Final Reflection

As I conclude the research process, I’m left marinating on one topic: The Second Step curriculum was developed in Seattle, but I can’t find any record of how/where it’s being implemented locally. I think it’s really sad that a program like this was born in our backyard, yet we never hear about its success with our students. The fact that German’s have used this curriculum to empower even the most vulnerable youth makes me wonder why introducing it here doesn’t seem to be a priority…I mean, how many times do we need to relive the horror of watching the aftermath of another school shooting play out on cable news before we invest in equipping ‘challenging’ or ‘troubled’ kids with the social-emotional skills they need to cope with the realities of being a young American?

It’s no secret that students whose parents can afford to send them to a private school enjoy a certain safety net that doesn’t exist for poor kids in public schools, and the reputation of our schools are based more on the technology they own than their ability to adequately socialize our youth to be tolerant of others. I realize that many may argue that this is the responsibility of the family, but I tend to resonate with the idea that “It takes a village”. Both the institutions of family and school are a means of perpetuating society through the strategic socialization of the new generation, so it only makes sense that both should share the task of teaching the young how to be successful.

Moving forward, I’ve become fascinated with educational policy and how we can look at improving outcomes for our most vulnerable youth. While this seems like an impossible task given the current state of affairs in our government, I hold a renewed belief in the power of the individual in creating sustainable change. I look forward to exploring different pathways of involvement, and the opportunity to learn how to be most effective in advocating for a revision of the status-quo.

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Final Research Write-Up

I went to Berlin with the expectation that my time would be spent serving others. As someone with extensive experience volunteering with vulnerable populations, I’ve come to frame ‘service’ as a form of action. Prior to participating in this foreign study program, I never would have anticipated how valuable simple observation could be in creating positive change. Tangible, sustainable progress must start somewhere, and I’ve come to believe that the first step to success is rooted in a willingness to analyze the trials and tribulations of others with an open mind free of bias. Only then can we hope to borrow from the global community in developing strategies that, if implemented, have the power to improve the quality of life for countless people.

Due to my interest in working with children and families, I was placed with Nürtingen Grundschule as a Community Partner. Nürtingen is a Montessori-style primary school for grades 1-6, and a significant portion of the student demographic comes from migrant backgrounds. They receive state funding and additional support from Kotti e.V., an association that works in close cooperation with the community around Kottbusser Tor to extend vital resources aimed at improving the living conditions of local residents.

The neighborhood around Kottbusser Tor—lovingly referred to as “Kotti” by the locals—is centrally located within the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. There seems to be a school and/or playground on nearly every block, which says a lot about the value this community places on open access to educational and recreational opportunities for children. One morning I arrived early to my placement and was able to observe parents dropping their kids off for the day; this process was quite different than what I’ve experienced in the US, mainly because in a 30-minute timespan I only saw one student arrive in a car. The rest either walked together in small groups or were escorted on foot or bicycle by an adult. Both residents and staff resoundingly emphasized their strong commitment to ensuring that all children have the opportunity to attend school in the neighborhood they live in, which would absolutely explain such ease of transportation. The community isn’t just invested in the future of their youth, but of all people living in the area. They fight for the right to utilize public space for affordable housing, venues for cultural enrichment, and support systems for those struggling with addiction.

At Nürtingen, special care was taken in designing an environment conducive for facilitating a positive learning environment for children at varying stages of social, psychological, and physical development. The floors and ceilings are acoustically engineered to reduce excess noise, which allows the children a greater degree of freedom to carry out activities without being disruptive to others. Correspondingly, the classrooms do not mimic what we traditionally see in the US; there aren’t rows of front-facing desks focused on one teacher who directs the pupils through highly structured lessons from a whiteboard. Instead, the students participate in arranging the rooms with tables and chairs of differing heights and sizes in a fashion that resonates with them. The teachers aren’t so much ‘running’ the classroom as they are guiding the children through their daily activities, encouraging them to share and work cooperatively. This provides students with an opportunity to explore and learn at their own pace, on their own terms. From what I saw, the priority of the school was not to equip children with the latest technology, but to teach them the kind of social and life skills they need to be successful learners.

