Building a Community of Voices from Silence

By Lila Schmitz

SUSI Blog 1On the first day of summer, the streets of Berlin transform into stages, housing artists of a multitude of disciplines and genres for the Fête de la Musique. Around 5 pm yesterday, I found myself plopped down on the sidewalk outside RosaCaleta, a restaurant some of my classmates have been raving about since day two of our trip. Somehow, I aimlessly ended up outside the restaurant, watching the performances on the cobblestone sidewalk. With a stroke of luck I had yet to encounter in my nights out in Berlin so far, the attendees were mostly young and, seemingly, mostly queer.

The artists that I saw perform were primarily women of color, and the feeling in the air was that of hesitancy to pass judgment and liberty to dance like nobody’s watching. One of the performances was a voguing troupe and after their choreographed performance, they opened the “runway” for anyone who wanted to take the stage, giving the spotlight to those who might not have that opportunity often. Originating as an art form to illuminate those who wish to come out of the shadows, voguing, a series of poses that could be found in Vogue magazine linked together with music, was created in the New York Black drag ballroom scene, as I learned after watching Paris is Burning. Yet, when I try to find a hyperlink for a proper definition, each website silences its exact origins, claiming rather that voguing originated in the “New York gay scene” or “African-American ballrooms.” Along these lines, another performer, a German slam-poet, recited: “White supremacy gives daily racial injustice its supremacy.” As I wandered away to ingest two scoops of ice cream before dinner, the sun began to dip behind the buildings, and the party was just getting started with a reggae beat padding the way.

SUSI 4The following morning, we visited the incredibly inspiring Biplab Basu at ReachOut. After, we made our way to RosaCaleta to introduce Heidi and Dana to the delicious Jamaican food and beautiful setting. We ate outside, where yesterday the faux stage housed so many passionate performers. I munched on a juicy portabella sandwich, and after forgetting ourselves in the delicious tastes and relaxed conversation for a moment, we scurried to our next stop, SUSI: Interkulturelles Frauenzentrum (Intercultural Women’s Center). We ran up the endless flights of stairs and made it (a bit sweaty and slightly tardy) to meet Jamile da Silva e Silva.

Silva ushered us into the center, where she provided an array of drinks and snacks in a magnificently warm welcome. She began by apologizing for her English, which I’ve noticed seems to be a trend among the folks we’ve been meeting. How have we gotten to a place where our hosts apologize to us for not speaking perfect English when we all know so little German? I love that I am able to communicate with so many people, but like many things recently, I’m realizing how much of this language connection I’ve been taking for granted. Next, Silva told us that she was born in Brazil, so she speaks Portuguese and German fluently, while also being able to deliver our entire presentation in English. Yet, she is apologizing to us?

SUSI Blog 2Next, Silva shared that S.U.S.I. is a gathering place, a counseling center, a cultural network, and a voice in the community. Women gather in the beautiful rooms to cook meals that smell like home and deliberate on their activism. In those same rooms, they can find counseling in seventeen different languages, because as we’ve learned, immigration can be particularly traumatizing for women. Hence, having psychological and social counseling in their first language can significantly change their quality of life and mental well-being for these women. S.U.S.I. also provides a continual cultural and political educational program, using panels, classes, lectures, and art to bring awareness to racism, sexism, and other relevant issues.

Silva explains that in the 1990s racism in Berlin became “much clearer.” Due to the fall of the wall in 1989, Germans felt themselves united from east to west and therefore rejected all those who did not fit this new “unified” community, primarily excluding migrants and people appearing to have a “migration background.” Contract workers were deserted, and papers were voided. One of many groups affected was that of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese migrants, who were deported, being torn away from jobs that had promised consistency. Throughout the country, “antiforeigner violence” flourished, and, according to Wolfgang Kil and Hilary Silver in “From Kreuzberg to Marzahn: New Migrant Communities in Berlin,” in 1992 and 1993, fifty to 100 racist attacks a day were reported in Germany (107). Silva refered to “much clearer” racism, and yet even with numbers like this, these stories are continually silenced by the mainstream German narrative about history, culture, and politics. As for people who are German and yet still suffer from “antiforeigner violence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo and Clementine Burnley explain in the Introduction to Winter Shorts that in Germany:

“‘Person with a migration background’ is a euphemism. It 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.’ Well I did migrate to Germany – I come from the UK. But dominant German society does not have this in mind when my migration background becomes of relevance” (15-16).

