Some Final Thoughts on the 2016 #FemGeniusesInBerlin

By Claudia Harrison

IMG_0094Our last Friday morning was especially colorful. The FemGenuises met in a familiar setting, Mauerpark, for a Graffiti workshop with Berlin Massive. Our instructor, Pekor Gonzles, gave us a little history lesson before we began. Mauerpark translates to “Wall Park,” so called because the site was formerly part of the Berlin Wall, specifically its Death Strip. “Right here was where you got shot,” Gonzales recounted about the once heavily-guarded area. Today, the Mauerpark is one of the city’s green spaces, very popular with young people. We had experienced this for ourselves the Sunday before, lying in the field next to the Mauerpark Flea Market, where we saw lots of people our age laughing, playing basketball, and picnicking in the grass. Often, performers take advantage of the laid-back setting, and the amphitheater’s karaoke draws large crowds every Sunday afternoon.

Graffiti is now legal on this remaining strip of wall, which is covered in bright, beautiful designs that change from day to day. Still, while Berlin has come to be known for its graffiti, Gonzales explained that it is still considered a young movement. The oldest people he knows who participate are around forty-five. This is because modern graffiti, popularized in the subways of New York City in the 1960s, did not really appear in Berlin until the late 1970s. He also tells us that graffiti culture has always been competitive, with artists writing over each other striving to create the largest, boldest tags. But it has also been inclusive. Anyone with talent can have their works recognized. For example, as Simon Arms writes in “The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene,” the first graffiti artists in Germany “weren’t ‘real’ Berliners, but outsiders: draft resisters, anarchist punks and Turkish migrants. They either opened businesses or formed squats and, with no resistance from the West German government, began turning walls into monuments to their own thoughts and beliefs.”

IMG_0124Because graffiti is largely anonymous, it can be used as a sort of secret code between the artist and her community. Thierry Noir is thought to be one of the first to do this, using the Berlin Wall as a canvas for his cartoonish creations. Influenced by classic painters such as Pablo Picasso, as well as pop-culture icons like Lou Reed and David Bowie, Noir left colorful, blocky images that represented the resistance to the dark shadows cast by the Cold War. Noir and Christophe-Emmanuel Bouchet began painting in April 1984 and continued without pause until “the fall” in November 1989. In “Thierry Noir: The First Graffiti Artist Fired Up by the Berlin Wall,” Jonathan Jones writes, “The end of the Wall in 1989 was a sunny day for humanity. But in its monstrous strangeness, this scar running through a city had provided artists, novelists, musicians and film-makers with a dark subject matter and surreal inspiration so often lacking in the safe, consumerist world of the postwar democracies.” Traces of his work are still visible at the East Side Gallery of the Wall.

Graffiti has historically reflected the fringes of a community, voicing their concerns and forcing the minorities in control to listen to the majority. The goal of this re-purposed stretch of the Berlin Wall was to “make something against racism and for equality,” Gonzales told us. He added, “We are trying to create something accessible to everybody to improve the city.” Since street art originated in the inner city, it has a long multi-cultural background and has often contained anti-racist messages, used to transform spaces from oppressive to liberating for the people within. Its non-traditional form gives it more room for innovation than other art forms as well as inviting deep contemplation. Along these lines, according to Arms, modern street artist Mein Lieber Prost, “positions his characters to look like they are taking in their surroundings, laughing aloud at something happening right at that moment. It is natural, then, on seeing Prost’s characters pointing at them, for people to wonder what the joke is, asking themselves: is it me? Each character forces passersby to question their surroundings and (hopefully, if they don’t want to leave paranoid) to find a satisfactory answer.”

