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Michal Osterweil And The Process Of Change

osterweilThere are tents on Franklin Street, rallies from Madrid to Sydney to Hong Kong; there are parks and banks and stock exchanges worldwide being occupied. For over two months, the globe has grappled with an extraordinary movement it has struggled to define that seemed to materialize overnight. But Occupy has not emerged out of nowhere according to Global Studies faculty member Dr. Michal Osterweil, and she should know. Osterweil studies the “somewhere” out of which the Occupy movement has grown. Her research investigates the processes of social change.

“A lot of people see the movements as this unexpected eruption. But in many ways [the movements] look familiar,” Osterweil explained, “although with important particularities.” She’s a faculty liaison for the local Occupy movements with campus, and has taken on the role of supporting the student and local initiative, in part by educating community groups on the movement and its meaning. Osterweil is versed in the history of Occupy, a topic at the heart of her own research on alter-globalization movements, which she recently expanded upon in a talk in Berlin.

“The odd elements [of Occupy] look familiar: from no demands, to no leaders, to people who seem disorganized, this is a legacy of anti-globalization movements and one of the strengths of anti-globalization movements visible between 1999 and 2007. They’re posing a new logic and form of politics.”

Occupy then has a long history contributing to its current success as a movement. As organizers of the original Occupation on Wall Street explain it, OWS grew out, at least in part, of the energy and inspiration provided by movements from throughout the world, including the Arab revolutions. “The Arab uprisings– among other recent movements in Spain and Greece– were definitely important to these protests. The woman who launched the April 6 movement [Asmaa Mahfouz] herself recognized connections in form and actual connections in the sense of what they’ve been created to oppose, and the fact that they are in communication with each other. [Asmaa Mahfouz] actually used the slogan of the alter-globalization movement when she explained her support of Occupy: ‘Another world is possible.’ They’re building on global networks, and a global space of exchanging stories, strategies and visions,” Osterweil said.

For all this, Osterweil isn’t necessarily interested in movements per se. Rather, she is fascinated by social transformation and the possibilities for creating more just worlds. “Social movements have just turned out to be some of the most interesting and promising places to see and imagine the possibilities for truly transformative change.”

Osterweil has long been interested in how change occurs. She arrived in Chapel Hill as a Morehead-Cain scholar intent on making a difference. In high school, she’d started organizations aimed to improve conditions. Shocked at the degradation of the rainforest, for example, she’d launched an environmental group as early as Junior High school. At Carolina, Osterweil’s passion for change assumed a more critical bent, as she began to recognize the need to understand how change occurs.

“I realized there were lessons to be learned from studying the history and trajectory of social change, including very importantly, grassroots social movements,” Osterweil said.

So, she began to study global movements.  Born in Israel to an Uruguayan mother, originally from Romania, and a Polish father who spent years in Italy, and growing up in Los Angeles, Osterweil had an international background that made her aware of how interconnected we all are, and how powerful ideas can cross boundaries. Originally, much of her interest was based on Latin America, a region ripe with political movements. But in 2001, after working as a Research Assistant on a project entitled Women and the Politics of Place, and witnessing the violent G8 protests, her interests shifted. The events in Genoa and throughout Italy informed and directed her dissertation on political movements, as well as her personal involvement in such enterprises. Returning to UNC, Osterweil became even more heavily involved in environmental and social projects in Chapel Hill and Carrboro as she started to look closely at the possibilities local movements provide for change.

“Movements are a good place to understand change in its vital processes,” Osterweil explained, “from the small scale or quotidian to the more macro and global.”

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Osterweil has also always been passionate about the ways in which univerisities can support social change. Thus, Osterweil has been heavily active at UNC-Chapel Hill in several working groups focused on movements. Osterweil is a faculty facilitator of the Latin American Political Imaginaries working group (LAPI for short—“We’re good at names,” jokes Osterweil at the unwieldy title), a hybrid research group that engages in research and discussion focused on the production of new articles and pieces on Latin American political imaginaries emerging from social movements. This year, they have tackled the theme of decolonial, and decolonizing feminisms. In confronting the topic, Osterweil helped organize a successful workshop with Wendy Harcourt, senior program director at the Society for International Development in Rome, who spoke about transnational feminisms.

LAPI itself is an outgrowth of another important interdisciplinary working group Osterweil has been instrumental in developing while at UNC. The Social Movements working group is made up of faculty, graduates and undergraduates, from Anthropology, Sociology, Geography and History, among other disciplines. It generally meets monthly and organizes an annual symposium. They have also in the past been responsible for a special edition of the Anthropology Quarterly. Last year, the group held a hugely popular half day workshop and class with Joanna Macy, eco-philosopher and scholar on Buddhist, general systems theory and deep ecology, on multiple ontologies.

Between the conversations arising from these groups, the discussions that have emerged from the classes she teaches as a global studies lecturer, the feedback she’s received from papers she’s presented in the US and abroad, and the stunning events of 2011, Osterweil certainly has a wealth of material at her fingertips to understand change. If movements are some of the most fruitful venues for such knowledge, Osterweil has a trove of exciting new data to mine. And an audience hungry for insight.

But she’s not publishing what she’s learned from these events just yet. But keep your eyes open as she is currently working on two books and several articles. In the meantime, she’s content to provide others with the contextual tools necessary to arrive at their own understanding of the movements rocking the globe in the hope of launching long-term change.

Photo credits:

Michal Osterweil teaching: Lara Markstein

The photo “Occupy Chapel Hill – Oct. 15- Panorama of General Assembly” is copyright (c) 2011 mr adam g and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license