From legal empowerment to citizen empowerment in Chile: advancing human rights through action research in a dynamic context

Demonstrators protest against the increase in the price of subway tickets in October 2019, in Santiago Chile, which ultimately led to protests that would trigger the plebiscite vote on the constituion. EFE / Elvis González

Access to justice reforms often focus on the institutional performance and geographic expansion of the justice system. But to provide remedy, justice institutions must be activated by those seeking to protect and advance their legal rights, that is, people must exercise their legal agency. The rights people enjoy are contingent not only on institutional quality but also on the factors that promote or inhibit decisions to engage justice institutions.

In 2017, we, the authors, carried out a collaborative research project to explore the nexus of structural, attitudinal, and political factors in justice system engagement in Santiago, Chile and Medellín, Colombia. Through an innovative comparative focus-group research design, which probed for commonalities and differences across countries and demographic categories, we discovered a notable contrast between participants from marginalized populations in Santiago versus Medellín. We found that, while low-income Chileans and Colombians were similarly motivated to seek remedies when they experience harms and affronts to their dignity, Colombian participants displayed higher levels of rights consciousness and legal literacy than their Chilean counterparts. That is, Chileans tended not to understand such violations in terms of legal rights nor to know where to turn for institutional recourse.  

This finding resonated with our local partners in Chile, whom we had consulted in the design of the focus group study and who had important experience in community interventions for conflict resolution and proposals for access to justice. Our study reinforced their observations on the limitations of the institutionally-focused approach to access  justice in Chile, which was conceived and designed from the top-down, with little attention to the justice-related needs and capacities of ordinary people. 

Based on this shared diagnosis, and in line with the international push for a people-centered approach to justice, we launched a participatory planning process in August 2019 to develop a community-engaged project for legal empowerment in a lower-income municipality (San Joaquín) of Santiago. The project, supported by a Minnesota Model Strategic Partnership grant, aims to strengthen the capacity of participants to use the law and justice institutions to protect and advance their rights and interests. As part of this empowerment process, we follow a “participatory action research” methodological approach that enables marginalized groups to “become protagonists in the advancement of their society.”

Less than two months later, in October 2019, massive protests erupted in Chile against systemic unfairness linked to the constitutional order bequeathed by the Pinochet dictatorship. The upheaval led congressional leaders to announce a historic agreement to hold a binding, national plebiscite in April of 2020 on whether and how to write a new constitution. 

This new political context shifted the needs of the community in San Joaquín and of our local partners, making our project more salient and broadening its scope. The municipal government mobilized to address the emerging clamor in the community for knowledge about constitutional issues and how to participate meaningfully in the constitutional process. In response, we developed and implemented several sessions of a constitutional education module, led by our local partners at Alberto Hurtado University. We then broadened the original legal empowerment intervention we had planned for Spring 2020 to a citizen empowerment program, designed to strengthen the community’s capacities to exercise their rights in the ongoing constitution-making process.

Just as we were about to launch this adapted version of the project, however, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to suspend our fieldwork. Not until late 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic had subsided in Chile, were our partners in San Joaquín ready to move forward with the project. We transitioned to a virtual citizen empowerment program. With the support of the municipality, we recruited 25 participants, most of them women, who are leaders of “Neighborhood Security Committees.” In sessions led by our multidisciplinary Chilean team (two lawyers, a psychologist, and a public administrator), we worked in virtual breakout rooms to identify the issues of greatest concern to the participants. Future sessions will focus on these issues—citizenship and participation, healthcare rights, crime and security, and access to public information—exploring participants’ understandings and experiences with each issue, identifying barriers and successes in exercising citizenship, and ultimately, discussing how participants might replicate the empowerment methodology in their community-based work.

Two months into the implementation of this program, we have found the new virtual format to present both benefits and challenges. A key benefit is that, with the help of a municipal government leader, we broadened the territorial scope of the intervention to draw participants from across the municipality, thus creating a space for community leaders to learn from each other. Relatedly, the ability to participate from home makes workshops more accessible to those with caregiving duties or other competing demands.

But there are unique challenges to this approach.. First, connectivity and digital literacy are unequal within the group, and we need to devote a significant amount of time each meeting to helping people with technical difficulties and their attendant frustrations.      

Second, we had to find ways to build trust and community in the group and to break down hierarchies. With this in mind, in the first meeting, the host thanked everyone for allowing us into their private spaces and asked each person to introduce themselves and share an object within reach, explaining its significance for them. Participants and facilitators shared everything from pencil cases and Scotch tape to photos of loved ones or feelings about what their homes meant to them. It was a democratizing and humanizing exercise. Indeed, since then, participants have expressed enthusiasm about the project, even agreeing to meet biweekly rather than monthly, doubling the proposed time commitment.

Advancing human rights via a people-centered approach entails working in real life settings with human beings, requiring that researchers be sensitive and responsive to inevitable, and often unpredictable, challenges.

In addition to the challenges and adaptations to the “action” part of the project, we have also modified the research component. We prioritized our ethical commitment to the community in San Joaquín, adapting the timetable and content of the project to their requests in this unique political moment. While we are moving ahead with a survey in Chile, it will no longer be tied to the intervention in San Joaquín. However, we will still conduct exit interviews with participants to evaluate the empowerment program and diffuse those results within and beyond the community.

Our experience illustrates what we understand to be the essence of the Minnesota Model for Human Rights Research. We do not do this work in a social and political vacuum. Advancing human rights via a people-centered approach entails working in real life settings with human beings, requiring that researchers be sensitive and responsive to inevitable, and often unpredictable, challenges. These challenges demand flexibility and adaptability in research priorities and implementation. When we proposed our legal empowerment project in Chile in early 2019, we expected to be working in-person, in a context of social, political, and institutional stability; almost two years later, we are implementing our project virtually with a community shaken by a social uprising and a global pandemic, and anticipating a fundamental reorganization of the political system. Adjusting our work to these dynamics is central to the ethics of collaborative human rights inquiry, generally, and to the work of citizen empowerment, in particular.


This article is part of a partnership with the University of Minnesota Human Rights Lab. The series explores the possibilities and barriers to building effective research and practice collaborations between academics and practitioners of human rights.