In the 1970s, Community Organizing was a focus of ASF’s engagement in the US. It became prominent, especially overseas, with President Barack Obama, who had been a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, before he entered politics. In October 2017, former ASF organizers met in Berlin. How they remember their service, what motivated them; where else they became active, for instance running ASF headquarters in Washington, DC—and what remains: How Community Organizing as an overall empowerment tool crossed the Atlantic and enriches German social work today. For the ARSP 50th anniversary, participants of the Berlin Reunion share early experiences and seasoned reflections.
Frustrated and fed up with Germany. This was the general feeling about their home country and the reason to commit themselves to a service in the United States, expressed by many ASF volunteers, who worked as community organizers in US metropolitan areas in the 1970’s.
“Let’s get out of here!” is the title of the report with highlights of this reunion at ASF headquarters in October 2017*. With the generous support of ASF staff, Gerhard Letzing, Christoph Heck and I had invited old colleagues. Some 20 showed up, among them some pensioners already, to chitchat about old and for all participants memorable times, which had shaped in so many ways their lives.
The former volunteers had been raised in postwar Germany and had gone through intolerance, with unpleasant encounters with fellow countrymen who had Nazi biographies, at school or in their own families.
MAKE LOSERS WINNERS
No wonder, had late Hildegard Hamm-Brücher denominated German history between 1945 und 1969 the “Post-Hitler Era”. As a student she had been close to the Nazi resistance group White Rose and later, as an outspoken politician she had become a staunch ASF supporter. Indeed, many Nazi cronies had held important positions in German public life, until Willy Brandt took office in 1969. The chancellor’s slogan to “dare more democracy” and to depart to new shores inspired the young generation, especially ASF volunteers—quite literally.
At the Berlin reunion, many participants remembered their stay in the guest country as a liberation, as compared to the intimidations of Post-Nazi Germany, but they went also through great challenges. To organize the losers of the American dream, non-whites and immigrants, to weigh in on their community and their own destiny was hard work, however rich in personal experiences, which for many was a valuable training ground and a firm rock bed for their adult life and later careers (see also ARSP Anniversary contribution of Roland Zenk).
As to myself, I had completed my alternative service already. I had worked in a German senior citizen home and hospital had done well and even received a nurse’s training. However, at the bottom of my heart I also felt discontent. Was this all? I felt restless, curious and outright hungry to get more deeply involved into societal change.
WARM WELCOME IN CHICAGO
Born in 1951, I had witnessed in 1968 the uprising of the students, but never identified with the protests. I found them too theoretical and ideological, too nerdy. I wanted to learn something creative and practical, so in the fall of 1972 I found myself in an airplane bound to Chicago, where I was going to work as an ASF community organizer for one year.
Almost half a century later, I’m still deeply stirred at the warm welcome in Chicago and by our project, the Southwest Community Congress SCC. Some of the people I met remain close friends and mentors. Our then staff director “Cappy” came to Munich, Bavaria in 2011 and Medellín, Colombia in 2015 to run trainings in community development with sophisticated Chicago knowhow. In Latin America, his sessions zeroed in, highly relevant, on the post-conflict and the peace treaty with the FARC guerilla and satisfied civil society’s search for new organizational instruments.
All in all, what I learned about collective empowerment from our US American partners turned out the most valuable lesson in my life, with more impact than my later studies of communication and political science at the Munich University.
FLOWER POWER AND PEACE
Besides, how exciting were the times we had the privilege to live through, and how disruptive! The early 1970’s, flower power still was a vibrant force, in line with the growing peace movement. The Vietnam War, fueled by Nixon, polarized the country. He was the first US President, who in 1974 resigned due to an unavoidable impeachment because of the Watergate scandal. Meanwhile many young people had escaped as draft dodgers into the Canadian exile, while others returned as traumatized veterans from the battlefields and an unwinnable war in the Far East.
The entire country was caught in trauma. And here we were, the Germans, conscientious objectors (CO’s) of the Post-Hitler era, with two of my companions, Pit and Reinhard doing their alternative service in the United States. In fact, one of our staff consultants had been a WW II pilot and bombed Germany, “but avoided cities”, as he twinkingly clarified.
How mind-boggling our assignment must have been to many US Americans!
Indeed, one morning Mike Royko called the SCC office, one of the country’s most articulate and tart-tongued columnists, author of “Boss”, in which he ruthlessly dismantled Chicago’s almighty head of the Democratic Machine, Richard J. Daley. He asked for an interview with the German COs, but our director politely turned him down.
