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Deutschlandjahr 2019 – Community Engagement

Under the auspices of Deutschlandjahr, the American Council on Germany hosted several larger events with the goal of engaging new audiences in a conversation and a genuine exchange of ideas about the transatlantic relationship, highlighting the deep political, economic, and social ties and common challenges that impact the citizens of both countries globally and locally. 

In 2019, InsightDeutschland Community Town Halls took place in Boise, Idaho, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Phoenix, Arizona. The Town Halls targeted younger and mid-career professionals, as well as undergraduate and graduate students at college campuses in the communities. These town halls consisted of interactive sessions — storytelling (personal narratives), panel discussions, debates, talk show-style interviews, and conversations with attendees exploring concrete ideas on how the communities can increase engagement with Germany in the future, and cultural activities – over one and half days.

Boise, Idaho

On March 8 and 9, in Boise, Idaho, the ACG hosted the first InsightDeutschland Community Town Hall With support from the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University, roughly 100 Idahoans gathered for a series of conversations on Germany, Europe, and the transatlantic partnership. The event began on Friday evening with a meal of traditional German food, a screening of the German comedy “Goodbye, Lenin!” (which depicts the heady days in the run up to and months after November 9, 1989), and a discussion about the fall of the Berlin Wall and contemporary Germany.

During the course of the day on Saturday, conversations were held local experts, such U.S. Senator Jim RischMayor of Boise Dave BieterTom Kealey, the Director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, as well as German participants: journalist Ines Pohl, Executive Editor of Deutsche Welle; Bundestag member Alexander Kulitz (FDP); German diplomat Ricklef Beutin, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Kristian Wolf, the President and CEO of the German-American Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco.

Phoenix, Arizona

On October 4 and 5, the ACG hosted a similar event in Phoenix. Matthew Karnitschnig and Alexander Kulitz were joined by Bundestag Member Metin Hakverdi (SPD) and Stormy Mildner from the German Federation of Industry. Local speakers included Doug Bruhnke, CEO and Founder of the Global Chamber; Ambassador Edward O’Donnell, Professor of Practice at The McCain Institute at Arizona State University; and, McCloy Fellow alumna Cynthia Seelhammer, Local Arizona Government Manager, among others. Panelists discussed current German politics, the economic and business ties between Germany and the United States, as well as the foreign policy challenges facing Europe and the U.S.

Salt Lake City, Utah

On October 2, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson opened the Salt Lake City Town Hall by reflecting on her recent trip to Germany to visit her friend U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. That evening, the ACG also welcomed the Berlin Candy Bomber Colonel Gail Halvorsen, a Utah native, who talked about his experiences during and after the Berlin Airlift. The following day, the ACG held several panel discussions ranging from foreign policy, to the rise of populism, to the role of philanthropy, and the importance of the transatlantic relationship. Speakers included local community advocate Pamela AtkinsonCongressman Rob Bishop; Honorary Consul General James Burton; State Representative Steve HandyChristian Hänel, Senior Vice President for International Relations at the Robert Bosch Stiftung; Chief Europe Correspondent for Politico Matthew Karnitschnig; Bundestag member Alexander Kulitz (FDP); Vicki Varela, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism; and Utah State Senator Todd Weiler.

Social Disruption: How to Confront the Fraying Social Fabric and Social Inequality in Germany and the U.S.?

The ACG collaborates with the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius to facilitate an exchange between German and American opinion leaders, social entrepreneurs, and foundation representatives through lecture tours to a variety of U.S. cities. Given the political polarization, fragmentation of society, and growing social inequity on both sides of the Atlantic, this program looks at how to overcome the fraying of the fabric of society.

The programming in each city engages local government representatives, local community foundations, private foundations, and social enterprises. The goal of the project is to highlight the work and activities of local social entrepreneurs and foundations in their local communities and to share best practices.