IMG_0615Along these lines, many Black German women have specifically told us that they are still spoken to in English even after their lips produce perfect German. Last night at RosaCaleta, a spoken-word poet did her entire set before speaking in German, and when she did, those that understood German laughed with surprise. She then explained to them that although she is Black, she is German, an astounding revelation even for some gathered in such a diverse setting. Similarly, in Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, May (Opitz) Ayim argues, “Because [‘hyphenated Germans’] appear to be foreigners they are most often treated as such—as people who do not really belong in this country” (136-7). As for the people who actually do immigrate, they are definitely not treated as though they belong in Germany. In an investigation of homophobic hate crimes in “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” Jin Haritaworn finds that migrants are specifically targeted and “destined for incarceration” (71). Haritaworn determines that migrants are disproportionately imprisoned for homophobic hate crimes because of the detachment from homophobia that this allows for Germans. By throwing the homophobic accusations onto a different “other,” Germany is able to contrive a homonationalist narrative, while demonizing migrants and masking the xenophobia and racism.

When the narrative constantly attacks, migrants need spaces to find emotional and psychological support. S.U.S.I. is unique in its specified attention given to migrant women, and while there are women’s centers sprinkled throughout Berlin, Silva shares that she is part of the only international one. Yet even with its precarious position as the only center serving multitudes of migrant women, S.U.S.I. is not granted any full-time employees. Silva and her four colleagues are salaried for no more than 30 hours per week, and three of these five core members have to reapply to the state for their positions every two years. Additionally, Silva shares that the counselors cannot thrive on what ends up being basically volunteer work due to the minimal compensation the state provides. Yet, there are twenty-five counselors who speak up to five languages each currently practicing and giving their time to S.U.S.I.

SUSI Blog 3“How do you stay resilient in this work?” Heidi asks, referring to the constant bureaucratic battles. “Well for the others it is probably different, but I would do this work regardless [of the pay],” Jamile begins. Before working with migrant women, she was particularly active in the Black rights movement here, and she also cites her days at university, where she acquired a Master’s degree in Gender Studies, not a subject area with which the members of this class are unfamiliar. She also adds, “I believe it’s going to change.” In the foreword to Showing Our Colors, Audre Lorde writes, “The essence of a truly global feminism is the recognition of connection.” Later, she notes, “The first steps in examining these connections are to identify ourselves, to recognize each other, and to listen carefully to each other’s stories” (xiii, xiv). As humans, we need each other; we need connection for solidarity and support. Racism and sexism serve to isolate and disempower the “other.” Jamile and her colleagues at S.U.S.I. are fighting against the desertion and disregard of migrants by striving to create community. They are fighting for change, and no matter how small the steps, they continue, one at a time, forward. After all, they’re in quite good company, surrounded by artists and in the footsteps of Audre Lorde.


Lila IILila Schmitz is majoring in Film and Media Studies and minoring in Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She’s going to be starting her second year at CC and third year of college in the fall. She’s enjoyed getting involved with CC theater and a capella (Ellement!), as well as tripping and sweating her way through intramural sports. This summer she’s lucky enough to get to do some gallivanting on the European continent, where you can often find her in a park (photographed in Tiergarten) with that very notebook. Important note: She does not usually look so serious, but rather was trying to figure out how to draw a chin and ended up with this photographic chin display.

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Some Final Thoughts on the 2014 #FemGeniusesInBerlin

Celine and I

Celine and I during the Farewell Dinner at TV Tower

Writing this was especially difficult. As a result, I’m so thankful that I asked the students to write blogs throughout our time in Berlin so that you all could follow our journey as it was happening. It was wonderful. Dreamy. Exciting. Adventurous. I could go on and on, but I’ll just say that I don’t think I could have asked for a better experience teaching abroad for the first time.