IMG_0173After hearing the history of street art in Berlin, it was thrilling to try it for ourselves. Gonzales gave us a brief tutorial on how to hold the cans of spray paint, and cloaked in protective ponchos, masks, and gloves, we went straight to work. Although I do think I improved by the end of the session, graffiti is much harder than it looks. Getting a clear, straight line requires a swift, steady hand that always knows exactly where to go next. Gonzales’ talent and style after years of experience was fascinating to watch. When showing us how to make a letter he drew a magnificent “S,” shrugged and said, “This is just the classic kind of flourish an artist would add to a letter, but I’m sure you can get more creative than that.” Afterwards, he outlined the entire background in thirty seconds. Each of us had our own letter to design and lots of background to fill in. Without trying, our piece came together as a rainbow of color.

For our design, the FemGeniuses semi-ironically decided to paint the phrase “Stay Woke” adorned with a hash tag and two large exclamation points to give each student their own letter or symbol to paint. Behind the rainbow letters are purple clouds and rain, a tribute to Prince, who died this past April. His legacy as a musician, defying traditional conventions of race, gender, and sexuality, is one we were all excited to honor.  Underneath the clouds are pieces of a broken island with the ground underneath revealed to be multi-colored. We never discussed the exact symbolism of the piece, but it lends itself to the interpretation of the passer-by. On either side are the designs of Chase and AJ Lewis, two emerging artists with very different styles. The design turned out beautifully, in large part thanks to Pekor’s finishing touches, and we were all in awe of the result. To think, the FemGeniuses of 2016 have our own section of the Berlin Wall! By next year, the message will be entirely painted over but the layers of paint remain a part of the wall itself along with so many others.

IMG_0192 (2)In the evening we gathered at the docks for our final farewell cruise. Dressing up, for the first time since our group dinner on the first Monday of class, gave the whole trip the kind of circular feel that I relish, and everyone seemed relaxed and happy once again. On the boat, we talked, laughed, and reminisced in between a few facts delivered intermittently by the automated tour’s loudspeaker. Over fruity summer cocktails, we watched the sun go down and cool breeze set in, and I relished the bittersweet feeling of knowing I’d never be in Berlin for the same reason or with the same people ever again. I thought back to some of my favorite moments:

Having met so many brave, intelligent, passionate people in the last few weeks, I am inspired to try to be more heroic in my own life. On this trip I’ve learned that fighting oppression requires determination and the ability to think critically about one’s society but most of all it requires heart. Building communities out of compassion and empathy is essential for the well-being of humanity and ourselves. I leave Berlin knowing that my experiences here and the people I’ve made connections with will fuel a lifetime of activism.

2016 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Also, click here to view a slideshow of the course.

Introducing the 2016 #FemGeniusesInBerlin” by Heidi R. Lewis
The Ghost of the Third Reich: Educating Ourselves about Berlin” by Ivy Wappler
The Wall” by Nitika Reddy
Difference is Key: Audre Lorde and Afro-Germans” by Amy Valencia
Jewish History Walking Tour” by Amanda Cahn
Katharina Oguntoye and the Joliba Intercultural Network” by Grace Montesano
Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years” by Cheanna Gavin
Marketing Narratives and Misplacing Others: Queer Berlin Tour” by Amelia Eskenazi
Generation ADEFRA 2.0: How Creativity & Collectivity Intersect” by Alejandra Hernandez
Queer Spaces and Clubbing Culture in Berlin” by Claudia Harrison
Activism: To the Blogosphere and Beyond!” by Lila Schmitz
Little Istanbul: Our Walking Tour through Kreuzberg” by Amy Valencia
Witnessing Powerful Art: A Conversation with the Editors of Winter Shorts” by Ivy Wappler
Superqueeroes at the Schwules* Museum” by Grace Montesano
Hidden and Recovered Narratives: Women in the Center of Berlin Tour” by Amelia Eskenazi
Our Second Weekend in Berlin” by Amanda Cahn
Beware of the Street Signs: The Hidden Realities of Colonialism in Berlin” by Baheya Malaty
Reaching Out in the Fight against Violence” by Alejandra Hernandez
Building a Community of Voices from Silence” by Lila Schmitz
Empowerment, or Help as Needed” by Nitika Reddy
Challenging the Discourse of ‘Ally’” by Cheanna Gavin
The Power of Our Own Spaces: A Conversation on Colonialism and Belonging with Iris Rajanayagam, Melody Ledwon, and Mona El Omari” by Baheya Malaty

