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.

Challenging the Discourse of the “Ally”

By Cheanna Gavin

Snapchat-6863880461254982180As I got ready this morning, I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that our time in Berlin would be coming to an end in the next few days. However, I was excited for the upcoming day, which would be busy and filled with exciting encounters. Our day started off at ADNB des TBB, where we discussed the work they do in counselling and empowering people of color facing discrimination. Through reflection of our time in Berlin thus far, I see that there have been common themes among almost all the groups we have met, and that the communities we have been in are all webbed together in one way or another. These common themes include colonialism, empowerment, and community building/networking. After our morning session, we grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin for our convergence class with Dr. Jule Bönkost and Josphine “Josy” Apraku, who we met on Tuesday during our “Africa in Wedding” tour. Accompanying us to the course entitled “Bündnisarbeit Intersektional Gedacht” was also Dr. Derrais Carter, Assistant Professor of Black studies at Portland State University.

On Tuesday, Apraku told us that we would be discussing “allyship,” so I was eager to learn how they believed allyship has developed in Berlin and how it relates to our ideas of allyship in the U.S. During class, we started with an introduction of the course. It was an undergraduate Gender Studies class studying a German discourse of discrimination, how many forms of discrimination work together and the terms of allyship in relation to discrimination. They then opened up the floor for the German students to ask us questions and vice versa. Early on, the German students mentioned that they are not allowed to mainly or only study Gender Studies. For their undergraduate studies, they must have a trans/interdisciplinary approach, and need other focuses in addition to Gender Studies. For their graduate studies, they are able to focus on Gender Studies, but it is very difficult to enroll in graduate programs. This was the first of many examples that arose in the class demonstrating the inaccessibility of different feminist discourses not only in academia but in society in general. I believe this inaccessibility contributes greatly to the blissful and intentional ignorance around colonialism and racism in Berlin.

Snapchat-9062728769128009395After several minutes of dialogue, we split into smaller groups to get better acquainted with one another, as well as to have more intimate and inclusive conversations. In my group, the topic of how we got introduced to feminism came up. Something common among the German students was that this course introduced them to many of the aspects and terms of discrimination, racism, and colonialism in Germany. Along these lines, in Winter Shorts, Clementine Burnley and Sharon Dodua Otoo theorize,

“People invest more effort into denying racism than in dealing with it because facing the purpose for which institutional racism is constructed, is painful. Racism is a rationale to distribute social benefits by ethnicity. So, resisting racism brings members of socially dominant groups into a situation of discomfort for no immediate benefit” (13).

I believe this exemplifies the importance of courses like these to provide knowledge of these discourses to populations who normally do not have access to them.

However, we must keep in mind that we are privileged to even have access to these spaces in academia. One student spoke of how she had not heard of and had no knowledge of Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out) until this class. Through different sentiments, it was clear that the available scholarship and discourses on feminism that they had been exposed to was very white. We also discussed how they had engaged in little to no discourse of colonialism or racism, because it is believed that racism ended after the Nazi regime, and there is “conscious amnesia” of anything that happened before. In “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” R. Ruth Linden discusses how such a narrow framework “privileges the experiences of one group […] while turning our gaze away from other groups” (24). Privileging one narrative over another or generalizing one narrative for entire groups is extremely problematic. Not only are voices being silenced, but they are being erased completely.

Snapchat-4249857101675199255This is not only a problem in scholarship, but in aspects of allyship, too. People in dominant groups tend to talk for and replace the narratives of the oppressed groups, even when trying to help. This is apparent when dominant groups become the spokesperson of movements that are not for them. Allies need to realize that the members of oppressed groups are capable of examining and addressing their oppression. In addition, if someone calls themselves an ally, there needs to be a trust that is built that demonstrates that allies will show up if and when oppressed groups need them. Students from both the U.S. and Germany discussed how silencing narratives is one of the many difficulties/challenges faced through allyship.

Allyship, when looked at from a U.S. and German perspective, tends to have negative connotations. The discussion around allyship was supposed to start with possibilities and opportunities that may come from allyship. Yet, in the large group, as well as in my own smaller group, we struggled to find “benefits” of allyship. In addition, there was confusion between the term allyship and the German translation which is bündnisarbeit. As understood by the students from the U.S., allyship was seen as an individual practice. The German students, on the other hand have a more institutional understanding of allyship. Personally, I don’t like the word ally. I feel it has become sterile and fosters superficial support. For example, in “Accomplices, Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex,” Indigenous Action Media writes,

“[Non-profit capitalists] build organizational or individual power, establishing themselves comfortably among the top ranks in their hierarchy of oppression as they strive to become the ally ‘champions’ of the most oppressed. […] Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency. Ally has also become an identity, disembodied from any real mutual understanding of support. The term ally has been rendered ineffective and meaningless.”

