How Civil Society Organizations Foster Insurgent Citizenship: Lessons from the Brazilian Landless Movement

  • Abdulrazak Karriem
  • Lehn M. Benjamin
Original Paper


This paper describes how the Brazilian Landless Movement fostered an insurgent citizenship among the poor. We describe three core organizational practices of this movement that supported this insurgent citizenship. We find that these practices bear striking resemblance to the practices of other civil society organizations (CSOs), including social service organizations, when they support the empowerment of marginalized communities. The identification of common practices suggests that despite the differences among CSOs, these distinctions may be less stark than assumed and that there may be common causal pathways between CSOs and insurgent citizenship.


Brazilian Landless Movement Social movement Social service Citizenship Civil society 


Ce document décrit comment le Mouvement des sans terre du Brésil a favorisé une citoyenneté insurgée parmi les pauvres. Nous décrivons trois pratiques organisationnelles fondamentales de ce mouvement qui ont soutenu cette citoyenneté insurgée. Nous constatons que ces pratiques ressemblent étonnamment aux pratiques des autres organisations de la société civile (OSC), y compris les organismes de services sociaux, lorsqu’elles soutiennent l’autonomisation des communautés marginalisées. L’identification de pratiques communes semble indiquer que malgré les différences entre les OSC celles-là peuvent être moins marquées que prévu et qu’il peut exister des voies causales communes entre les OSC et la citoyenneté insurgée.


Dieser Beitrag beschreibt, wie die brasilianische Landlosenbewegung eine aufständische Bürgerschaft unter Armen begünstigte. Wir beschreiben drei wesentliche organisatorische Praktiken dieser Bewegung, die diese aufständische Bürgerschaft unterstützte. Wir kommen zu dem Ergebnis, dass ihre Praktiken denen anderer Bürgergesellschaftsorganisationen, einschließlich Organisationen, die soziale Leitungen bereitstellen, äußerst ähnlich sind. Die geteilten Praktiken weisen darauf hin, dass trotz der Unterschiede zwischen den Bürgergesellschaftsorganisationen diese Unterschiede unter Umständen weniger stark ausgeprägt sind als bisher angenommen und es eventuell gemeinsame Kausalpfade zwischen Bürgergesellschaftsorganisationen und einer aufständischen Bürgerschaft gibt.


El presente documento describe cómo el Movimiento Brasileño de los Sin Tierra fomentó una ciudadanía insurgente entre los pobres. Describimos tres prácticas organizativas centrales de este movimiento que apoyaron esta ciudadanía insurgente. Encontramos que estas prácticas se parecen sorprendentemente a las prácticas de otras organizaciones de la sociedad civil (CSO, del inglés civil society organizations), incluidas las organizaciones de servicios sociales, cuando apoyan el empoderamiento de comunidades marginadas. La identificación de prácticas comunes sugiere que, a pesar de las diferencias entre las CSO, estas distinciones pueden ser menos claras de lo asumido y que puede haber vías causales entre las CSO y la ciudadanía insurgente.


本文概述了巴西无土地运动如何增强穷人的叛乱公民权。我们介绍了本次支持这一叛乱公民权的运动的核心组织实践。我们发现,当支持边缘化社区的赋权时,这些实践与其他民间团体组织 (CSO) 的实践存在极大的相似性,包括社会服务组织。确定常见的实践表明,尽管CSO之间存在差别,但这些差别较假定的更少,同时CSO和叛乱公民权之间存在常见的因果路径。




يصف هذا البحث كيف أن حركة البرازيليين الذين ليس لهم أرض عززت التمرد لحقوق المواطنة بين الفقراء. وصفنا ثلاثة ممارسات تنظيمية أساسية لهذه الحركة التي دعمت هذا التمرد لحقوق المواطنة. نجد أن هذه الممارسات تحمل شبها˝ واضحا˝ لممارسات منظمات مجتمع مدني (CSOs) أخرى، بما في ذلك منظمات الخدمة الإجتماعية، عندما يدعمون تمكين المجتمعات المهمشة. تحديد الممارسات المشتركة تشير إلى أنه على الرغم من الإختلافات بين منظمات المجتمع المدني (CSOs)، قد تكون هذه الفروق أقل قوة من المفترض وأنه قد يكون هناك مسارات غير رسمية مشتركة بين منظمات المجتمع المدني (CSOs) و التمرد لحقوق المواطنة.

