From Brooklyn to Berlin: Organizing Schoeneweide

The scene looks familiar enough. In a foyer outside an elegant legislative chamber, a group of citizens is pigeonholing their local politicians. A vote on the annual budget is expected in the next several weeks and they want to know if a key project in their neighborhood is to be included. Afterwards they caucus with their organizer and compare notes: It’s looking good, but several key committee meetings lie ahead that could derail the project yet again. The scene – a small “action” in community organizing terms – is replayed daily across the U.S. Yet, in this case, the citizens are speaking German and the politicians they are lobbying are members of the Berlin Parliament. The issue is the proposed relocation of a public technical college – with its thousands of jobs and students – to a distressed neighborhood called Schoeneweide. The citizens and their organizer are members of Organizing Schoeneweide (OS), a remarkable experiment in applying six decades of American community organizing practice in a new and different context.

What sparked the organizing effort was Leo Penta, a 52-year-old Roman Catholic priest, university professor and veteran community organizer. Penta learned organizing in the 1980s in his native Brooklyn, NY. Together with organizers from the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), he helped start East Brooklyn Congregations, a powerful citizens group that built thousands of Nehemiah homes and transformed one of New York’s toughest neighborhoods. Since 1996 Penta has taught social work at the Catholic University in Berlin. During the last several years, he and a group of German colleagues created a community organization that draws on approaches that were developed in America but are rooted very much in the realities of Germany today. And Germany in 2004 is a country that could use a dose of citizen-led politics. Since the heady days of 1989, when citizen power helped topple the Berlin wall, Germany has been preoccupied with integrating its new eastern states and dealing with a growing federal deficit. Germany’s “social market economy,” which combines a free market and generous social welfare policies, is under enormous strain.

Adding to the pressure is the emergence of serious urban decline in many large German cities like Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin. What Germans call “soziale Brennpunkte” – social tinderboxes – may not approach the scale of the urban devastation that one encounters in America. But it is unnerving for Germans to see high unemployment, concentrated poverty and crime in formerly stable, blue-collar neighborhoods.

This growing interest in the “social city,” has been matched by an increasing awareness that Germany’s civil society needs strengthening. In 2002 the German Parliament released a ground-breaking report, “The Future of Civic Activities,” that called for new policies to improve the legal and financial status of Germany’s voluntary sector. These challenges and strategies are all displayed in the Schoeneweide neighborhood, a close-knit community of some 20,000 people in what was formerly part of East Berlin. Schoeneweide is a classic 19th century factory town, a cradle of German industrialism. Like countless blue-collar neighborhoods in the U.S., it had a main street with factories on one side (including the home of one of Germany’s industrial giants, AEG) and apartments and shops on the other. Even during the Communist era, Schoeneweide was a stable and desirable part of Berlin, where it was reputed that you could find goods that were not available elsewhere.

That changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Germany’s government-owned enterprises were sold off or shut down and Schoeneweide was particularly hard hit. In a five-year period the neighborhood lost about 20,000 jobs. Suddenly vacant store fronts appeared on the main street and the unemployment rate spiked. To bolster the neighborhood, the Berlin government turned to real estate development. With $250 million dollars in public funds, the government bought and rehabilitated several of the abandoned industrial sites to attract high tech and other start-up businesses that could propel the newly reunified city.

The jobs didn’t come. In fact Berlin’s economic development strategy since the reunification has been largely a failure. Most of Germany’s successful industrial companies have remained in the western part of the country despite government efforts to lure them eastward. And much of the investment from foreign companies has since moved elsewhere. As publicly subsidized building projects draw to a close, the Berlin government is virtually bankrupt. One retired politician put it this way: “For years we’ve relied on real estate development, construction jobs and public sector employment to prop up Berlin. That can’t continue any longer.”

What to do then with neighborhoods like Schoeneweide? In 1999, under the radar of the official Berlin bureaucracy, a team of organizers began fanning out into the neighborhood asking local residents and business owners what they thought the future of their neighborhood should be. Many of the organizers were Leo Penta’s social work students who attended Catholic University in the adjoining neighborhood of Karlshorst. Using the relational organizing approach developed by the IAF, the organizers were really on a talent hunt. Were there people in Schoeneweide with enough energy and hope to tackle the challenge of renewing the neighborhood? Were there institutions in the community with enough vision and resources to support a multi-year organizing effort? One of the “universals” of IAF-style organizing is developing an independent dues base to enable the organization to pursue its own course. As expected, finding smart, talented people wasn’t the biggest challenge. Within the first several months the organizers discovered people like Josef Lange, a long-time factory worker from the neighborhood who, though disabled, had a keen sense of history and passion to see the neighborhood reborn. And Ursula Glatzel, a retired nurse who proved to be exceptionally good at networking with shop owners, seniors and others in her path. And Ines Shilling, the young head of a social service agency in the neighborhood, full of idealism and anxious to go beyond just helping people. These and other potential leaders were schooled in the hard won lessons of IAF organizing and set their eyes on strategies to renew their neighborhood.