The majority of my time at Nürtingen Grundschule was spent shadowing the school social workers. This position seems similar to what we refer to as a ‘guidance counselor’ in the US, but those whom I had the pleasure of observing displayed unmatched dedication and involvement in empowering all students to reach their full potential. Not only do they provide advice and respite during crisis, but also play an active role in developing and implementing programs/procedures that help students mediate conflict independently. They offer of themselves generously, and display genuine engagement in advocating for the well-being of all pupils. I was continuously impressed with their strategies for promoting tolerance and inclusion, and witnessed firsthand how successful they were in earning the admiration and respect of the students, who were in-turn encouraged to respect themselves and one another.

I had the unique opportunity to sit in on a number of administrative meetings, attend conflict resolution workshops with the students, and participate in school activities such as English and cooking classes. My supervisors were extremely accommodating and made outstanding efforts to translate both direct and nuanced information throughout the process. For their kindness and patience, I am indebted to Boris, Ansgar, Anna, Madeleine, and Philipp—this experience could not have been what it was had they not shared with me so freely.

One meeting that I was able to observe was attended by the school headmaster, director of Kotti e.V., lead social worker, and parent of a student. The topic of discussion was how to most appropriately address the challenges that arise at school when young children are fasting for Ramadan. With heavy restrictions on what kids may consume in terms of food and drink, it’s not difficult to imagine that a negative impact would be had on their capacity to perform. Not only could they suffer from an inability to focus on the task at hand, but physical activities and sports could actually be dangerous should one become fatigued or dehydrated. This group had come up with some seemingly fair suggestions for curtailing these concerns that were presented to the Muslim community, and while they gained some support, the biggest mosque in the area declined to accept their revisions. Rather than forcing their agenda–or just giving up–they went back to the drawing board and took a collaborative approach to navigating this challenge within a multi-cultural context. I found this meeting to be especially enlightening because the sensitivity with which the topic was addressed is a prime example of the administration’s dedication to maintaining respectful coexistence within the community.

I was also happy to observe the conflict management training that periodically takes place in every classroom. The children sit in a large circle, and the teacher and social worker will role-play a real conflict that has recently occurred. The children then identify various perspectives of the conflict and together search for a solution. The goal is to teach them how to mediate conflict without resorting to violence or aggression; there is a heavy emphasis on empathy, and the kids are encouraged to speak about their feelings. This program is called “Faustlos”, which translates to an iteration of “fistless”. Interestingly, this curriculum originated in Seattle where it is known as “Second Step” and was developed by the Committee for Children. Grounded in research, the evidence-based program provides students with a common social-emotional language that enables them to be caring, responsible members of society (SEL Curriculum, 2017). The idea is that teaching children to solve problems will promote an environment of safety, well-being, and success both in school and everyday life, and will provide them with the skills necessary to mediate conflict as they grow into adults. Research has shown a range of risk factors (i.e. peer rejection, impulsiveness, inappropriate classroom behavior) can be intervened upon by introducing a curriculum of social skills and school connectedness (SEL Program Research, 2011).

For those students who really struggle to overcome problematic behaviors, the social workers at Nürtingen Grundschule have gone a step further and developed the ISI program (Inclusive Systemic Intervention). ISI was founded upon the desire to allow one little boy to continue attending the school that was located in his neighborhood, instead of allowing him to be funneled into a ‘special’ school for disabled children. The theory is that pupils learn better from pupils, and that they will have a greater chance of experiencing educational success when regularly interacting with peers at different levels of social-emotional development. The goal is to identify children who present risk factors while they are in kindergarten so that grades 1-4 may be spent working with them to develop the skills necessary to be strong learners. It is considered to be of critical importance for the parents to be involved in this process, and such cooperation is mandatory for those in the program. They are given regular updates on their children’s behavior at school (both positive and negative), and are asked to participate in creating goals to be addressed in the home. It took three years for Nürtingen to be approved for the financing to cover the additional six hours of labor that would be dedicated to each child in the program, and at the time the district had never been approached by school administrators who were fighting to continue working with challenging pupils. I found this to be incredibly heroic, and a true testament to the saying, “If there’s a will, there’s a way”.