To participate for the MST is to struggle for our [citizenship] rights … and to be capable of thinking and acting in each situation. –Solange, MST member

The Brazilian Landless Movement (MST) was formed in 1984 to push for agrarian reform for the poor in a country with one of the most unequal land and income distributions in the world. Often considered the most successful social movement in Latin American, the MST has carried out 250,000 land occupations in the past three decades (Wolford 2003a, p. 201) and, in the process, pressured successive governments into redistributing seven million hectares of agricultural land on which one and a half million of its members now farm (Comparato 2003; Rossetto 2005). Studies by the Brazilian government and the Food and Agricultural Organization have found that the livelihoods of land reform settlers have generally improved. Most settlers meet their own food needs, more children go to school, many build their own homes, and some sell excess produce on local and regional markets (Wright and Wolford 2003, pp. 264–74; Medeiros and Leite 2004; Carter 2010).

How did the MST secure the redistribution of so much land, the settlement of so many members, and achieve significant improvements in member livelihoods? What explains the success of the MST in mobilizing the poor and sustaining a mass movement over 30 years to realize these outcomes? Some analysts ascribe the MST’s success to the availability of favorable structural or conjunctural factors such as the opening of political space for grassroots mobilization provided by the weakening of the military dictatorship in the 1970s (Navarro 1997, 2002; N.A. 1997) and the Corumbiara and Eldorado do Carajas massacres which provided a “political opportunity” for the unleashing of MST struggles and hence its success (Ondetti 2006, 2008). While these structural factors are undoubtedly important in understanding MST success, we argue that these structural factors, by themselves, are insufficient in explaining the success of the MST. Moreover, many scholars largely focus on the movement’s visible external actions, such as land occupations and other political mobilizations to describe MST success (e.g., Petras 2000; Hammond 1999; Meszaros 2000a; Navarro 2002); however, in doing so, they have largely done so without examining the internal organizational practices of the MST, specifically in the land encampments or acampamentos that are established after a land occupation.

Charles Tilly (1999), writing on social movement outcomes, states that in order to comprehend the changes or successes that movements engender or how and under what conditions they are produced, we need to investigate the inner workings of movements. Toward this end we investigate the internal practices of the MST that foster an insurgent citizenship among the poor, spurring them to participate in mobilizations for land, and challenge the state to recognize their rights (Gaventa 2002). We describe the three core organizational practices: (1) Promoting participation in organizational structures; (2). Reframing problems and possible courses of action; and (3). Building solidarity among marginalized communities.

When considering these practices in light of the larger literature on civil society organizations (e.g., social service organizations, self-help and community-based groups), we find that these organizational practices bear striking resemblance to the practices of other civil society organizations (CSOs) when they support the empowerment of marginalized communities. In other words, CSOs that support communities to take actions to confront practices of marginalization create opportunities for participation in organizational structures, reframe problems and possible courses of action, and provide spaces for building solidarity among those they serve. While acknowledging the clear differences between social movements and social service organizations, the identification of common practices is surprising in light of the literature which often portrays social movement and social service CSOs as playing quite different societal roles: social movements push for systematic change, social service organizations work within the system to address individual problems. Our analysis suggests that when we look below the surface at the micro-organizational practices, these distinctions are less stark, suggesting that there may be common causal pathways between CSOs and insurgent citizenship.

We see our analysis as making two related contributions. First, as regards the literature on the MST, little attention has been given to the internal organizational practices that foster this insurgent citizenship. Most analysts highlight the important role that land occupations play, but they have largely done so without examining the internal organizational practices of the MST, specifically in the land encampments or acampamentos that are established after a land occupation (e.g., Petras 2000; Hammond 1999; Meszaros 2000b; Navarro 2002). Charles Tilly (1999), writing on social movement outcomes, states that in order to comprehend the changes that movements engender, we need to investigate the inner workings of these movements. Second, to the literature on CSOs, our observation of common micro-practices suggests that the basic taxonomies developed to understand the different types of organizations that comprise civil society may lead us to miss important commonalities in how these organizations contribute to an insurgent citizenship. Without understanding these commonalities, in other words how and under what conditions these CSOs practices lead to insurgent citizenship, our theories of the relationship between civil society organizations and citizenship remain partial.

The article has four sections. In the first section, we provide an introduction to the concept of citizenship, noting the role of civil society organizations in supporting insurgent citizenship. The second section describes the MST, their land occupations and their struggle for citizenship within Brazil’s unequal social relations. The third section presents the three organizational practices of the MST that support the development of agency among movement members and show how this is crucial in enhancing participants’ capacity to act as insurgent citizens. The analysis draws on data from qualitative field research conducted in Brazil between 2004 and 2010, which included formal and informal open-ended interviews, as well as participant observation in MST meetings, land reform settlements, and encampments.1 In the fourth section, we compare the practices of the MST to other civil society organizations; here we draw on literature on social service and community based nonprofits. We conclude with some general observations and suggestions for future research.

