NEW SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 4 – How community activism democratically transformed public policy in Brazil

Special issue blog series on Transformational Change through Public Policy.

Boullosa & PerezRosana Boullosa & Janaina Perez

People around the world seem eager for transformational change in our societies. But in which direction must these winds of change blow? This was perhaps the question that provoked us the most when we came across the call for articles for the themed issue on “Transformational Change through Public Policy”, proposed by the Policy & Politics editorial team. Our response has just been published in our article: The democratic transformation of public policy through community activism in Brazil. 

While persistent and increasingly challenging public problems expose the failures of public policies, they also require us to reposition ourselves in this field of scholarly research, in theoretical, methodological, practical, and axiological terms. What values should guide such changes? Which actors should participate in its construction?
The attempt to answer these questions compelled us to delve into a (self-)critical and reflective debate about participatory democracy and policy deliberation, concepts that have driven our research and action. After all, from our perspective, transformational changes (in practice) can never happen without civil society engagement and plural, democratic and inclusive instruments.

This may seem obvious if you (our reader) share with us a similar framework of values… but this reframing cannot be taken for granted and, furthermore, it requires multiple efforts. In our article, we engaged in critical research to shed light on a situated and territorialised experience – concerning how Paraisópolis, the second largest favela (slums) of São Paulo, faced the Covid-19 pandemic, despite overlapping infrastructural, territorial and socio-economic public problems. What first caught our attention was the way in which the community leaders of Paraisópolis disputed the government’s policy narrative and assumed a leading role in the context of so much uncertainty and inaction on the part of the federal government. Secondly, we were intrigued by the strong affective and emotional dimension that emerged from statements such as: “In the absence of a president, a mayor or a governor, we have decided to be our own presidents and to create a specific public policy”.

There are multiple ways to think about Paraisópolis: it is a favela like many others in Brazil; it is highly populated and demographically dense; it is one of the fifth largest Brazilian slums, marked by many kinds of violence and known for countless tragedies. But it is also a territory of dreams, with a strong territorial identity and an even stronger history of resistance and of sociopolitical struggles aimed at local/community transformations. The most recent one was the emergence of a complex and articulate network of resident-volunteers – known as ‘street presidents’ –, who imagined, formulated, organised  and implemented an intertwined set of “public services” aimed at coping with the Covid-19 pandemic.

To learn from this experience, we looked to a critical Brazilian theoretical-methodological approach, called ‘Mirada ao Revés’ (Boullosa, 2013; 2019), that sees public policies as flows of instruments, practices and arguments activated by multiple actors that influence and determine each other mutually, but that also shape a third actor, a multi-ctorality, a collective, implicated, embodied, and territorialised public intelligence that gives a wealth of insights on the sociocentric dimension of our research. But we also constructed our line of argument through dialoguing with women authors (22) and men (17), All of whom were aligned with critical studies in public policies and first authors on their publications.

Through this approach, we narrate the case of Paraisópolis as an exceptional case of transformational change through community activation and activism; deliberative empowerment; and the collective design of experience-oriented policy and action. Through our in-depth analysis of Paraisópolis, we have learned that (i) proximity coordination, (ii) collective learning, and (iii) affectionate relationality are key to local, transformational and democratic change. Indeed, we argue that any change intended to be transformational must necessarily engage civil society in inclusive deliberative forums and must recognise sociocentric experiences, ordinary actors, emotions and values underlying public policy.

It is our hope that our findings will reinforce the need to pursue a policy research agenda attentive to these crucial inputs.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics

Rosana de Freitas Boullosa and Janaína Lopes Pereira Peres (2022) The democratic transformation of public policy through community activism in Brazil Policy and Politics

Table of contents for special issue on Transformational Change through Public Policy

Introduction to Transformational Change through Public Policy (Oscar Berglund, Claire Dunlop, Elizabeth Koebele and Chris Weible)

The impact of direct democracy on policy change: insights from European citizens’ initiatives (Jale Tosun, Daniel Béland & Yannis Papadopoulos)

The democratic transformation of Public Policy through community activism in Brazil (Rosana de Freitas Boullosa & Janaína Lopes Pereira Peres)

Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education, and gender policy (Paul Cairney, Emily St Denny, Sean Kippin, Heather Mitchell)

A Future Research Agenda for Transformational Urban Policy Studies (Meghan Joy & Ronald K. Vogel)

Transforming Public Policy with Engaged Scholarship: Better Together (Leah Levac, Alana Cattapan, Tobin LeBlanc Haley, Laura Pin, Ethel Tungohan, & Sarah Marie Wiebe)

When do disasters spark transformative policy change and why? (Daniel Nohrstedt)

New pathways to paradigm change in Public Policy: Combining insights from policy design, mix and feedback (Sebastian Sewerin, Michael Howlett & Benjamin Cashore)

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