When fighting these struggles, it is imperative that actions speak louder than words. Even as people or women of color, we must acknowledge the power we have and what we can do with that power. If we focus solely on our oppression, we face becoming what we are fighting against.

Snapchat-3150015239727894670Through our discussions of allyship, the conversation integrated into one about community and relationships. Instead of calling oneself an ally, the communities we are working with should decide to call us allies from the work we do and the trust we build. To take it a step further, instead of focusing on allyship, we should focus on our relationships with people. Along these lines, Dr. Carter discussed how we need to be in community with the people we care about and want to thrive. This is similar to the foreword to Farbe Bekennen, in which Audre Lorde writes,

“This book serves to remind African-American women that we are not alone in our world situation. In the face of new international alignments, vital connections and differences exist that need to be examined between African-European, African-Asian, African-American women, as well as between us and our African sisters. 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).

Not only do we need to be in community with each other as women of color, but we need to be in community with various oppressed communities. By being in community with each other, we are able to build relationships and trust among one another.

As the class finished and final thoughts were shared, I realized how empowerment plays a huge role in allyship and fighting discrimination and forming and maintaining communities with others to strengthen each other. As Dr. Cater said, “There is no right way to survive. Sometimes we need to sit and take it in. We need to remind ourselves that the world doesn’t exist on our terms.” We need to share the knowledge we gain in these spaces with those who do not have the privilege to be in these spaces and/or have access to these terms and scholarship. We need to empower ourselves and each other by challenging and deconstructing the idea that others hold the power instead of one’s self.


GavinCheanna Gavin is a rising Junior at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies and potentially minoring in Human Biology and Kinesiology. She is on the Pre-Health track and planning to attend Physical Therapy School. Cheanna loves playing sports and is ecstatic to be a FemGenius in Berlin, as she can’t wait to explore and learn about different German cultures.

Witnessing Powerful Art: A Conversation with the Editors of Winter Shorts

By Ivy Wappler

IMG_20160615_095851662 (1)The FemGeniuses greeted the day with a rainy walk to the U-Bahn and a stuffy, damp subway ride. Peeling off our wet jackets, we settled in for class. This morning, we were lucky enough to sit down with the editors of Winter Shorts, the latest installment of the Witnessed Series. It was a pleasure to hear from Sharon Dodua Otoo and Clementine Burnley, co-editors of the influential collection. Otoo, a London-born artist and activist, moved to Berlin in 2006 with her three sons (she now has four). She described the motivation for the Witnessed Series as a desire to use her international connections to create momentum, shared understanding, and support for Black German activism through writing. Burnley has been in Berlin for 6 years, and writes poetry when she isn’t working for MSO Inklusiv. In 2015, MSO focused its work on youth, Black, and Queer people of color communities, collaborating with organizations like Street UnivercityJugend Theater Büro, Katharina Oguntoye’s Joliba, and the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland. This year, they’re working with Wagenplatz Kanal, a Queer grouping within the Sinti and Roma community, a Black Trans organisation hosted by Der Braune Mob, and a youth organisation in Heidelberg.

Otoo and Burnley emphasized that Witnessed, the first English-language series about the experience of Black people in Germany, is not meant to replace anything already written in German about the Black German experience. Witnessed is, rather, a diverse collection, a reflection of the myriad experiences that comprise a Black German collective consciousness. Previous installments include The Little Book of Big Visions How to Be an Artist and Revolutionize the World edited by Otoo and Sandrine Micossé-Aikins (2012), Daima by Nzitu Mawakha (2013), Also by Mail: A Play a Olumide Popoola (2013), and The Most Unsatisfied Town by Amy Evans (2015), which is based on the deeply controversial Oury Jalloh case. The original book launch and reading of this play was a collaboration with Roses for Refugees, a project Otoo developed that sought to engage with refugees living and protesting in Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg in order to improve the policies and discourses around refugees in Germany. A catalyst for activism, Witnessed also organized and hosted youth workshops in schools, along with performances of the play.

After Otoo and Burnley discussed their work, we asked questions about the texts we read for class from Winter Shorts, including Burnley’s “Boom,” and Otoo’s “Whtnacig Pnait (Watching Paint).” I found it interesting that Otoo explained that the latter was inspired by her son’s struggles with dyslexia. The protagonist hates school, in part due to this and also his new, unfamiliar home in Germany. Still, when the boy finds himself in a magical, secret safe space for people of color, he still feels somewhat out of place. This story, Otoo shared with us, was her way of saying “Look, I’ve been listening!” not only to her son, but also to all people on the margins of the Black community, estranged by forces like ableism, cissexism, and heterosexism.