Citizenship and Civil Society Organizations

Much of the literature on citizenship adopts Marshall’s (1950) classic study, Citizenship and Social Class, as its point of departure (Turner 1990; Kymlicka and Norman 1994; Kohl 2003; Marston and Mitchell 2004). Marshall studied the historic evolution of three types of citizenship rights: civil rights, which emerged in the eighteenth century and included rights to freedom of speech, property, and justice; political rights, which were extended in the nineteenth century in the right to vote and participate in government; and social rights, which evolved in the twentieth century post-Second World War welfare state to provide access to education, health care etc., in order to ensure a minimum standard of living. The provision of social rights through the welfare state, Marshall believed, would reduce social inequality and thus attenuate class conflict.

In contrast to notions that upholds the state as “the only legitimate source of citizenship rights, meanings and practices” (Holston 1998, p. 39), Isin (2002, p. 5) echoes the sentiments of many scholars when he writes “citizenship must also be defined as a social process through which individuals and social groups engage in claiming, expanding, or losing rights” (see also Kabeer 2005; Gaventa 2002; Marston and Mitchell 2004; Holston 1998, 2008; Wittman 2009). This formulation challenges the idea of the nation-state as the sole custodian and originator of citizenship and prioritizes civil society actors as active participants in mobilizing for and exercising rights (Marston and Mitchell 2004, p. 110; Holston 2008).

This idea is echoed in much of the literature on civil society organizations, which references their role in engaging citizens and strengthening democratic institutions by 1. Representing the interests of citizens to the state; 2. Socializing citizens as they work on common problems; and 3. Mobilizing citizens to claim their rights and ensure the state is inclusive and responsive to all. Here, feminist scholar, Ruth Lister’s (1998, 2003) theorization of citizenship as a status (i.e., to be a citizen) and citizenship as a practice (i.e., to act or participate as a citizen) is useful. As a status, citizenship includes, in theory, the rights and responsibilities granted by the state. By contrast, citizenship as a practice “requires first a sense of agency, the belief that one can act; acting as a citizen, especially collectively, in turn fosters that sense of agency. Thus agency is not simply about the capacity to choose and act but also about a conscious capacity which is important to an individual’s self-identity” (Lister 2003, p. 37). In this respect, civil society organizations provide a vehicle for ‘citizenship as practice.’

In light of the above, it is helpful to restate what we mean by insurgent citizenship and how we see civil society organizations contributing to the development of insurgent citizenship. To do this we must briefly take a step back and acknowledge the three dimensions of citizenship: citizenship as a status (legal definition), as a membership (in a political community), and as active participation in political institutions (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Our concern is with the latter: the participation in political institutions. But we see political institutions not simply as formal political bodies, where citizens vote, lobby members of congress or parliament, or hold public servants/bureaucrats accountable, but also as the formal and informal institutions that shape people as political beings and particularly those that prevent people from realizing their full potential as citizens.

To that point, we see citizenship—the active participation in political institutions—as including voting as well as active effort to reshape patterns and practices of marginalization, whether at the micro or macro level, that constrain an individual’s ability to realize their full potential. This could include challenging abusive behaviors of a partner, resisting societal definitions of problems (e.g., domestic violence is a private matter), changing self-destructive mental models (sense of worth, sense of capacity) etc.

We add the concept of “insurgent” to citizenship from Holston (1998, 2008) to capture two ideas: 1. citizens are becoming, as Lister says; that individuals are not born ready to participate in political institutions, to reshape patterns and practices of marginalization, and 2. for marginalized communities there is a confrontation or an insurgent action required to reshape these patterns and practices. In this respect, our concept of insurgent citizenship is closely aligned with the concept of empowerment, as taking that insurgent action often starts with a belief in one’s own agency. Civil society organizations support insurgent citizenship to the extent that they support this insurgent action on the part of marginalized communities. To understand how civil society organizations foster this insurgent citizenship, this belief or sense of agency, we examine the Brazilian Landless Movement. We first describe this movement and then detail the organizational practices that support this insurgent citizenship.

Brazilian Landless Movement (MST)2

The MST emerged from successful land occupations in southern Brazil in the late 1970s. Historically, the development of citizenship rights in rural Brazil has been strongly influenced by the power wielded by landowners. The land-owning elite or senhores da terra (literally the masters of the land) exercised control over basic civil rights–freedom of movement, the right to property, rights of expression and organization–with the result that the rural poor were subject to their wishes. In the 1970s, the MST started to use land occupations to challenge the status quo, scaling up land occupations in the southeast, northeast, the north, and center-west regions during the 1980s and 1990s, and steadily gained a presence throughout Brazil’s five geographic regions.