To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here


HarrisonClaudia Harrison is a senior ClassicsHistoryPolitics major from Washington, D.C. Her second day of college, she decided to spend the next four years trying to understand all of human history and thought. While she’s still actively failing at this task, she believes taking her first Feminist and Gender Studies class this summer may be a step in the right direction. In her free time, she can be found reading obsessively, over-analyzing TV shows, and boring her friends with useless facts about everything.

Reaching Out in the Fight against Violence

By Alejandra Hernandez

IMG_0613It felt incredibly strange making my way to Kruezburg this morning.  As we approach the end of our third and final week in Berlin, I finally feel comfortable navigating the city without needing my GPS every five minutes. The thought of leaving Berlin soon is baffling to me.

As the U-Bahn left the station, we made our way down from the Kotbusser Tor platform and headed to ReachOut. As the class trickled up the stairwell, Biblap Basu opened the front doors of ReachOut to greet us. We gathered around a table where he started with an introduction of his work with civil rights. Basu is from India and has lived in Germany since 1979. As a university student both in India and Germany, he has always been involved in civil rights work. In 1984, Basu began to examine how racism manifests in Germany. In the 1990s, there was a great increase in the number of attacks against communities of color. By the end of the 1990s, the government decided to start a program in response to the growing attacks; thus was the inception of ReachOut in 2000.

ReachOutIMG_0643 is an organization that offers counseling to victims of right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic, or racist violence in Berlin. Additionally, because it is funded by the state, these counseling services offered by ReachOut are free. As one of its founding members, Basu explained how ReachOut was the first program that focused its work on victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Basu works as a counselor at ReachOut. To give us an idea of what ReachOut does for the community, Basu delved into what counseling work entails for him. Counseling connects you with people. “It becomes intimate,” exclaimed Basu. You build relationships with communities and form networks. First and foremost, he emphasized the importance of listening to victims’ stories. Furthermore, Basu talked about listening to the stories of these victims without judgment. “Give victims the feeling and confidence of ‘I believe you!’” Working with vulnerable populations, such as victims of violence, requires a tremendous amount of physical and emotional work.

As I watched Basu light up as he spoke about the work he does, it is evident how people within counseling need to be compassionate and authentic with their clients. For example, ReachOut makes great strides to ensure that victims of violence who come in to seek help are not pushed along from one organization’s door to another. As a counselor, Basu makes it clear that he is working with victims. He expressed, “Let people understand that they are not beggars. They have the right to this service.” This phrase stuck with me the most. He wants them to know that they are in control of their own lives. They took the first steps by seeking counseling, and will continue to decide for themselves what they would like to do not only throughout this process but throughout their lives. In this way, ReachOut seeks to empower victims and restore agency.

IMG_0642Over the course of the next few years, Basu took note of the discrepancies between the legal actions taken for victims of police violence in comparison to that of other groups of victims who have experienced violence. As he pointed out, “Victims of police violence are not believed.” Further, victims of police violence receive little aid and often get treated as perpetrators. For instance, in 2002, a victim of police brutality came into ReachOut seeking counseling. As Basu recounted this man’s story, everyone in the room could see the many stark parallels between police brutality in the United States and Germany. ReachOut continued to work on this case but soon realized just how poorly funded their organization was. As a result, ReachOut began a legal aid fund in efforts to raise money to hire advocates and aid in the court processes. However, as in most social justice work, raising money alone was not sufficient. It was evident to Basu that these people were clearly victims of racial violence. Even with the work they were pursuing, moving forward proved to be a challenge with the lack of acknowledgement of racial violence throughout the society. As Audre Lorde points out in the foreword to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, “To successfully battle the many faces of institutionalized racial oppression, we must share the strengths of each other’s visions as well as the weaponries born of particular experience. First, we must recognize each other” (ix). Along these lines, the words of Dr. Maisha Eggers rang through my head, “If you’re dealing with oppression…there is no way you are going to do that in a place of isolation.” Working as a collective creates a space in which dialogues can be started. In such spaces, collectively allows for reflection and the formation of language of one’s experiences. ReachOut came to the realization that the public needed to be informed about the injustices that victims of institutional violence face.