IMG_0446I loved reading fiction for a change, and these stories were no disappointment, inciting rich discussions of racism, hegemonic narratives, and the role of art in activism. For example, I asked, “What role does autobiography play in your stories? How much of your writing is rooted in personal experience?” The answers I received were far more nuanced than I expected. Otoo articulated that, for her, even if she writes about something directly from her own life, that the very act of writing it down is interpretation. She is wary of the term “autobiographical,” as it may limit the interpretations of her work. Her stories are invitations for connection and inspiration, not simply narrations of disparate, specific happenings. Burnley responded, “I can’t write what I don’t know,” explaining that even though everything she writes is fueled by something she has seen, heard, or imagined, as soon as she’s written a story down, she no longer has anything to do with it. “What is more important,” she argued, “is what the person reading the story brings to it.” For Burnley, delineations of fact and fiction matter not: “Sometimes you write a story, and it’s complete factual experience, but for me it doesn’t make a difference. It’s still a story.” These responses made it clear, then, that no matter how connected to reality stories are, what matters most is how the reader can relate to the story.

As a follow-up, Heidi raised a concern that  too often marginalized writers, especially Black women writers (the literary community she’s most studied) are assumed only to write autobiographical content, that they rarely considered to be creative. Otoo agreed and added that the literary perspective of white men seems to be the neutral perspective, rich in variation and creative freedom, while perspectives of Black women and other marginalized groups are seen as a specialized, specific and connected to the narration of their marginal experiences. She suggested that since the wealth of literature catered to the masses is written by white men, the small amount of writing done by PoC or QPOC is usually assumed to be simply nonfictional, and not creative. It seems that writers from minority groups have been affected by what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of the single story,” something that Burnley mentions in the introduction to Winter Shorts. When dominant narratives are written only by those in power, those without power suffer. Burnley actually touches on this frustration through one of her characters, Mimi, in “Boom.” Upon researching the Bab el Mandeb straits for a vacation, “Mimi was at once pleased and annoyed at the morbid romanticism of the language and the way it entirely avoided mentioning the slave trade and the more recent wars in the region” (47). Otoo, Burnley, and the writers of the Witnessed Series are all painfully aware of the danger of the single story, and aim to complicate limited narratives about the Black experience with their colorful collection of writings.

Talking to Otoo and Burnley this morning helped us see a real relationship between creating art and Black political thought. All the scholars in the room seemed to agree that this work against the danger of the single story, the Witnessed Series, is certainly political. Along these lines in the introduction to Winter Shorts, Burnley reminds readers of Toni Morrison’s insight: “If there is a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Burnley laments that capitalism has turned the appreciation of the arts into an elitist endeavor that many do not have resources enough to access. But she urged us today that her art, and subsequently her manifestation of political thought, is not always found in the high, abstract realm, “because we don’t always have the time or the money.” Among capitalist frameworks that commodify creativity and impose limiting structures such as genres, Burnley sees an opportunity for artful dissent. “That’s freedom for me,” she states in a matter-of-fact manner, “writing what I want.” Otoo agrees, “I like to write in a way that leaves room for interpretation…leaves room for dreaming.” Through their collections of art, Otoo and Burnley have invited their readers to dream of liberation. Through conversing with them and getting acquainted with their work, it is clear that they see art as a powerful political tool.

IMG_20160613_104425639The curation of the Witness Series, including Winter Shorts, is a glimpse into the multiplicitous nature of the Black German experience, meant to engender awareness and solidarity for their movement towards liberation. Winter Shorts does a beautiful job of showcasing the difficult everyday moments in which multiple intersections of identity manifest. Clearly, in these personal stories, rife with racially charged struggle, is where the revolution is situated. Otoo and Burnley are uniting people with these stories and inviting collaboration and change to be made. As Heidi writes in her book-jacket praise for Winter Shorts, “The revolution happens in our hearts, minds, and spirits during moments when we might least expect it.”  I want to thank both Otoo and Burnley for sharing their keen, revolutionary, and poetic minds with the FemGeniuses this morning.


WapplerIvy Wappler hails from Long Island Sound and is grateful to spend her summers in New England, and her winters in sunny Colorado. She is a Feminist and Gender Studies major, and an Environmental Issuesminor. After school, she hopes to explore environmentally and socially responsible tourism. She may also end up reforming sex education. An avid foodie, Ivy is ready to experience Berlin through its food and drink when she’s not in class. You may find her taking walks through sunny streets, seeking out farmer’s markets and green, open spaces.