In the United States, when a child has been labeled as ‘problematic’ they are typically isolated—especially within the public-school system. There are very few opportunities to explore different pathways of learning while still maintaining contact with students who are well-adjusted. By focusing on integration rather than isolation, Nürtingen Grundschule has proven the power of socializing children as ‘normal’. This is evidenced in the growth of those children who would have been cast out as ‘other’s’ as they participate independently in classroom activities, and play nicely with their friends during pause period. When considering the principles that we should be borrowing from to revise our own educational policy, the keywords integration, inclusion, and collaboration come to mind. I’m inspired by the knowledge that one person’s passion can make such a pivotal difference in the lives of so many children, and leave this experience with renewed motivation to be a part of the change I want to see.

 

SOURCES:

“Introduction to Montessori Method.” American Montessori Society: education that transforms lives. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2017.

“SEL Program Research.” Committee for Children. N.p., 2011. Web. 25 July 2017.

“Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum.” Committee for Children. N.p., 2017. Web. 20 July 2017.

“Willkommen.” Startseite – Kotti e.V. – Aktiv im Kiez. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2017.

Dear Berlin…

Dear Berlin,

Thank you for reminding me who I am.

I almost didn’t even apply for this program; to be completely honest, I wrote my essay and asked for faculty recommendations the day before they were due. It wasn’t that I was on the fence about participating—I wanted to have this experience more desperately than I’ve wanted anything in a long time. I was just at a point in my life where I had become totally strangled by life’s responsibilities. As a self-professed ‘serial planner’, I have the tendency to restrict myself to tunnel-vision once I’ve set my mind on something. Currently, that something is graduating with enough money squirreled away for grad school so that I can dedicate all my focus to earning a Master’s degree without the distraction of having a job. That said, it took me months to convince myself that taking a 6-week pause from work, volunteer, and family obligations wouldn’t derail everything I’ve worked so hard for. In the end, I’ve come to realize that this has been by far the best investment in myself and my future that I could have made.

Throughout the prep seminar I had come to frame this experience as one of service learning, and expected my time in Berlin to be structured according to how I could most effectively meet the needs of others. During an initial conference with supervisors at my community partner, I was a little caught off guard when they began organizing my schedule around what I could get out of the 8-10 hours per week I would be spending there. This prompted the realization that my success in this program would come not from my skill set in assisting others, but simply my ability to observe and absorb. I thought of our discussion with Willie from Omprakash, and reminded myself that I wasn’t here to save the world by projecting my ideals of service onto a community that I had yet to develop a personal connection with, and that the power of change can occur via many different pathways. By keeping this concept in the forefront and renewing my commitment to approaching every day with an open mind, I feel as though I’m taking away far more from this experience than I could have imagined possible.

We came to Berlin to study the complexities of insider/outsider theory, and within 5 short weeks I’ve experienced one end of the spectrum to the other. On my flight from the US to Germany I was given a special instruction booklet printed in English because I was seated in an exit row and couldn’t understand the flight attendant’s spiel (even though I know the American version by heart). I also hadn’t exchanged any currency, and my Bank of America debit card wouldn’t work for in-flight purchases (no Wi-Fi or alcoholic beverage = lonnnngg 9 hours). When I arrived at Tegel airport I was so exhausted that I couldn’t yet wrap my mind around dealing with a foreign public transportation system, so instead opted to hit the closest ATM and spend a ridiculous amount of money on a taxi. The entire first week I was in Berlin I would pay only with large bills because I was too shy to ask how much things cost in English (needless to say, my bedside table amassed an impressive stack of coin). There was also a lot of smiling and nodding during my interactions with children (and several teachers) at my service site; I didn’t want them to be frustrated by our inability to communicate because I felt that it was my (failed) responsibility to learn German as a guest in their country.