In 2004, the term “racial profiling” was introduced into German public discourse. A speaker from the Institute of Race Relations came to Germany to speak to the public about what racial profiling is. However, Basu recounted how at the end of the talk, no one in the audience had any questions, which, as he reflected upon it today, came as no surprise. How could people begin to understand racial profiling with such a lack of awareness and recognition of racial violence as a problem? Along these lines, even in 2012, a young Black German boy was traveling on a train when he was approached by police officers who asked to see his ID. As in many instances across both Germany and the United States, when the young boy asked for the reasoning behind the senseless request, he was met with hostility from the police officers. Despite the evident racial profiling that was committed by the police officers, the courts dismissed his complaints and ruled that skin color was reasonable grounds on which to carry out ID checks. Hearing about this case brought to mind the term “person with a migration background.” Basu explained how many people of color are often asked to show their IDs by police officers because they are profiled as migrants. As Sharon Dodua Otoo points out in Winter Shorts,

“[The term ‘person with a migration background’] is rarely used to describe certain white non-Germans- I think white US Americans for example do not feel addressed by it. On the other hand, people who were born and raised in Germany, and who do not look white, are often labeled as having a ‘migration background’ (15-16).

Earlier in our conversation, Basu pointed out how up until the mid-1990s racism wasn’t a term used in Germany.  Basu also exclaimed how many people in Germany cannot fathom how racism could exist within institutions such as the police administration. There continues to be a great consensus in Germany believing that racism no longer exist; racism ended alongside with the National Socialism era. Instead, many people argue that there is a great fear of foreigners (xenophobia). For instance, in “Turks in the New Germany,” Jenny B. White writes, “Black means for the whites [:] abroad, foreign, not German. That’s why supposedly in Germany there is no racism, but only hostility to foreigners (Auslander- feindlichkeit)” (760).  This particular case brought an enormous wave of attention to ReachOut because they had been talking about racial profiling long before the case. As a result, film director Riccardo Valsecchi sought a collaboration with ReachOut on a film he wanted to create following the 2012 sentence in Germany. Subsequently, ID-Without Colors was released in 2013. Initially, the film was denied entry into several film festivals, especially in Germany. However, it is now being circulated internationally and continues to receive recognition.

IMG_0644Today, ReachOut continues to counsel victims of violence, as well as, works to develop strategies to study and eradicate police violence. Basu was excited to introduce an Android app in development that will allow for users to record incidents of violence. The app also logs the user’s location using GPS and takes pictures of anyone who incorrectly inputs the phone password. Both the audio and video that is recorded is immediately saved every minute and sent to the user’s Cloud so they are not at risk of losing footage if their phones are confiscated or destroyed. ReachOut is also seeking ways to record every confrontation police officers make, which include confrontations that do not result in charges. In this way, records and statistics can be gathered to help further study cases of institutional violence. While ReachOut has made and continues to make a great impact within marginalized communities, Basu has also acknowledged ways in which ReachOut can improve its services for the community. More specifically, Basu voiced the need for ReachOut to begin to look at incidents of institutional violence through an intersectional lens. Until recently, there has been little focus on how women and trans people are affected in different ways by institutional violence. Still, there is no denying how crucial the work Basu and ReachOut have completed within marginalized German communities. As the conversation began to wrap up, we were able to reflect on how far ReachOut has come but also be conscious of the work within this social justice movement that needs to be done. Basu’s passion for his work radiated throughout the room. Being able to hear from and talk to people and groups in Berlin, such as Basu at ReachOut has been infinitely inspiring. Once again, I am incredibly appreciative of the chance to be able to enter these spaces while in Berlin; it has been a humbling experience.