I do want to “say” that, with the help of our Course Assistant and my new ace Celine Barry and Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück, I’ve decided to change the title of the course in order to more accurately communicate its goals and objectives. The course will now be titled “Hidden Spaces, Hidden Narratives: Intersectionality Studies in Berlin.” During our course, we studied the experiences of Afro-German women, migrants and refugees in Berlin, victims of Neo-Nazi terrorism and police brutality, and LGBTQI communities, to name a few. We also embarked on tours that provided information based on official, state-sanctioned narratives of Berlin so that we could juxtapose them with tours that provided information about the narratives that are often hidden from tourists on the beaten path. This change does not mean the course will radically change, but this new title will better articulate what we actually did in Berlin. I don’t know if I’ll be able to teach the course again – this depends on whether or not my proposal is accepted by the Summer Sessions Committee – but I have high hopes.

FemGeniuses Late

The FemGeniuses figuring out how not to be late! Just kidding – figuring out dinner!

Speaking of high hopes, I had high hopes that this group of students wouldn’t disappoint. I think I had such high hopes and expectations, because I know 5 of the 9 students who came with me to Berlin. Those 5 had taken at least 2 courses with me, and most have decided to either major or minor in Feminist & Gender Studies. So, we know each other pretty well. I had also received strong recommendations for the other 4 students, so I didn’t imagine that they’d cause any trouble. Well, I was 99.8% right. I only had to “discipline” the students 3 times – twice during the first week, once during the second, and none during the last week. These things were pretty minor, though, if you ask me: a bit of tardiness, a bit of over-eager loudness, and a bit of inappropriate silliness. I honestly don’t think I need to make any major changes to the course in order to mitigate such issues. Sometimes, these things just happen. Regarding attendance and tardiness, though, I did have a policy that students couldn’t miss more than 2 sessions (not days) without being penalized; however, I didn’t have a tardy policy. The students who were late quite a bit on the first two days were not malicious, but students have to realize – at some point or another – that timeliness is important. I was a few minutes lates myself a couple times – Mercury was in retrograde, after all – but I was never late to a session during which I had asked someone to give their time and energy to our course. I don’t want to seriously hurt a student for honest mistakes, only to communicate the importance of respecting the time and energy of themselves and others. As for the loudness and silliness, I’ll handle that as it comes. No big deal, really.

There are a couple other things I want to change, too, but not in response to anything that went wrong. For example, I think I could implement discussion points in this course as I do in all of my courses. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why I didn’t. I must say that many of the folks we interacted with in Berlin were impressed by the students, as was I. And even though I don’t want to spend a lot of time grading in Berlin or even after I return home, I want to have the opportunity to evaluate student discussion so that I can help them maintain their strengths and improve their weaknesses. Our new friends in Berlin were also impressed by the great questions the students asked. I was, too. Most people who know me pedagogically know that I value good questions almost as much as anything else. So, I also think that I may ask students to develop discussion questions for each of our sessions ahead of time, like I do normally, so that I can help them craft their question-asking skills and also to acknowledge when they do so effectively. We actually did that in preparation for our first guest, Ika Hügel-Marshall, but we didn’t keep it up. We will next time. I’ll also do a better job evaluating the student blogs and student peer reviews of said blogs. I basically made revisions/edits to the blogs as I was posting them and quickly reviewed the peer reviews so that I could post the blogs promptly. In the future, however, I want to take some time to give salient feedback on the blogs so that students know what they should improve. This brings me to another significant change, “Just Us Mondays.” On Monday mornings, I want to spend time with the students for a few hours discussing all of these things, debriefing sessions, and preparing for upcoming sessions. We’ll follow that up with a group lunch before heading to one of our tours. I think they’ll like that, and so will I.