I’m not sure when exactly this feeling of ‘otherness’ began to subside, but I became aware of it upon my return to Berlin after spending a weekend in Barcelona. Although my three years of high-school level Spanish helped mediate the language barrier, I was again alone in a big city that I knew virtually nothing about. Following the incredible whirlwind that was Spain, I stepped off the plane at Tegel with a completely different attitude than I had the first time around. I was wholly confident in my ability to navigate my way back to Kreuzberg on my own (S-Bahn for life!), and truly felt like I was coming home. I went straight to my favorite restaurant, Bamboo, and welcomed myself back with the red curry tofu and lemon-mint tea that had become a staple in my diet. From that point on I felt a sense of belonging and, as ridiculous as it may sound, began identifying as more of an ‘insider’ with due respect for the culture that Berliner’s so fiercely protect.

Speaking of respect for culture…

On my last free day in Berlin I visited the former home of Rosa Parks. The amazing thing about this is that the civil rights hero never even stepped foot in Germany. I’d heard that a Detroit house in which Ms. Parks had lived was recently shipped and reconstructed in a working-class suburb of Berlin. Through some light research, I discovered that the home originally belonged to her brother and that she had fled constant death threats in Alabama to stay with his large family in 1957 (McGrane, 2017). When the landmark was set for demolition, a New York-born Berlin-based artist named Ryan Mendoza stepped in and raised around $100,000 so that it could remain to exist outside of his studio in Wedding. The fact that the house had to travel to Germany to survive is extraordinary; typically the homes of historical icons are well-preserved within the United States. I think this speaks volumes about America’s reluctance to deal with its legacy of racism, and perhaps just as much about the German commitment to memorializing those who struggled.

I consulted Google Maps before setting out solo on a dreary, humid afternoon. A 25-minute train ride delivered me to Wriezener Str. 19 where I confusedly circled the block two or three times before realizing that I hadn’t entered a zip code. Upon plugging the right one in, Google instructed me to double back in the opposite direction to the other side of town. The murky skies had started to drizzle, and more concerningly my iPhone was hovering around 19% battery…but I couldn’t give up. I made my metro connections and walked blindly through the pouring rain for about .75km before flipping on my data roaming to confirm that I was finally where I was supposed to be. I was, but it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t see the house—or any house for that matter—as I looked up and down a street lined with old apartment buildings. Refusing to accept defeat, I stalked the area around a high cement fence until I caught a glimpse of what I was looking for. It was a good thing there were photos of the house published online, or I never would have guessed that the small square structure tucked between a lightly used parking lot and massive brick facade had been the home of Rosa Parks. There were no signs or fanfare to be seen. I had to cut through private property to stand at a barbed-wire fence in order to get a solid view of the house where it sat in an alley; black-and-white paint stripping off the sideboards, curtains shut tight. For fear of being too conspicuous or disrespectful, I limited my stay to only a few minutes. Just long enough to imagine that house as it stood in Detroit circa 1957–a place of refuge, the calm after the storm. I begin to picture the house bubbling with life and music, but quickly stopped myself with a reminder that these images are merely projections of something I probably picked up from a movie.

As I snapped a few photos I became angry. Angry that the only reason I even know about Rosa Parks’ exile to Detroit was because I did some independent research while studying abroad. Angry that this part of our history isn’t taught in schools, and that many American’s who would care to visit such a commemorative monument will probably never have the chance. While turning to leave, I couldn’t help but kick the tire of a broke-down station wagon sitting in the lot. The car seemed like a metaphor for how this dilapidated house was parked in some obscure location, a relic just waiting to be forgotten by time.

While reflecting on this little adventure, I’m left saddened not only by the fact that we weren’t able to keep this monument in the US, but more so because even if we did, it would probably serve as a target for hate and discrimination. As I prepare for my return home, I feel inspired in the renewal of my commitment to fight for social justice. I’ve seen firsthand through my experience at Kotti e.V. how one person truly can make a difference and start movements that create positive, sustainable change for countless people. My biggest takeaway is that power doesn’t lie solely in money, but in passion; micro-level change can get the ball rolling for far greater accomplishments, and I look forward to fighting the good fight for tolerance and inclusion no matter how far outside my comfort zone I’m pushed because I know that this is how my life is supposed to be lived.