HernandezAlejandra Hernandez is a rising junior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies. She is also on the Pre-Medicine track, and is planning to attend medical school. She was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she learned to love reading and dancing to Latin music. While in Berlin, she is excited to explore and learn about different cultures and communities.

Generation ADEFRA 2.0: How Creativity & Collectivity Intersect

By Alejandra Hernandez

Snapchat-5079425247840860259Waking up this morning was surprisingly not as difficult as I had thought it would be. I willed myself to stay awake yesterday despite all of the naps I almost took while riding the U-Bahn. As I reflect on my first week in Berlin, I am baffled by how much history and how many narratives I have been given the privilege to hear and learn about. I was particularly excited for today’s class, since we were going to learn more about Generation ADEFRA 2.0. ADEFRA, an organization based in Germany that was created in 1986 by six Black lesbian German women, focuses on the empowerment of Black women. According to Jasmin Eding in “…And I Let Myself Go Wherever I Want To,” the word ADEFRA means “’the woman who shows courage’ in the Ethiopian language, Amharean” (131). In a few words, the organization enables Black women to explore what it means to be Black in a predominantly White German society. The organization has had a tremendous impact on various Black communities in Germany, and I was excited to engage in dialogue with three of its most influential members.

Upon our arrival, Cheanna, Amy, and I were warmly greeted at the door of Begine by Peggy Piesche. Piesche is a Black lesbian women who was born and raised in East Germany, staying, as she put it, “until the bitter end.” Peggy works in education, more specifically in Literature Studies, European Studies, and Diaspora Studies,, among other subjects. As we sat down, the entire class began to trickle into the room. Then came Dr. Maisha Eggers. Eggers was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. She migrated to Germany where she does social work and various forms of education, such as Gender Studies. Finally, Katja Kinder joined our group. Kinder is from Berlin, where she works as a conflict mediator and counselor. She is also a founding member of ADEFRA. With the addition of a couple more chairs, we all sat and began to simply talk to one another.

Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers were all brought together through ADEFRA. As they began to talk about their involvement with the organization, each of these individuals expressed a lack of language they felt before they found ADEFRA. ADEFRA flourished into a safe space for Black women and gender non-conforming individuals. They each emphasized how vital it was and continues to be to come together as a collective and work from a creative space in order to define who they are on their own terms by creating safe spaces, sharing knowledge and experiences, and articulating these knowledges and experiences. For example, both Piesche and Kinder shared with the group how, as lesbian Black women, they had to come out in many ways. Additionally, Eggers expressed how difficult it was for her believing she was one of few Black woman in Germany. ADEFRA became a space in which they could begin to create language that allowed them to define and explore their intersectional identities. Kinder recalled during the inception of ADEFRA how members searched the street for Black women, handing out hand-made flyers and encouraging these women to attend meetings by word of mouth.