The three of us shared with two US Americans a dwelling, which became a popular hangout for students of the neighboring Southwest College. One night, they dragged Allen Ginsberg over to the “German’s house” after a lecture. The icon of the famous Beat Generation. He read his poetry in our backyard. Truly unique!
If these were extreme contrasts for so far well-sheltered German high school kids, the contrasts of the United States and Chicago could not have been greater. Only two miles east of the SCC turf, which was a well-kept working-class neighborhood, was one of the most blatant Afro-American ghettos. No white Chicagoan would have dared to set foot there. Fires had erased entire blocks and a popular comment was: “Looks like Berlin after the war.” Until today, Chicago’s South Side is considered the most dangerous area in the US, with many of the 600 to 800 homicides per year in the city committed here.
To top it off, the so-called “changing area” at the eastern fringe, where middle-class Afro-Americans moved in and white Anglos where fleeing from was my first assignment. The strategy was to stabilize it by organizing around security and have police increase patrols. At my first planning meeting in January 1973, my chairperson, a black resident did not show up. He probably was scared of the whites—rightfully so.
Instead, the racists around Father Lawlor, a notorious Chicago city council member, jammed the hall and the German ended up chairing the meeting. I was so nervous that I chain-smoked one Salem menthol cigarette after another. Lucky me that the American Nazi Party had not gotten wind of our meeting. They had their headquarters close-by and campaigned “to ship all negroes back to Africa”. Their “Führer” ostentatiously dressed and spoke like Hitler and came off like his clone.
Later on, Reinhard was sent into the more homogeneous black neighborhood to organize the residents of West Englewood-who were struggling with urban decline-around issues of housing and security, recreation and education. He was outstandingly successful to the point that even Jesse Jackson, respected nation-wide black leader, took notice of sisters and brothers in Chicago standing up to demand their fair share of public and governmental services.
MID-WESTERN HIGH NOON
The struggles for power, between the haves and have-nots, across the dividing lines of discrimination, poverty and corruption (see also Gerhard Letzing’s ARSP Anniversary contribution): In many ways Chicago had remained a “Jungle”, title of Upton Sinclair’s world literature classic. Undeniably, a bit of Al Capone and Mid-Western high noon was still in the air.
A pretty toxic cocktail, but it blew my socks off, so after completion of my one-year contract with ASF and after three boring months back in my hometown Kiel I quickly hurried back and carried on, independently of Action Reconciliation, as a community organizer for another three years.
I served Catholic Charities/St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Chicago the Uptown, a rare mixture of affluent Lake Front residents and in their view “social riff-raff”, failed from all walks of life. With the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs JCUA we forged a Welfare Coalition and an Alliance of Senior Citizens. Thereafter I organized Latins, among them illegal “wet backs” from Mexico in San Francisco’s Mission District. In retrospect, I remain deeply impressed with the stern commitment of US American churches to social equality and peace, their fundraising efforts and provision of leadership for this purpose, no matter which denomination—chapeau!
Today I very gratefully receive a US pension of monthly 31 US$—but what counts: The idea of empowerment, to give civil society and underdogs of all sorts a voice has remained a strong motivator throughout my life.
STRONG TRANSATLANTIC BONDS—CONGRATS!
I became a science journalist and found my role in a watchdog niche. To report not only opportunities, but also alert about the risks of modern research and technology, which meanwhile drives our lives more than politics—for better or worse. As a strategy, we invented science debates where lay people participate in decision-making processes about science, which I baptized “applied community organizing in science”.
I have initiated development and voluntary projects in Colombia, where I have residency. For 20 years now, I have contributed to the self-help movement in Munich, with a current drive for a German-wide anxiety self-help organization and to create an efficient lobby for mental health concerns. As I am writing this, I travel through New Zealand, after a conference of science communicators at Otago University in Dunedin, where I introduced top-down moderation techniques. Now, at age 67, I remain as curious and restless as ever. Seems like organizing against the status-quo has become my DNA.
ARSP, Action Reconciliation Service for Peace: Happy anniversary, on behalf of so many of us! We are immensely proud that we are part of you, our best of luck and many more years to come of engagement and building strong transatlantic bonds between the USA and Germany, with innovative and people-uniting projects. We need them, more than ever!
Wolfgang Chr. Goede, Volunteer 1972/73 Community Organizing SCC, Chicago, IL., international science journalist.
*) ASF Zeichen, Nr. 3/Winter 2017, S. 25 „Nur raus!“, https://www.asf-ev.de/fileadmin/Redaktion/Dateien/Publikationen/Zeitschrift_zeichen/zeichen_2017/zeichen_3_2017_web.pdf