Frauenkreise

Me and the Frauenkreise Team: Iris, Nina, and Gabi

While our course was “jam packed” with seminars, tours, and visits to important sites in Berlin, that’s not going to change. We’re in Berlin for just 3 weeks, and there is so much to see and do. We aren’t there just to lounge around. We’re there to learn as much as we possibly can. And to be honest, I had more “chill time” than I even expected, so that’s pretty cool. That’s another reason why things were jam packed. We had mandatory sessions each morning and afternoon most weekdays so that we all could have our weekends free to roam the city, hang out with new friends, and things of that nature. On that note, I actually did the math. My regular classes at CC total around 58-59 hours. Our class totaled around 61-62 hours. I think that’s sufficient. I want my students to have the best, most-rewarding experience possible. And really, I want them and/or whoever is financially supporting their experience, to feel that the money was well-spent. Like I once said during the course, “If you wanted to come to Berlin to just do whatever, you could have done that on your own dime and for less money.”

At this point, I’ll note that our sessions at Frauenkreise were open to the public. That also won’t change. It was great meeting other folks in Berlin interested in intersectionality studies, and our open sessions helped us do that. The only problem is that our sessions were held at 9 am, so most folks in Berlin couldn’t attend due to their jobs. However, so that the students and I may have our evenings to roam, that’ll likely stay the same, too. The only thing I’m considering is starting the sessions at 10 am rather than 9 am. Most of our morning sessions lasted approximately 90-120 minutes. So, if we start at 10 am, that’ll leave us enough time to have lunch and head to our afternoon sessions at 2 pm, which will allow us to end our days around 3:30 or 4 pm. Of course, things don’t always go as planned – most of the time that means sessions run a little longer than planned – but I think this “new” schedule will work well, given what I learned this first time.

Carolyn

Carolyn Gammon, Katharina Oguntoye, Me, and Gabi Zekina (Frauenkreise)

Earlier, I wrote that we enjoyed juxtaposing official, state-sanctioned narratives about Berlin and Germany – via tours – with narratives about Berlin and Germany that are often hidden from tourists on the beaten path. Well, I was happy to learn about two other tours that will help us with the latter. During a non-mandatory session at Frauenkreise, I met Carolyn Gammon, author of The Unwritten Diary of Israel UngerAfter her talk, I learned that she is a Guide Coordinator for Milk & Honey Tours: Discover Jewish Europe. Sounds amazing, right? I also learned that one of Celine’s colleagues provides a tour of Berlin that focuses on Sinta-Roma history in Berlin. Again, amazing! These tours will definitely make their way to the agenda for next summer!

I can’t even begin to tell you about all of the great people and NGOs that I learned about while we were in Berlin, meaning those that we didn’t get to meet during our course. All I can say is that in order to engage all this fabulousness, I’m going to take Celine and Nicole‘s advice and incorporate more panels into our sessions. Speaking of that, structuring the course the way that I did really inspired me to attempt to team-teach more often back at home. I’ve had such talks with some of my colleagues, and Scott Krzych and I will be team-teaching a Bridge Scholars Program course this year on Critical Media Studies. However, this is something that I’d like to strive to do annually in addition to Bridge, which I also team-taught last year with Emily Chan. I’m very much a dialogue-focused teacher-scholar, so this will allow me to flourish in my strengths more, which is always a plus.

Frauenkreise Talk

After My Talk: Helen, Me, Annapoorna, Marca, Gabi, and Vicky

Last, I was asked by the Frauenkreise team to give a talk during my time there. So, I did what I love to do most and discussed mediated constructions of race and gender in “Racialized Representations of Women in U.S. Media.” This led to me being invited to actually join the team, which was wonderful. After my talk, Vicky Germain also asked if I’d be interested in recording some of my lectures in order to share them with the world. I’d actually thought about that before, but now I’m motivated to make sure to do so next year. I’m thinking that I’ll start with one session each teaching block, then I’ll post them here so that you all can take a look at my pedagogical work.

That said, I need to thank our viewers around the world for joining in our adventures! Since we started blogging for #femGeniusesInBerlin, the site has received views from Germany and the U.S., of course, but also from some places we’d never received views before, such as the U.K., Brazil, Sweden, France, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Japan, Argentina, Peru, Canada, Singapore, Norway, Turkey, Nigeria, Ireland, Australia, India, Spain, Iceland, Poland, Russia, Malaysia, South Africa, Italy, Ukraine, Croatia, Bahamas, Portugal, Tunisia, Denmark, Egypt, Netherlands, Mozambique, Phillipines, Greece, Macao, Tajikistan, Maldives, Mexico, Finland, Macedonia, Israel, and Senegal. I’m still amazed by this, and I’m hoping that my transnational work will continue to thrive in ways that I haven’t yet imagined.