The MST draws legitimacy for its occupations from Article 184 of the 1988 Constitution, which states that: “It is incumbent upon the Republic to expropriate land for the social interest, for purposes of agrarian reform, rural property, which is not performing its social function.” While the Constitution sanctions the expropriation of unproductive land, successive governments have applied the clause only after grassroots pressure. MST occupations not only force the legal system into action, they also stimulate a debate between the state and society on the necessity for expropriating land that does not meet its social function. Such debates draw attention to the collective state of destitution in which the landless live.

To understand how the MST has been able to mobilize the poor to build a national movement in the face of stark inequity and entrenched interests, it is first helpful to describe a basic land occupation. The MST’s experienced members (called militants) recruit the landless, agricultural workers, labor tenants, and the unemployed on farms and rural towns. These militants, who have participated in or led numerous land occupations, clarify for potential recruits their constitutional rights to land, which they explain will only be enforced by the government after land is occupied. Militants work closely with local recruits who have a deep knowledge of community geographies, customs, and politics.

The exact date, time, and the farm to be occupied are kept a secret so as not to forewarn landowners and the police. The occupation, which usually takes place in the early hours of the morning to maintain the element of surprise, requires lengthy preparation to orient new recruits and forge organizational cohesion–all key in ensuring group solidarity and cooperation during and after the occupation. But, an occupation rarely results in the immediate establishment of a settlement since the landlord applies for an eviction order, which usually leads to the police evicting MST members. Instead of dispersing, landless families set up an acampamento in front of or close to the unproductive farm (see Fig. 1 below for an example of an acampamento). The acampamentos that line the edge of highways have become constant reminders and symbols of Brazil’s centuries-old problem of land inequality: large unproductive farms contrasted with the destitution of the rural poor who want land to farm for their families.
Fig. 1

Land encampment: acampamento Guerreiros de Zumbi, Nova Santa Rita, Rio Grande do Sul

But other civil society organizations have historically occupied land to promote the needs of the poor, so what was novel about MST land occupations? We argue that The MST transformed the spontaneous land occupation into a set of organizational principles and practices that fomented insurgent citizens capable of mobilizing for their rights. The land occupation, according to MST leader, Joao Pedro Stedile, constitutes “the organizational matrix of the movement” (cited by Branford and Rocha 2002, p. 66). In the next section, we describe these practices.

The Organizational Practices of the MST

The MST has several organizational practices that foster an insurgent citizenship among the poor. We focus on the following three: (1) Promoting participation in the organizational structure; (2) Reframing problems and possible courses of action; and (3) Building solidarity. Our purpose here is not to suggest that these are the only practices or that they are uniform across the MST, but to illustrate how this has empowered its members to press their claims for land.

Promoting Participation The MST actively promotes participation in its organizational structures. In messages to members in its newspaper, Jornal Sem Terra, the MST states that “to participate is the best way to exercise democracy”, and that grassroots structures should be the principle decision-making bodies, so that: “In this way, democracy ceases to be representative and becomes participatory. A horizontal structure functions in circles [or nucleos] and not from top to bottom. This thing of hierarchy has no space in the MST. Participation by everyone is the means to raise consciousness, to form leadership, and exercise democracy.”3

The land occupation is the principal means of involving members in the movement. However, the very act of participating is not empowering in itself; rather, it is the degree of an individual’s participation as well as “how much decision-making power he or she possesses … [that] often determine empowering results” (Rocha 1997, p. 36). The MST members, prior to and immediately after a land occupation, organize themselves into small groups or nucleos and activity sectors. For example, an encampment of 300 families is divided into 30 nucleos of 10 families. Each nucleo has two coordinators, a man and a woman,4 who serve on the encampment leadership structure. Members of the nucleo participate in decision-making within different activity sectors (e.g., education, health, mass front, negotiation, communication, security, political education).5 Members also rotate across activity sectors, gaining different personal and organizational skills (e.g., recruiting new members, negotiating with local government officials to get access to water or schooling). In this regard, an interviewee, Marcos, explains how participation in Acampamento Santa Vitoria fosters a sense of both personal and collective agency:

In a certain way, I think I found myself as a human being…. [I found that] it is possible that the poor, the working people, uneducated in most cases, [can] organize and struggle and, in this sense, change the course of this very difficult reality.6

In addition, Roberto, from Acampamento Guerreiros de Zumbi, also reflects on the importance of participation in opening up possibilities for transforming formal constitutional rights into substantive ones through collective action:

There are people who are not conscious of the strength they have, of the rights they have, and who not do not know how to exercise their rights. When a person learns of [his/her] rights, [she/he] takes it on, you know. [For example], there comes a comrade and says, “look, you have a right to a plot of land, you have a right to health, you and your family have a right to a dignified life.”7

Active participation in the organizational structures thus helps to orient new MST members on the policies and principles of the MST and forges organizational cohesion–all of which are key in helping reframe problems and possibilities for action.