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*Photos from my personal collection

CITATION:

McGrane, Sally. “Saved From Demolition, Rosa Parks’ House Gets a Second Life.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 May 2017. Web. 12 July 2017.

READING REFLECTION

THE FIGURE OF THE MIGRANT: Discussion Points

“Climate change, in particular, may cause international migration to double over the next 40 years.”

While we’ve been primarily approaching crises of migration from the standpoint of political refugees, it’s critical that we—as global citizens—prepare for the certainty that global warming will permanently displace countless members of the human race. Because this will likely happen within our lifetime, we must take responsibility for reevaluating and reshaping migration policy in a way that doesn’t ignore the reality of what’s happening to the environment. I find this to be especially important/problematic when it comes to the nationalist attitudes of the current American government seeing as we are undeniably one of Earth’s biggest polluters; how can we, in good conscience, refuse to play our part in taking care of the collateral damage? (I suppose the first step would be to elect officials who are intelligent enough to acknowledge that global warming is real *eyeroll*).

“The gains of migration are always a risk, while the process itself is always some kind of loss.”

I think that a lot of people equate migration with opportunity without considering the incredible amount of risk and forfeiture that is associated with leaving one’s country of origin. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few firsthand stories of migration shared with me throughout this program, and the main themes that have stuck with me are uncertainty and perseverance. For the trailblazers who are blindly fleeing with no established network of support away from home, this is often an extremely dangerous and exploitative undertaking. Those lucky enough to reach their destination are left to find a place to rest, a way to feed themselves, and a desperate search for community. Often, they have left behind assets such as homes and various personal belongings…not to mention the loving closeness of family and friends. Typically, they have no guarantee of work and a finite amount of resources that are allocated for travel expenses.

“Since the state has all too often written history, the migrant has been understood as a figure without its own history and social force.”

After living in a foreign country for a month, I can only begin to appreciate the shift in social status that occurs when trying to navigate a society apart from one’s own—and I hold an American passport! It’s interesting that American history valorizes our founding fathers as these badass rebels who refused to bow under the pressure of oppression from the Brits, yet diminishes the value of what African and Mexican immigrants have contributed to our way of life. Today, Muslim-American’s are even worst off; regardless of their status as a doctor, lawyer, or family of privilege, they are too often denounced to a label of ‘terrorist’. People have a right to their histories. It’s not up to us to write them off out of fear of losing our own status.

 

ARRIVAL CITY: Discussion Points

These transitional spaces – arrival cities—are the places where the next great economic and cultural boom will be born, or where the next great explosion of violence will occur. The difference depends on our ability to notice, and our willingness to engage.”

Transition to middle-class success is not guaranteed by hard-work and determination. People don’t arrive in a foreign place with intricate knowledge as to how a society different from theirs must be navigated. However, they do bring their own customs, traditions, and skills that, when integrated, can benefit not only migrant communities, but society as a whole. By facilitating such integration, we have the opportunity to increase social cohesion and reduce the ills of poverty.

European ‘neighborhoods of relegation’ are very different than traditionally Black American ghettos; they are multi-ethnic, and the lack of demographic coherence prevents residents from forming any sort of community.

My experience in Berlin has been somewhat of a contradiction to this statement. Here, we have an example of a ‘melting pot’ of ethnicities that have managed to build a community based on tolerance (if not total acceptance). Perhaps this is due to the sheer volume of people of different backgrounds; in America people are typically categorized as White, Black, Latino, Asian, or “Other”. Here, the “Other” is so predominant that segregation is simply not as relevant—or possible—as it is in the US.

The second and third generation of French immigrants are caught in this purgatory of sorts…where their last name and postal code relegate them to the kind of institutional racism that prevents them from getting entry level jobs that could lead to economic independence and success.

