Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2013

Izabel Duarte Olson

Izabel Duarte Olson researches the relation between cognition and culture at the favela known as Complexo da Maré, an impoverished area outside Rio de Janeiro.

An Activist and a Scholar: Izabel Duarte Olson Focuses Research on Rio’s Hardscrabble Favelas


By Ed Finkel
Izabel Duarte Olson

You might say doctoral student Izabel Duarte Olson’s desire to spread justice runs in the family, sparked after spending her teenage and college years visiting her father in prison, where he was held for a decade for “a crime he never committed,” she says.

A labor lawyer who tried cases against the Brazilian government on behalf of “underprivileged people,” Duarte Olson’s father won many of these cases, angered people in the government and was held until Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a Labor Party president, came to power in 2002 and released her father, who died last year.

“Before his passing, I asked him if he regretted going to jail for 10 years, and he said, ‘No, I fight for what I believe in. I would do it all over again,’” she says. Beginning with his confinement, “I became very engaged with social justice issues.”

After graduating college in Brazil, Duarte Olson worked as a teacher in wealthier parts of Rio de Janeiro and volunteered after work in the poorer areas on the outskirts of town known as favelas. “They’re very dear to my heart, and I want to give voice to them,” she says. Since matriculating to Northwestern, Duarte Olson has continued to work in a complex of 16 communities known as Complexo da Maré, which has a population of about 129,000. She partners with an NGO called Redes de Desenvolvimento da Maré that works on educational solutions.

The doctoral research Duarte Olson has undertaken at SESP examines the relationship between cognition and culture, using favela dwellers as her subjects to study how people in low-income communities think about complex systems with which they interact in their everyday lives. Her research paper on the subject, titled “ ‘It’s like an Epidemic, It Catches On … ’: Community Knowledge of Everyday Complex Phenomena,” won an award from the American Education Research Association. A second paper on everyday complexity won the best student paper award from the Society for Anthropological Sciences.

“I want to focus on the social context,” Duarte Olson says. “I’ve learned that when you ask questions that are based on cultural practices and based on people’s everyday experiences, they can think about complexity.” But in a very different way: Where an upper-middle-class American might talk about inequality or social mobility in an abstract, macro-level fashion, the favela dwellers bring the rich details of personal experience, she says.

Her research has found that in the aggregate 96 percent of subjects of psychological studies come from 12 percent of the world’s population, mostly well-educated people from Western countries.

“We need to get out of that comfort zone and see the world — it’s not just the U.S., Israel and Australia,” she says. “We need to step out of that — what people falsely believe is a standard to make universal claims about human behavior. I step out of that box. Most of the people I interview are people who would never usually participate in research. I build relationships in the community. I spend hours and hours there, so people talk to me.”

Those thoughts capture Duarte Olson’s method of operation perfectly, according to professor Doug Medin, her adviser. “Probably her most salient characteristics, to me, are her persistence and the way she has used her everyday life experiences to pose interesting questions,” he says. “Often when people are studying a different culture, or one that is challenged … they tend to take a ‘deficit’ perspective. She’s been able to overcome the lens that colors a lot of what’s been done.”

Duarte Olson plans to write her dissertation during the 2013–14 school year. After that, she’s hoping to find a position as a postdoctoral fellow or assistant professor, staying in the United States because she’s married to an American.

However, Duarte Olson’s ties to her native Brazil will endure. “I want to create educational interventions to help people understand complex systems and solve complex problems in their own communities,” she says, “and leverage the social justice aspect that I’ve been thinking about basically since I was 12 years old.”