Reframing problems and possibilities for action The decentralization of the acampamento into nucleos and activity sectors brings families and individuals together to discuss social problems and how to address them. These discussions in the nucleos are usually framed in political and moral terms as ‘us’ (the landless) who need land to survive versus ‘them’ (the landowning elite) who have so much land which is not being used. For example, the setor de formacao or political education activity sector engages members in discussions in which the struggle for land is analyzed historically and in the context of the larger political economy, thereby allowing participants to unpack the class and power relations underpinning Brazil’s unequal agrarian structure.

Snow and Benford (1988) developed a three-tiered framing process to describe how movements recruit and encourage members to participate. First, a movement formulates a diagnostic frame that identifies and highlights the cause of a problem or injustice; second, it sets up a prognostic frame that provides a strategy for resolving the injustice; and, finally, a motivational frame emboldens members to act. For the MST, drawing on emotions such as moral outrage and spiritual and religious feelings are crucial in motivating collective action (Goodwin et al. 2001). For example, one of our interviewees, Fabiana, a member of Acampamento Montepio, draws on religious motivations in diagnosing the injustice frame and justifying the right to gain access to land:

God did not leave land to be sold, but to be distributed to all who live on it and this is the most loyal motive that there is. It is not right that they have 1,000 hectares of land while a father of 4 to 5 children does not have a piece of land to farm. Therefore, land has to be redistributed.8

Fabiana proceeds to highlight the diagnostic and prognostic frames, how the organizational practices in the encampments promote insurgence, and how new meanings of citizenship are produced:

[W]e the poor are considered as nobody… [but] inside the movement we learn how to demand our rights. We go to City Hall, we go to the Palacio do Governo [State Government building] … to fight for our rights. So, it is inside the movement that you teach all this to the people; it is where I really found all my rights as a citizen.9

Fabiana, like many MST members, illustrates how the pedagogic relationships in the movement help to reframe the problem of a lack of access to land and how this shapes possibilities for action. All the interviewees raised questions of framing and agency, and of consciously acting as citizens. Marcos, for example, highlights how through subjective feelings he “found” himself in the encampment and, in finding himself, he discovered the strength to organize in a collectivity. Marcos’ subjectivity is not solely formed in the encampment; rather, it draws and builds on past experiences which are in a continuous state of development. The encampment facilitates this on-going formation of social subjectivity.

Building Solidarity In addition to framing, building solidarity by developing a collective identity as os sem terra or the landless is key to understanding how movements like the MST engender participation in mobilizations (Polletta and Jasper 2001; Benford and Snow 2000). As William Gamson (1991, p. 27) states, a “movement that seek to sustain [participation and] commitment” to movement ideals across space and time “must make the construction of identity one of its most central tasks.” Within the MST collective identity is fostered through movement flags, t-shirts, caps, music, but also by drawing on religious influences and historical narratives. For example, an enduring influence from liberation theology has been the use of the mística or mystique—which reflects Catholic values of suffering and redemption—to confront difficulties, strengthen resolve, and provide collective strength in the quest for land and a better life. MST meetings commence with a mística (a deeply emotional theater performance) which usually pays homage to historic figures such as Zumbi dos Palmares, a seventeenth century slave leader, who led a successful revolt against slave owners and established a 30,000 strong free community, the Quilombo de Palmares, which resisted for over 50 years (Branford and Rocha 2002).10

Joao’s story illustrates the results of the MST’s efforts to build solidarity. Joao and his colleagues participated in numerous land occupations and faced violent evictions before being settled in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in 1989 on an assentamento they named the Conquest of the Frontier.11 Like other members, Joao joined the MST to gain land, but he describes how the Movement helped develop a sense of individual and collective agency and ‘a larger vision’ that entails solidarity with other landless families. Moreover, Joao describes the transition from a struggle for a particularistic right—land—to universal rights such as access to housing, education, and broader opportunities in life. He explained:

I entered into the MST out of necessity [for land] [but] the movement taught us to have a larger vision. … It is not enough for me to conquer land. I cannot close myself in the four corners of my plot. I have to have a vision that behind me there are [other families] who also need land. So this is a large battle that we have as a Movement, so that people can have a house to live, that they can have healthy food, a better education, so that their children can have opportunities in life.12

The fact that MST members continue participating after they have acquired land to farm, points to a successful process of constructing a strong collective identity and building solidarity (Hunt and Benford 2007). Indeed, as Wolford (2003b, p. 500), (2004) states, “the MST owes much of its success to high levels of involvement among members who have already achieved their initial goal of access to land.”

