Hartwick’s O’Donnell Explores ‘Transnational Solidarity’ in New Book

October 28, 2010

Hartwick College Professor of Sociology Katherine O'Donnell recently published Weaving Transnational Solidarity from the Catskills to Chiapas and Beyondfrom Brill Press, The Netherlands. O'Donnell has worked on human rights and justice issues throughout her 30-year Hartwick career. She transported her interests in poverty, women's human rights, and social movement organizing to Chiapas, Mexico in 1997 for comparative organizing work and analysis.

The book, a product of those years of ongoing work, examines the grassroots, economic justice efforts of three groups: two Mexican organizations, Jolom Mayaetik, Mayan women's weaving cooperative, and K'inal Antzetik, NGO in the highlands of Chiapas, and an informal, U.S. solidarity network.

O'Donnell describes the book's audience as "people interested in social justice issues," which includes community members, activists, students, and "the academy."

"For the academy, I have a pretty strong discussion of transforming the academy and moving toward a paradigm of solidarity," O'Donnell explained. "My message to the academy is one of taking seriously our commitments to the people with whom we do our education work. If you begin to create transnational partnerships it never remains just educational--it's political, it's economic, it might be spiritual. It's a much deeper commitment to the lives of the people with whom we are engaged.

"For people who are already committed activists, I'm having a conversation with them about some of the Achilles heels of doing our work," she said. "We have to be real about power and relationships. We're working across cultures; we're working across race, class, gender. We're working in the context of economic globalization. How do all of our locations shape our work and the authenticity of our work?"

"Being there helped me understand what it means to be in a community," said Seth Lucas '10, who studied with O'Donnell in Chiapas in 2009. "The women don't have things, but they have each other. It is so unifying. They live in corrugated metal homes with dirt floors, yet they wake up each day with a smile, ready to try again."

Chiapas, Mexico's most southern state on the Guatemalan border and the global south context for O'Donnell's work, has been particularly hard-hit by neoliberal "free trade" agreements like NAFTA, which have undermined the peasant farmer economy. The indigenous Maya of Chiapas are experiencing tremendous economic hardship and extreme marginalization as indicated by high rates of malnutrition, illiteracy, infant mortality, and the highest maternal mortality, poverty, and tuberculosis rates in Mexico. In the case of the Mayan women's weaving cooperative (Jolom Mayaetik) of 200 members with whom O'Donnell works, Mayan women have always woven, but their increased production is in direct relation to men's decreased earning capacity, the loss of land for crop production, falling wages and crop prices, cost of living increases, rising poverty, and largely male out-migration from rural communities. "We call it free trade, but it's only free for some people. It costs a lot for other people," O'Donnell said. "The women I work with in Chiapas--their children are starving because of these conditions. It's very, very immediate. The cooperative is one intervention."

In the context of economic and political destabilization in Chiapas, Mexico, O'Donnell's organizational partners, Jolom Mayaetik and K'inal Antzetik, a multiethnic non-governmental organization, have been working since 1995 to create justice through the empowerment of young, indigenous women, the development of an autonomous women's cooperative, and the creation of a Center for Women's Training & Development. "The women created the cooperative themselves," she explained. "Their mothers, their grandmothers created cooperatives. They are teaching me about collective practice."

By supporting Jolom and K'inal's development, fair trade textile sales, education, and health initiatives, O'Donnell and others work with them to alleviate poverty, develop young leaders, promote sustainable business practices, and preserve the unique, Mayan cultural heritage of weaving. O'Donnell said, "Our work is very much a co-learning about the different systems we're operating in and learning something together and working together to address underlying structural problems."

Central themes of O'Donnell's book include solidarity, human rights, and social justice. Indigenous women's voices are featured in the book as powerful in transnational justice organizing--in the global south and north. In conjunction with her global partners, next steps for her U.S. organizing include creating a U.S. foundation to fund health, education, literacy, and textile sales projects.

O'Donnell's book is available from bookstores and online.

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Hartwick College is a private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,500 students, located in Oneonta, NY, in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Hartwick's expansive curriculum emphasizes a uniquely experiential approach to the liberal arts. Through personalized teaching, collaborative research, a unique January Term, a wide range of internships, and vast study-abroad opportunities, Hartwick ensures that students are prepared for the world ahead. A Three-Year Bachelor's Degree Program and strong financial aid and scholarship offerings keep a Hartwick education affordable.

Contact: Christopher Lott
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