Even when completely acculturated, the children—and sometimes grandchildren—of immigrants often suffer the same fate of oppression faced by the first generation. They are marked as ‘less than’ by societies that have no interest in assisting their integration into the workforce. When this occurs, the chance that they will resort to illegal activity and the violence of resistance is remarkably higher. This demographic doesn’t see themselves as ‘this’ or ‘that’, but as a population so marginalized that they don’t have any power in creating or controlling their own identities.

COMMUNITY ASSET MAP: Interviews, Observations, and Research

1. My first interview was with a parent whose 6-year old son attends one of the local schools. Her family migrated to Berlin from a small village in Chechnya in 2007, and has lived in the Kotti neighborhood ever since. While she does not work, her husband is employed as a taxi driver and usually works long hours 6 days per week. She loves being a part of this community because there is a relative degree of freedom to live her life and raise her family as she sees fit, without the constant threat of oppression she experienced during wartime in her country of origin. She appreciates the multicultural demographic because she considers it very important for her son to grow up with values of tolerance and respect for himself and others, and finds the neighborhood to be simple and fairly safe to navigate without requiring the use of a vehicle on a daily basis. She continuously noted the diversity of the school systems, and feels lucky that her son is able to get a free education that is well-rounded and will help him to be successful in the future. She is currently participating in a group that is requesting approval from local Mosques to lighten restrictions on small children’s fasting practices during Ramadan, as it has become apparent that little ones face a unique set of challenges at school when they aren’t able to eat/drink (diminished attention span, unsafe participation in sports, etc.).

2. My second interview was with a woman who teaches grades 4-6 at an elementary school in Kotti. She was born and raised in Northern Germany, and has lived in the Mitte district of Berlin with her husband for 15 years. She has two young sons who currently attend the school at which she teaches, and she said the decision to bring them to Kotti was partially out of convenience, and partially out of a desire for them to experience greater diversity within their peer set. She loves all of the parks and playgrounds; the community oriented vibe; and one Turkish teahouse in particular. She consistently noted her admiration for the schools around Kottbusser Tor, as she believes that they are inclusive and focus on the integration of students with varying levels of social skills and abilities. Due to her proficiency in the English language, she considers her instruction of the foreign language to be one of her most important contributions to the health and welfare of the community. Because it is the default language used by those who speak Arabic or German to communicate, she believes it is vital to equip children with a basic understanding of English.

3. My third interview was with a bartender. This guy was in his mid-30’s and has lived in Berlin his entire life. He moved to Kotti after finishing high-school and quickly became involved with the drug scene. He was a “starving artist” who ended up living on the streets for 5 years until he got very sick with Hepatitis C (which was contracted from dirty needles). Shortly after, he was able to get into treatment because Germany’s universal healthcare pays for rehabilitation services. He now lives in a small flat with his dog and girlfriend, and is adamant that he will never leave Kotti because he thrives in the politically active environment. He fancies himself an activist, and uses his platform as a bartender to open discussions about what’s going on in the neighborhood with people from all walks of life. While he didn’t have much to say about the education of children (mostly due to lack of personal experience), he did go on and on about his role as a community leader due to his ability to reach so many people. He vows to remain steadfast in his commitment to spreading the word about various causes and initiatives that arise in Kotti, and believes that his efforts will help build stronger networks through education and information.

4. After my conversation with the bartender, I was reminded that Kotti is an infamous hot-spot for drugs. I’ve always found this kind of surprising, because my experience here hasn’t exposed me to drug culture at all. Coming from Seattle, I’m no stranger to finding used needles in public restrooms, or tripping over people as they nod in and out of drug induced comas on the sidewalk. I’ve seen people smoking crack in broad daylight so many times that it doesn’t even faze me anymore. Upon relaying this sentiment, I was told that: A) If I want to experience Kotti’s drug culture, I should try visiting the area around the train station after dark (which I had not); B) Due to my appearance and way of carrying myself it wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t been accosted by dealers mumbling, “Black, White, Green?” (i.e. heroin, cocaine, marijuana); and C) I didn’t necessarily know what to look for.