But not all members in the encampments participate equally or have the same level of consciousness. Levels of participation and consciousness varied, and the MST has not always succeeded in meeting its goal of building a horizontal movement in which everyone participates. For instance, in a visit to the Derrubando o Latifundio Encampment, members recounted that two activists dominated discussions with the result that other members were silenced. There are also cases where MST members have stopped participating or left the movement because of internal disagreements (Wittman 2009). While MST members do not always succeed in realizing their demands, they are convinced that without mobilizing state institutions will not respond. The Movement’s insurgent actions thus open new spaces through which to exercise rights by compelling state institutions to engage in state–civil society negotiations. In directly negotiating with state institutions at the municipal, state, and federal scales, MST members have challenged the power of clientelistic landowning oligarchs who have long politically represented the rural poor. In this regard, the MST’s practices have facilitated an insurgent citizenship; the rural poor continue to take actions to confront practices of marginalization that prevent them from realizing their full potential as citizens, ultimately contributing to the democratization of Brazil (Carvalho 2001; Houtzager 2005; Carter 2010).

The Organizational Practices of Civil Society Organizations

How does the identification of the micro-organizational practices that support insurgent citizenship in this social movement in Brazil further our understanding of civil society organizations more broadly? What lessons does the MST have to offer those working in and studying nonprofit social service organizations in North America, nongovernmental organizations in Southern Africa, or self-help groups in Japan or India? We find that when we look at the literature on civil society organizations more broadly, we find that the practices of the MST bear striking resemblance to those organizational practices identified by other researchers who have examined the empowerment of marginalized communities. Sometimes this literature makes explicit links to the concept of citizenship and other times not; in all cases they discuss these practices as facilitating a sense of agency that leads individuals to challenge practices and patterns that limit their full potential. In this section, we briefly describe some of these practices, including evidence which suggests that when these practices are absent or poorly executed in CSOs, and that these organizations are experienced as paternalistic, breed mistrust, and reinforce marginalization of the poor.

Promoting Participation The MST actively involves members in the day-to-day work of the organization. Scholars from diverse fields like social work, urban planning, and community psychology have similarly pointed to the link between organizational participation and empowerment among marginalized communities. For example, Rocha (1997) in her review of empowerment practices in planning notes that the most important setting for facilitating embedded individual empowerment is the organization. It is within the organization, as a microcosm of society in which the individual relates to others in an existing structure, that competence and mastery develop. In a well-cited piece describing social work practices that foster increasing personal, interpersonal, and political power among women of color, Gutierrez (1990) suggests having clients take control of the helping relationship by setting the agenda, sharing the leadership of groups or meetings, and researching resources.

There are a range of ways that civil society organizations can involve marginalized communities in the operation and governance of their organization. Social service organizations use advisory groups composed of members. In community development, residents often sit on the board of neighborhood-based organizations. Social service organizations may also involve marginalized communities in evaluating paid staff or in discussions about service implementation, as is the case in Clubhouses, which serve persons with severe and persistent mental illness. Marginalized communities may also work directly in civil society organizations as volunteers or paid staff. For example, recent studies have even shown that volunteering can lead to an increased sense of agency and critical awareness among the poor (Cohen 2009) and studies of neighborhood-based organizations have found that when staff are from the marginalized communities served by the CSO, the organization is more likely to articulate the priorities of the residents accurately (Kissane and Gingerich 2004).

Certain social service models require significant involvement of marginalized communities. For example, clubhouses, which serve persons with severe and persistent mental illness grew out of the anti-psychiatric movement in the U.S. and have spread across the world. One of the core tenets of the clubhouse model is that persons with mental illness work side by side as colleagues with paid staff in running the organization. Plenty of evidence suggests that this model has been very effective in not only improving quality of life outcomes but also leadership development and participation in collective action for policy reform (see Staples and Stein 2008).

