for the skills learned and for workshops on broader topics, such as the functioning of local government agencies.

Finally, health is another social right to which EES participation can expand access. Flexibility means not only that caregivers are able to better attend to family members, but also, in some cases, to their own health. For example, two of the member-workers in the food services cooperative in Rio Grande do Sul were able to continue working despite severe musculo-skeletal injuries that prohibited their employment at previous jobs.

Civil rights and the solidarity economy

In terms of civil rights, the basic right to freedom and security is implicated in the role EESs play as a space of support for women in situations of domestic violence. This dynamic was present for at least two of the member-workers in the Rio Grande do Sul food services cooperative. One of these women said that part of the importance of the cooperative for her was that “here, they take you seriously,” whereas she reported that she was often not believed when sharing about domestic violence incidents with people outside the cooperative. Clarice from Devas paraphrased one member-worker who stepped out of an abusive relationship with the support of the cooperative: “Before, if he mistreated me, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go. Now, I know I could come here to sleep.”

Political rights and the solidarity economy

In terms of political rights, the solidarity ties between members that emerge from participation in EESs can be a platform for collective action. The extent to which EES member-workers access this potential is mediated by several factors in personal and group background, including experience with activism, existing barriers to collective action, internal leadership, and types of external assistance present.

Additionally, the type of collective action varies, in some cases specific to solidarity economy movement spaces (forums, counsels, etc.) and in other cases applying to broader community action. Practicing democracy within collective management in EESs can act as a space for leadership development that translates to engagement with collective action, though this is limited in the context of EESs where collective management is informal and unstructured.

The fact that EESs are rooted in member-workers’ communities and offer a regular space to come together to talk about community dynamics can lead to increased community participation. In the Rio Grande do Sul tailoring collective, the group constantly discusses neighborhood issues, and one member was able to speak at a university and civil society meeting on community dynamics. This took place through the technical assistance of a university-based incubator, and demonstrates a political function of connections to such civil society actors. The food services cooperative in Rio Grande do Sul also engages in constant discussion about the neighborhood and its challenges. In Rio, Clarice says that member-workers have become more active in Maré’s Neighborhood Associations, while Mara Adell says that members have begun to use more neighborhood services in Alemão now that they are based in the community for work and can exchange information.

EESs often seek to give back to their communities directly, as well. The food services cooperative previously operated a community space with popular education opportunities, though this ended along with the administration of a more progressive municipal government that had subsidized the activity. Mara Adell Sustentável is subsidized by building materials company, LafargeHolcim, and in exchange for the free space, Mara Adell Sustentável gives workshops on tailoring and repurposing of materials in Complexo do Alemão. The group also shares its space for cultural events with local entrepreneurs who only have to pay for maintenance of equipment proportional to their use.

Outside of their communities, increased interaction with different kinds of actors also represents an increased freedom of mobility and even perhaps an insurgent claim to these women’s “right to the city.” The 1988 Brazilian Constitution established “the right to come and go and Rio de Janeiro’s 1992 City Master Plan explicitly states the goal of “integrating the favelas into the formal city” and “preserving their local character.” Pursuit of real access to the right to come and go has been central to many recent favela struggles for rights, especially given the fact that favela residents continue to be unfairly profiled in the asfalto, or formal city.

The Solidarity Economy Circuit’s fairs take place throughout both the periphery and the asfalto in some of the city’s most prominent public spaces. Given this, and the dominance of favela residents in the Circuit, the fairs can be seen as a space of interaction between the favela and the formal city, a form of the “hill descending as these women assert their right to the city. As Ana Asti asserts, “the extent to which producers and consumers interact directly in Rio’s fairs is a defining feature.” Insurgent citizenship, and its performance, does not only take place through marches, protests, and demonstrations, but also through more everyday practices to claim public space.


Participation in the solidarity economy through collective work done in EESs can be an opportunity for all sorts of people, but particularly those who have been systematically shut out from economic opportunity and from many of their rights as citizens. For residents of favelas and other economically disadvantaged communities, for example, educational levels and discrimination may act as barriers to “good jobs.” EESs can be “good jobs,” not only in terms of income-generation and skill-building, but also in terms of being a non-exploitative and flexible workplace; in terms of creating new spaces of social interaction (inside and outside the EES) that can increase security, combat isolation, and foster joy; and in terms of building increased community awareness, engagement, and leadership.

EESs should be evaluated against their internal logic, which differs from enterprise to enterprise. Though the EESs interviewed in the Rio circuit of fairs were managing to provide living wages to member-workers, this was not true in the case of many of the Rio Grande do Sul EESs interviewed. While EESs are not always financially sustainable, members may stick around both because of a lack of better options and/or for the compensating social benefits. The internal logic of some of these EESs may include that they offer women an opportunity to merge family and work life more than in traditional workspaces. This has the potential to be a radical reimagining of how different kinds of labor are valued more than a regression in the struggle for women’s rights.

In terms of public policy, the economic and political crisis affecting Brazil is leading to cuts in all sorts of social programs and solidarity economy institutions are falling prey to that process. However, movement actors point out that, given the relatively autonomous, protagonista, post-development nature of solidarity economy initiatives, the need for government support, while critical, is minimal. EESs as a development strategy are not designed to make individuals completely self-sufficient, but rather to help them take more active roles in their lives, including fighting to access rights owed to them as citizens.

In Rio de Janeiro right now, where the Solidarity Economy Circuit is at risk, entrepreneurs point out that their main costs are those of the critical public spaces the City grants to the fairs, as well as subsidized facilities maintenance. These fractional costs are helping to keep afloat not only another kind of economy, but all sorts of ripple effects in these entrepreneurs’ lives, families, and communities of origin. Their rallying cry is: “The solidarity economy is ours!”

Anna Cash conducted research on the solidarity economy as a platform for increasing social inclusion in 2015 in the greater Porto Alegre area, as part of a Fulbright Fellowship in partnership with the EcoSol Research Group at Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos), and with the guidance of Professor Luiz Inácio Gaiger. She is currently a student in the Master’s in City Planning program at University of California Berkeley.

Full Series: Solidarity Economy in Brazil

Part 1: Cooperative Development in Rio and Beyond
Part 2: Female Protagonists
Part 3: Expanding Citizenship in Brazilian Favelas