Some light research turned up quite a bit of interesting information. First of all, the government has taken a stance on drug use as a disease and not a crime; criminal charges can be dropped in cases where users possess amounts congruent with personal use, meaning that prosecution typically isn’t pursued unless there is blatant use around schools or playgrounds. Enforcement is reserved for high-level dealers, and any person facing a sentence of under two years has the option to defer into a rehabilitation program (which, as previously noted, is covered by the state). Treatment options range from residential care, medically assisted therapy, needle-exchange programs, and drug consumption rooms (one of which is about 10 blocks from my Community Partner site). Statistics show that this multi-layered approach works: in the early 1990’s, 30-40% of heroin users had HIV, that number is now down to 3-4%; the Hepatitis C rate has also fallen from 98% to 70%; and in a city of 3.4 million people there were only 154 drug related deaths last year.

SOURCES:

Sutherland, Paige. “Special Series: Through the Looking Glass.” New Hampshire Public Radio. N.p., 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 05 July 2017.

Riceburg, John. “The Straight Dope.” EXBERLINER.com. N.p., 31 July 2013. Web. 05 July 2017.

5. On our first day with Community Partner Kotti e.V., we were taken on a walking tour of the neighborhood with the managing director, Monique. Kitty-corner from the elementary school at which I was assigned stands a giant brick building surrounded by a grass lawn that stretches over 2 street blocks. Monique briefly mentioned that the building had originally been a hospital, but was currently occupied by squatters and artist collectives. Every day I walk past the Bethanien on my way to intern at the school, and have maintained curiosity about the dynamics of half the building being squatted and the other half used for community purposes.

Last week I had the chance to walk over to the Bethanien with a class of fifth-graders who had been promised ice cream cones (or “kinder kugel” in German). During our time there I was able to chat with the Headmaster of the school about his perspective on the site, and learned that the hospital was open from 1847-1970. Upon its closure it was sold to the state, and public controversy ensued as to how the building could best be utilized. Squatters, citizen initiative groups, and historic building conservationists heavily opposed the demolition/reconstruction of the Bethanien, and since 1973 it has predominantly been used by cultural, artistic, and social institutions. Today, the south wing is occupied by ‘York 59’, where tenants of the housing project support social, political, and cultural endeavors (they are no longer ‘squatters’ in the traditional sense). The rest of the space is used for changing exhibits on current topics; media workshops; open studios; the original pharmacy interior; and the 3 Sisters Restaurant (which came highly recommended by the Headmaster). The outdoor space is used for community gatherings, often hosting concerts, outdoor movies, and art fairs.

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*Photo of Bethanien building from my personal collection

SOURCE:

“Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien.” VisitBerlin.de. N.p., Web. 05 July 2017.

Hamburg

After our ordeal with the flash flood in Oranienburg, we woke up bright and early the next morning to hit the train station and head to Hamburg. Upon arriving in the rainy city, our instructors took pity on us and decided to re-schedule our walking tour for the next day (bless). Instead we visited the impressive Kunsthalle Gallery, which is home to an overwhelming collection of art dating back as far as 700 years. While the entire museum was culturally enriching, one installation in particular was especially relevant to our program and course of studies. The “Open Access” exhibit was conceptualized as a project to make art more accessible to large sections of the local population by featuring pieces that connect with a multi-cultural audience. Essentially, they asked 13 people from different backgrounds to consider “What is important to me?”, and then gave them access to the archives in order to curate a collection reflective of their individual answers. These perspectives were grouped under the themes of Dialogue, Empowerment, Freedom, Community, and Respect. By facilitating this project, the gallery has established a place where people feel welcome and can identify with what they are experiencing. This is important because the arts are such a critical component of culture, and giving marginalized members of the community the opportunity to connect with the local culture as an insider is taking a vital step towards institutional recognition and inclusion.