Daima Crew

Me and the Daima Team: Nzitu, Me, Jamile, Tina, and Sharon

That “said,” I’d like to end by thanking my new friends and colleagues in Berlin: the Frauenkreise team (Gabriele “Gabi” Zekina, Nina Jenks, and Iris Rajanayagam), the Schwules Museum team (especially Elisaveta Dvorak), Ika Hügel-Marshall, Dagmar Schultz and Ria Cheatom, Diana Rücklicht the Lambda and Queer @ School teams, Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück, Biplab Basu of ReachOut, Olayinka Elizabeth Adekunle of the African Women & Youth Organization, Nadine Saeed of the Initiative in Memory of Oury Jalloh, Katharina Oguntoye of the Joliba Interkulturelles Netzwerk, Jamile da Silva of S.U.S.I., Andrea Ottmer of the German Society for Trans Identity and Intersexuality, Heike Radvan of the Antonio Amadeu Stiftung, Rebecca Brückmann of Free University, Josephine Apraku, Maja FiggeKristina Kuličová and Magda Albrecht of Fat Up!, Bernard Könnecke and Katarzyna “Kasia” Wojnicka of Dissens, Daniel Gyamerah of Each One Teach One, Sharon Dodua Otoo, and Hatef Soltani and Mahdiyeh Kalhori of CrossPoint TV.

Celine Pergamon Museum

Celine at the Pergamon Museum

Last but not least, I want to sincerely and wholeheartedly thank our Course Assistant Celine Barry. All you had to do was be “on call” in case we needed someone to translate for emergency purposes. However, you showed up to and participated in events, and you taught us so much more than we could have asked for. And you did it with such style and grace. We love you.

Berliners, thank you so much for sharing your time and energy with me and my students. You’ve taught us so much, and I can only hope that we gave you all as much as you gave us. I’m really looking forward to building our new relationships, and I’m positive that we’ll be working together for many years to come.

Tschüss.

Heidi

2014 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Also, click here to view a slideshow of the course.

The FemGeniuses Are in Berlin” by Heidi R. Lewis
The New Berlin Walking Tour” by Melissa L. Barnes
Zanele Muholi at the Schwules Museum” by Kadesha Caradine
Meeting with Ika Hügel-Marshall” by Ximena Buller
Meeting with Dagmar Schultz and Ria Cheatom” by Kaimara Herron
Lambda Berlin and Queer @ School” by Beril Mese
Meeting with Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück” by Stefani Messick
ReachOut Berlin with Biplab Basu” by Casey Schuller
The Struggle against Racism in Britain (1976-2012): Its Implications for Justice and Democracy w/ Paul Gilroy” by Nicole Tan
Our First Weekend in Berlin” by Heidi R. Lewis
Riots Reframed and Absent from the Academy: An Homage to Stuart Hall” by Melissa L. Barnes
Africa in Wedding” by Blaise Yafcak
Convergence Class with Rebecca Brückmann at Freie Universität” by Ximena Buller
Heike Radvan and the Antonio Amadeu Stiftung” by Kadesha Caradine
German Society for Trans Identity and Intersexuality” by Kaimara Herron
A Talk with Jamila da Silva e Silva of S.U.S.I.” by Beril Mese
Meeting w/ Katharina Oguntoye of Joliba Interkulturelles Netzwerk” by Stefani Messick
Nadine Saeed and Katrin Jullien of the Initiative in Memory of Oury Jalloh” by Casey Schuller
Meeting w/ Elizabeth Olayinka Adekunle of the African Women & Youth Organization” by Nicole Tan
The ‘Alternative City’ Tour” by Blaise Yafcak
Wannsee Lake, Theorizing Race and Racism, and the Carnival of Cultures: Our Second Weekend in Berlin” by Heidi R. Lewis
Berlin from Below: Dark Worlds” by Melissa L. Barnes
Meeting Sharon Dodua Otoo and Discussing the Witnessed Series” by Ximena Buller
Daniel Gyamerah and Each One Teach One” by Kaimara Herron
Dissens: Work on Masculinity, Feminism and Working with Perpetrators” by Beril Mese
Museum für Naturkunde” by Blaise Yafcak
(Emerging) Fat Activism in Germany with Fat Up!” by Nicole Tan
Dis/continuities of Racism and Whiteness from the 1950s until Today” by Kadesha Caradine
Schloss Charlottenburg” by Casey Schuller
Racialized Representations of Women in U.S. Media at Frauenkreise Berlin” by Heidi R. Lewis
Rain, Towers, Rainbows, and New Beginnings” by Stefani Messick
What the Berliners Said about the 2014 FemGeniuses in Berlin
Kwaheri, Nzitu!” by Heidi R. Lewis