20160610_015808Thirty years later, the room I now sat in, still remains a safe place for these Black women of Germany. As they shared their stories, I felt incredibly privileged and honored to have been invited into the physical meeting place where ADEFRA holds their meetings. Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers recounted the challenges of being Black in a White society, particularly during the 1980’s. Along these lines, Kinder also explained how the building next door remains a living space exclusively for lesbian women. Over the course of the past week, we have continually heard about the isolation that many Black Germans experienced, especially in 1980s Germany. While I could in no way begin to comprehend what it must have felt like to grow up being completely isolated, I can identify with the need for a safe space. At a predominately white institutions, such as Colorado College, many of my peers who identify as women of color and I have found it tremendously difficult to claim a safe space that is our own. I never imagined how emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting isolation could be. On that note, Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers stressed the importance of coming together collectively. As Eggers stated, “If you are dealing with oppression…there is no way you are going to do that in a place of isolation.” Thus, collective spaces play an important role in the creation of languages. Through these created languages, marginalized groups are able to define themselves and their experiences. However, with the creation of language comes the danger of it being consumed by mainstream culture. Along these lines, Kinder warned, “It is not me anymore as soon as it goes mainstream.” Thus, these safe spaces are imperative to members in communities to connect with one another and keep these languages and images of themselves. In this way, a collective and creative space can lead to collective reflection. Further, as ADEFRA continues to thrive, it has become a multi-generational organization. Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers lovingly call themselves the “queer aunts” of ADEFRA.

We later delved into a conversation about heteronormativity, a creation of colonialism. Piesche discussed how queerness has been “cannibalized” by the white world, which replaces itself as the original. People of color, who identify as queer, are then looked at in surprise because we come from “backward” cultures, when, in reality, Eggers pointed out how these intersectional histories have always been here. Here, I was reminded of Eggers explanation of the difference between sharing knowledge and sharing information. In “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” Eggers writes, “Referencing knowledges that are being produced away from (and outside of) the hegemonic center of the West is a further advance in the project of decolonization” (13). There has been an erasure and white washing of queer histories within communities of colors, which has worked to further silence us. As the “queer aunts,” Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers explain how ADEFRA is a “collective archive of queer Black knowledge.” They conveyed how it is important for them to allow for younger generations to find themselves on their own however, they also expressed the want to be there for them to share their language and experiences.

As the dialogue carried on, the group began to speak about how identity and knowledge is articulated. Both Piesche and Eggers shared how writing themselves into existence and reading it is crucial to a community. For Eggers, reading about how other black women dealt with their oppressions helped pull her out of her isolation. Writing makes her feel that is no longer alone. Piesche stressed the importance of not just looking at different genres but also different formats of writing is important, such as poetry. However, Kinder didn’t express these sentiments; “No I don’t have to be in any book, I don’t want to be in history…we exist, period.” She critiques the articulation of knowledge and identity through books as limiting. “We have so many books, but we still have all of this oppression…we need to think about much more than just books.” Though Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers had different standpoints on this topic, they emphasized that storytelling and sharing experiences is, nonetheless, powerful. In “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” Eggers also explains,

Sharing knowledge is perceived to entail a deeper commitment than merely consuming information. It involves engaging deeply with the power-critical analyses produced in everyday contexts. Within a critical pedagogy of decolonization, access to alternative knowledges can deeply influence action and the direction of social movement work (13).

ADEFRA’s activism is based on creating an informal, easy-going space where Black women and gender non-conforming individuals can meet each other where knowledge is shared rather than information. In the foreword to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, Audre Lorde writes, “In the interest of all of our survivals and the survival of our children, these Black German Women claim their color and their voices” (xiv). ADEFRA plays a crucial role in the community for Black German women and gender non-conforming individuals.

IMG_0289 (2)Sadly, the class had to come to an end. I leaned back in my chair dazed by how incredible the conversation had gone. Meeting with members of ADEFRA and hearing their narratives was surreal after having read about them. As I said goodbye and headed down the stairs, I couldn’t help but think about collectivity and creativity. There are days when I think I can do everything on my own; I am strong. But what is so wrong about coming together? I thought of the ways in which I identify and how I think and move in creative ways. Kinder said, “Whatever is normative kills us because we live in a creative space.” Identity should be defined on your own terms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on your own.


HernandezAlejandra Hernandez is a rising junior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies. She is also on the Pre-Medicine track, and is planning to attend medical school. She was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she learned to love reading and dancing to Latin music. While in Berlin, she is excited to explore and learn about different cultures and communities.