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Werner Buttner – Prisoner, looking at the word “Freedom” – 1988

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Sigmar Polke – Getaway Black-Red-Gold – 1997

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David Hockney – Doll Boy – 1960/61

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Dorothee von Windheim – Self-portrait – 1984

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Jean Leon Gerome – The Prayer – 1865

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Jean-Honore Fragonard – The Philosopher – 1764-1769

Like Berlin, Hamburg wears its heart on its sleeve in the form of street art. With the G20 conference coming up next week, there was a definite charge to the already politically active vibe. A large portion of Hamburg’s population is extremely resistant to capitalist/fascist influence, and they refuse to accept the conversion of public space for purposes that don’t directly benefit the needs of the existing community. Because the city is in the throes of gentrification, signs of this refusal are everywhere (squatters, broken windows, paint bombs, etc.). During our walking tour, I was reminded of sentiments shared by Sandy, co-founder of Kotti & Co. who said that civil protest is important because it brings people together and empowers them to establish curiosity as to how they can most effectively participate in preserving the cultural capital of their city/neighborhood. It’s clear that the people of Hamburg take this responsibility seriously, and have a great deal of respect for the spaces they’ve exerted ‘ownership’ over; at no point—even when traveling through back alleys—did I have to hold my nose at the stench of urine, step over puke, or witness soggy piles of garbage littering the parks. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan.

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*All photos from my personal collection

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

I’ll just begin by saying that this week was intense. We had several opportunities to explore insider/outsider theory in various contexts, and each of them left me humbled and acutely aware of my status as a white, middle-class American–and the privilege (and stigma) that comes with such an identity.

We were treated to a lecture by Dr. Viola Georgi in which she presented some of her research on “History, Learning, Memory and Migration”. The thesis of her argument was that there is no such thing as one history; rather it is multi-dimensional, where official and private narratives are layered and overlapped in ways that interact and influence each other. To illustrate the complexity of how this effects people with migrant backgrounds, she discussed how conflicting perspectives can be challenging to reconcile (Jews as victims of Holocaust vs. Jews as perpetrators in Palestine). She mentioned a Black German woman who discovered late in life that her grandfather was a prolific Nazi who was infamously depicted in Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List. This woman, Jennifer Teege, authored a book titled “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me”, in which she attempts to come to terms with the chilling reality of her ancestry.

This concept stuck with me as we visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg (about 20 miles outside of Berlin). As far as the site, the energy was as heavy and ominous as one would imagine. Unfortunately—but perhaps appropriately—we were met with a torrential downpour that soaked us to the bone before we even entered the camp. We diligently rushed through our guided tour, but in all honesty, it was difficult to absorb much more than the rain (I swear my hoodie weighed 50 pounds and was dripping wet by the time we left the first building). It seemed fitting that we were experiencing this place of immeasurable suffering feeling completely and utterly miserable. One thing I can say is that many of us had a hard time wrapping our minds around what could possibly motivate the Nazi soldiers to commit these unspeakable atrocities against such a vulnerable and defenseless (also often innocent) population of political prisoners. As we learned of dehumanizing intake processes, horrifying strategies of torture and execution, painful medical experiments carried out on children, and the practice of gross forced labor, I began to realize that this may be what has inspired the German’s to remain so committed to this culture of memorializing history. For generations removed it does no good to sit around feeling guilty, so they are instead implored to act. Implored to take responsibility for acknowledging the traumas of their collective past in a respectful manner so that history won’t repeat itself.

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Feeling like a bunch of wet dogs, we couldn’t wait to get back to Berlin and our nice warm beds. I felt like I had jumped into a lake fully clothed by the time we got onto the bus. 20-minutes later, I actually did have to jump into knee-deep water because we were kicked off the bus due to a flash-flood that made the nightly news. As water started seeping into the public bus, 50-odd passengers were forced to evacuate into 3-feet of standing water on the streets of Oranienburg—a town our group had absolutely no familiarity with. After sloshing down a block, we took refuge in a vocational school on high ground. Luckily the janitor took pity on us and allocated a classroom in the empty building where we were welcome to wait out the storm. A few hours later, we finally made it back to the train station; a few days later, my shoes still aren’t dry.

*All photos from my personal collection