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

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A Talk With Jamile da Silva of S.U.S.I.

By Beril Mese

SUSIThis morning, we met Jamile da Silva e Silva of Solidarisch, Unabhängig, Sozial, International Interkulturelles Frauenzentrum (S.U.S.I.) to discuss migrant women in Germany and the work she is doing to help alleviate the struggles they face. S.U.S.I. supports migrant and refugee women, with different language options, and provides psychological counselling as well as events and art exhibitions. Jamile also works as a course instructor/speaker at Frauenkreise, where many of our seminars for this course are being conducted, including this session. She is from Brazil, but she moved to Germany three years ago with her husband and child from Sweden after completing her Master’s degree in Gender Studies. As a Black woman, she had many stories to tell us about racism on institutional and interpersonal levels.

She told us that the most challenging thing about first coming to Germany was learning the language, because one can only be an outsider without language fluency. She also discussed the institutional racism she faced while applying for citizenship here, having been told that she had to learn German. This demand was made under the assumption that she was uneducated, but once she presented paperwork about her degrees, the demand was revoked.

This kind of bureaucracy sounded familiar to me.  Her struggles were similar to the dehumanizing experience many people have when applying for visas. The process involves asking for specific documents and facing a dense, unwelcoming atmosphere, such as when Turkish people attempt to immigrate to countries like Germany, England, or the United States. This is a reason why I don’t travel to Europe often. I think the strict racist bureaucracy Schengen countries enforce on “third world” citizens is successful in demotivating people like me.

Jamile da Silva

Jamile da Silva and Heidi

We also discussed the subtle and overt types of racism Jamile has faced as a migrant Black woman who is married to a white German man. She told us about the automatic assumptions people make about her marriage. Many assume that she got married in order to become a German citizen and that her husband saved her from a miserable life. This also leads to the assumption that she is uneducated and therefore not a source of legitimate opinions and knowledge. Having people assume superiority over her has been frustrating. For example, while she was attending an event to support refugees, she spilled soup on her top and had to wash it in the toilet sink. While she was doing this, wearing only in a bra, a woman walked in and after a short shock, attempted to give her jacket to Jamile, saying that she already has many and would like to give her this one. From Jamile’s perspective, this is very frustrating, because she wasn’t asked what was going on and her skin colour was the only thing that determined this woman’s actions.

It was an interesting talk, because Jamile was full of stories and examples from her own life. We talked about current racism and how it affects white people, which sparked up Heidi, as well. Jamile and Heidi were on the same frequency about how they feel about racism today, so their similar opinions resonated together greatly. What I mean by this is that it was a topic of passionate discussion. As a light-skinned person, I learn a lot from listening to more of the perspectives of Black women on racism and colourism, because the more I hear, the more I reflect on my actions, opinions and prejudices.

Jamile was a very inspiring woman who is doing great work here in Germany, where the progressive activism is still very white and the engrained racism is prevalent.

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Beril IIBeril Mese is starting her senior year at Colorado College this fall as a Music major. Her plan for life is to explore different cultures and its different aspects such as their music, social changes, and philosophies, etc. This means that she will be a very broke person.