Plenty of research has also found that civil society organizations can employ these strategies ineffectively or use them as symbolic gestures (Arnstein 1969). Civil society organizations can also have difficulty recruiting and sustaining participation, and can end up relying on a handful of elite representative from marginalized communities (Cnaan 1991). Moreover, some have suggested that relying on marginalized communities, particularly when they are involved in the day-to-day running of the organization can simply be a way to cut costs. Short-term funding timelines, professional norms, legal and regulatory requirements, organizational resources, and organizational logics can all constrain deeper participation by marginalized communities (e.g., see Boyce 2001; Hasenfeld and Garrow 2012; Milofsky 1988).

Reframing Problems and Courses of Action The MST draws on moral and religious narratives to reframe the problem of the landlessness, opening up the possibility for different courses of action, rather than just accepting their deprivation. These actions were significant and involved risk and commitment over a long period of time. Literature on CSOs—from the civil rights movement, to the domestic violence movement, aids activist organizations to the psychiatric survivors’ organizations—show how they reframe problems from isolated individual problems to systemic problems.

While the discussions of frames are less common in the literature on human service and community development CSOs, we find evidence that reframing matters to support individuals in confronting practices and patterns that limit their full potential as citizens. For example, the move toward asset-based development approaches in community development and social work in the early 1990s recognized that the “needs based approaches” to providing social services framed marginalized communities as deficient and in need of fixing. These approaches start by recognizing the assets and success of communities and individuals (McKnight and Kretzmann 1993). A more recent review of the literature on social service organizations, neighborhood development organizations, and grassroots social change organizations shows that reframing is a critical part of partnering with marginalized communities to take action and confront patterns of marginalization (Benjamin 2012).

Where we see more evidence that framing or reframing matters for insurgent citizenship is in critiques of social service organizations. Kissane (2012, p. 207), explains, “Non-profit staff, who are increasingly overwhelmed…do not seem to be assisting in introducing an alternative framework for interpreting these poor women’s situation.” Not only are nonprofit staff failing to provide alternative frames for marginalized populations but researchers have documented how the implicit and explicit moral frames that staff use about the target population can further marginalize individuals. Edin and Lein (1998) in their interviews with poor women found that some of the frames that inform action in the third sector lead to practices and behaviors on the part of staff that reinforce marginalization. For example, nonprofits often used ‘numbers served’ to show that they are doing good work. Therefore, staff may end up rationing services to serve more people, and this rationing often requires a level of questioning and scrutiny with clients, particularly clients that need help more than once, thus breeding distrust among the poor that they are supposed to serve.

Building Solidarity The MST built collective identity among the poor by drawing on religious influences and historical narratives, and then reinforced with outward signs of membership: t-shirts, caps, and so on. Building solidarity is one of the core strategies for empowering marginalized communities. Kieffer (1984, p. 21), who did an early ethnographic study of emerging citizen leaders in grassroots organizations, notes that at some point, “involvement in an organization of peers appears to be the essential ingredient in cultivation of rudimentary political skills…it nurtures the maturation of incipient skills by providing an environment in which risks can be taken, frustrations can be shared, fears can be allayed, and support can be reinforced.” Hardina (2004, p. 19), in her discussion of social service organizations and citizenship, notes the importance of peer support: “informal helping was proposed during the 1970s and 1980s as a mechanism to link consumers of service to social service organizations, provide a source of paraprofessional staff who could “communicate” with members of the target community.”

Efforts to create solidarity among marginalized communities can include everything from creating client groups that can advocate for change within the organization, to adopting peer support strategies, to CSOs that are entirely run and led by marginalized communities themselves, including self-help groups. For example, Hasenfeld (1987, p. 479) suggested that social service organizations: “Organize clients into advocacy groups. So that the agency will be required to interact with the clients as a collectivity rather than only as individuals. As a collectivity, clients can articulate common goals and be more effective in expressing their views and in negotiating with the agency.” Literature on self-help groups show how critical this is in supporting change for individuals dealing with addiction and mental health issues. Like the MST, self-help groups’ use of common stories and practices that build bonds among members and shift their understanding of their problem from an individual experience to a collective experience (Borkman 1999). This helps build a collective conscious based on lived experience that can challenge dominant beliefs about the problem or about the marginalized communities themselves.

However, three principal concerns have been levied against these strategies. First, while self-help groups can build solidarity among the marginalized, it can be used to rationalize inaction by the state to address the causes of marginalization. Second, using peer support strategies in the context of larger professional social service organizations can obscure power dynamics between peers and paid staff. Third, informal helping is simply insufficient to lift low-income communities out of poverty (Hardina 2005).