Finding institutions to fund the effort proved to be the bigger challenge. Unlike in the U.S., where religious congregations provide the bulk of the leadership and resources for IAF’s broad-based organizing, most German churches are government supported and have few active members. The one exception in Berlin has been the Gossner Mission, a long-standing, independent Protestant group that focuses on social service and evangelization. Gossner’s Michael Sturm has helped raise funding for the Berlin organizing and has been a key leader. Without the religious congregations to rely on, organizers found another group of people with a stake in the neighborhood to enlist – mid-range businesses. In fact, much of Organizing Schoeneweide’s budget comes from local entrepreneurs and real estate owners, who have become key allies. The 23-member organization is comprised of schools, social service agencies, churches, clubs and civic associations. In addition, the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, one of the few German philanthropies involved in organizing, has been instrumental in enabling leaders and organizers to participate in IAF’s national training in the U.S.

With three years of funding in hand, OS hired its first organizer in October 2002. Gunter Jancke, a 32-year-old Berlin native, was introduced to organizing through classes he took at the Catholic University. But it was really an internship he did in London with another IAF-affiliated group, the Citizen Organising Foundation, that convinced him that he wanted to be a professional organizer. “After months of hard work, we pulled off an assembly with 4,000 people of every race and religion in East London. I’d never seen anything like it – and the sight of all those people working together convinced me that that’s what I wanted to see happen in Berlin.” By the time Jancke was hired, OS had set its sights on a plan to relocate one of Berlin’s public colleges to Schoeneweide, the “Applied University of Technology and Business” (abbreviated FHTW in German). The FHTW was spread out over five sites and was looking for a new location to centralize its various departments. Schoeneweide was home to several large industrial buildings that the Berlin government had bought and rehabbed as offices – and then failed to rent.

Relocating the FHTW to Schoeneweide made sense for the college, the city and the neighborhood. The campaign started with a well-publicized visit to Schoeneweide by the newly-elected governing mayor, Klaus Wowereit, in April 2002. OS had obtained a promise for the visit during the election campaign. The mayor was lukewarm on the OS proposal. “He basically pled poverty when we pressed him for funding,” says Penta. “But he did agree to request a full review of the idea from his staff – and pledged not to sell off the college site.”

Over the summer and fall of 2002, OS leaders lined up crucial support for the proposal from the Berlin departments responsible for city planning and economic development, education and finance. They also gained an ally in the newly elected head of the FHTW, who made the OS proposal part of his vision for the college. Responding to the mayor’s concerns about funding, OS sought out private investment brokers with whom they developed a plan to enlist private capital for a sale/lease back for the site. But in December of 2002, a new opponent emerged: Thilo Sarrazin, the head of Berlin’s Finance Department. Charged with finding ways to save Berlin billions of dollars, he opposed Organizing Schoeneweide’s plans. In response, OS organized a holiday-themed assembly with 150 people to press for a meeting with Sarrazin’s staff. To counter his claim that the college relocation would cost money, they filled a “St. Nicholas stocking” with money representing the savings the plan would provide. They also organized round-the-clock phone calls to Sarrazin’s office until he finally relented and granted them a meeting with his second-in-command.

The real breakthrough was a meeting with Sarrazin’s deputy, the other city department heads and OS leaders in early 2003. Their support, plus additional lobbying within the Berlin legislature, resulted in a March vote from the Berlin Senate in favor of the relocation plan. While the resolution had an “escape clause” if funding was determined to be unavailable, OS declared victory and held a 250-person assembly in April at the site, replete with dignitaries, media coverage and a huge banner welcoming the college to Schoeneweide. The euphoria was short-lived. Late last June, Berlin’s 2004-05 budget was unveiled and no funding for the college relocation was in it. That triggered yet another round of press coverage and lobbying, this time focused on the opposition Green Party, who were very willing to challenge the governing Social Democrats for their lack of vision on social issues.

By the end of 2003, the college relocation was back in the budget – despite Berlin’s grim financial condition. “This is a real turning point for Schoeneweide,” said Ines Schilling. “Sixty-seven hundred students in the neighborhood will mean more people on the street, more restaurants and more stores. And it really puts Organizing Schoeneweide on the map.” Indeed, the headline in the daily Tagesspiegel said, “Community Group in Schoeneweide Wins Battle Over College.” “The recognition certainly feels good,” says Leo Penta, “especially given the skepticism in many quarters that organizing could work in Germany.” What’s next? “A key challenge remains – funding organizing for the long haul,” says Penta. “We need a mix of institutions and businesses that can propel this beyond Schoeneweide and into other Berlin neighborhoods.” For the moment, Penta, Schilling, Finke and Sturm can bask in the knowledge that as one headline put it: They “got on politicians’ nerves” to do the right thing.

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