This paper examined the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST) to highlight the organizational practices that supported insurgent citizenship. We then found evidence that these practices were also the practices that supported empowerment in other CSO settings. We posited that because these common micro-practices are associated with radically different CSOs, there may be common causal pathways between CSOs and insurgent citizenship. However, by comparing one of the most successful social movements in Latin America, the MST and civil society organizations that provide social services or engage in community development we are not suggesting that these organizations are identical, that they have the same impact or that they mean the same for the marginalized communities. Moreover, by positing a relationship between three practices in CSOs and insurgent citizenship, we are not suggesting that civil society organizations are inherently transformative. Plenty of evidence shows how many CSOs around the globe remain unaccountable to the communities they serve, have the tendency to bow to funders agendas to serve their own interests and not only have failed to push for structural change to address inequality but may actually work against such possibilities with practice ideologies that are paternalistic.

But identifying these shared micro-practices and common causal pathways is useful in two important respects. First, it guards against the tendency to equate advocacy and social movement organizations with systemic and institutional change and social service organizations as working within the system. Indeed descriptions of the third sector often portray social service and social movement organizations as worlds apart: Social service organizations work to change individuals; social movement organizations work to change systems (Kramer 1981; Frumkin 2002; Salamon 1990). Clearly CSOs are diverse, but these common micro-practices suggest some limits to these working typologies and that we might gain some additional analytical leverage in understanding CSOs if we examine how and to what extent they contribute to insurgent citizenship.

Second, by looking at these citizenship practices in different organizational settings, we can start to develop fuller conceptualizations of these practices. As it stands, we know quite a bit about the practices of self-help groups; quite a bit about the practices of human service organizations, some about the internal workings of community organizing and neighborhood development nonprofits as well as advocacy organizations, but these literatures do not really talk to each other. We might benefit more from cross organizational comparisons that focus on the day-to-day work of those working in civil society organizations. For example, in the social movement literature, frame analysis has received a great deal of attention, as suggested above. In the literature on social services, we are not aware of the framing concept being used directly. We need comparative analysis of the way framing can foster an increased sense of agency. Similarly, we have no systematic data at a national, subnational, or supranational level on the extent to which marginalized communities participate in civil society organizations, aside from CSOs that are member based (e.g., self-help, social movements). A few studies have looked at this issue in a limited way, focusing on a few specific types of involvement, e.g., the use of feedback surveys, board representation, etc. (See Guo and Saxton 2010; LeRoux 2009). Given the importance of organizational participation suggested by the case of the MST and other research studies on social service organizations, this dearth is noteworthy. Clearly our ideas need to be tested and further probed but we suspect comparing how and to what extent organizational practices of CSOs contribute to insurgent citizenship is a fruitful area for furthering our understanding of civil society more broadly.


  1. 1.

    All names utilized in this paper are fictitious to protect the identities of interviewees.

  2. 2.

    The MST’s history and national growth has been extensively chronicled and hence will not be covered here, but see Fernandes (1996, 2000); Morrisawa (2001); Wright and Wolford (2003); Branford and Rocha (2002); Ondetti (2008); and Karriem (2009, 2013).

  3. 3.

    Jornal Sem Terra, Special Edition (Assembleia Popular na Base do MST), May 2004.

  4. 4.

    Initially, there was only one coordinator, who was invariably a man. To ensure greater participation by women, the MST decided that all structures had to have a male and a female coordinator, suggesting difficulties in addressing entrenched gender relations within its ranks. A number of female leaders have emerged as a result of this change.

  5. 5.

    A similar structure exists on the land reform settlements.

  6. 6.

    Interview #10, 5/30/2004.

  7. 7.

    Interview #22, 6/8/2004.

  8. 8.

    Interview #16, 5/31/2004.

  9. 9.

    Interview #16, 5/31/2004.

  10. 10.

    The MST has weaved Zumbi’s heroic struggles, resistance by indigenous communities against Portuguese colonialism, and the struggles of the Peasant Leagues into its folklore or mística. On the mistica, see Issa (2007) and Bogo (2002).

  11. 11.

    See Gorgen (2002) for a detailed ethnographic account of the violent eviction of Joao and other MST members from an acampamento on Santa Elmira farm, which was widely condemned in Brazil and abroad. The ensuing public pressure was decisive in the settlement of Joao and other Santa Elmira families.

  12. 12.

    Interview #58, 10/24/2004.



We would like to thank the late Professor Ben Kohl of the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and Linda Farthing for their excellent comments and suggestions on an earlier iteration of this paper.


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Copyright information

© International Society for Third-Sector Research and The Johns Hopkins University 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Social DevelopmentUniversity of the Western CapeBellville, Cape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.The Lilly Family School of PhilanthropyIndiana UniversityIndianapolisUSA

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