The ACG and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius kicked off a series of discussions in various cities in the United States on March 25 in Dallas with an event titled “Social Disruption: How to Confront the Fraying Social Fabric and Social Inequality in Germany and the U.S.?” Some 60 people gathered at the University of Texas at Dallas for a discussion and reception, which was held with support from the World Affairs Council of Dallas. Dr. Jennifer Holmes, Interim Dean and Professor of Political Science, Public Policy, and Political Economy at the School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences at University of Texas at Dallas, welcomed the audience. ACG Board member Dr. Nina Smidt, President of the American Friends of Bucerius and Director of International Strategic Planning and Business Development at the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, set the stage with opening remarks.

In a conversation moderated by Dallas journalist Lee CullumDr. Christian Martin, Professor of European and Mediterranean Studies and Max Weber Visiting Chair in German and European Studies at New York University, and Dr. Banks Miller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Program Head of Political Science, Public Policy and Political Economy at University of Texas at Dallas, discussed a variety of topics including the rise of populism, overcoming social imbalance, and commonalities of challenges facing communities in the U.S. and Germany.

Following a successful event in Dallas, Texas, in late March, the two organizations hosted discussions in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, on the economic, political, and social concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. More than 120 people attended the two discussions with co-authors of Our Towns: A 100,00 Mile Journey into the Heart of America Dr. Deborah Fallows and James Fallows (1977 ACG Young Leader), and journalist Martin Klingst, author of “Trumps Amerika: Reise in ein weisses Land” and Senior Political Correspondent for DIE ZEIT.

To give a local perspective, in Charlotte, Chris William, Managing Director at Wells Fargo and Host of “Carolina Business Review,” and in Nashville, Karl Dean, former Mayor of Nashville, moderated the discussions, which honed in on how communities are trying to address the fraying of the fabric of society.

Community engagement remains the backbone of American cities, and libraries play a critical role in communities. Across the United States, local government remains important. One of the takeaways from the conversations in Charlotte and Nashville was that regardless of issues at the federal levels, local governments are thriving. Local communities are looking internally to fix their challenges instead of turning to the federal government.

Many of the same issues can be seen in Germany, even if common challenges are being addressed differently on both sides of the Atlantic. This includes concerns like affordable housing, growing cities, immigration, the urban/urban divide and the urban/rural divide, and education and workforce development. However, there are also differences between the two countries. For example, Germany has better public transit in urban areas and a better health care system and does not have an opioid crisis.

There is reason to be optimistic about the future. While completing the research for their book, the Fallows saw that although many places are wrapped up in local problems, there are opportunities. One example can be seen in Erie, Pennsylvania. This rust belt town lost much of its industry in the 1980s and 1990s, however the town decided to reinvest in education and technology. Erie is now a hub for startups. Mr. Klingst believes that there are people everywhere “fighting the good fight.” In the United States, an advantage is the can-do spirit. This is unlike Germany, as many fear failure. Having served as DIE ZEIT‘s Washington, DC, correspondent for seven years, Mr. Klingst found it difficult to obtain meetings with politicians in Washington; however, his experience in small towns was quite different. He found that people were very open and willing to share their experiences. He was welcomed into communities and saw the passion of the American spirit.

Throughout their travels over the course of four years, Deborah and James Fallows encountered communities across the United States dealing with the same issues. One of the common themes they encountered was the rural/urban divide. While small towns are addressing their struggles, they still feel left behind. This could be seen in the sentiment toward immigration, education, and workforce preparedness. The 2016 election results turned people away from focusing on national or international politics and toward looking at the local level. Dr. Fallows believes that the struggles are the same across the United States.

Given their journalistic backgrounds, each of the panelists aimed to get a fair and accurate depiction of small towns. Mr. Fallows stated that public events tend to skew older and white, however their research was more representative of the communities. Dr. Fallows noted they went to schools, YMCAs, concerts, libraries, and pubs. Those conversations counted for more than large public gatherings. Mr. Klingst did similar visits to measure the pulse of communities across the U.S.

Although small towns and cities on either side of the Atlantic face issues of social inequality, there are people at the local level looking for solutions to their problems. On the periphery of the two public events, the panelists met with local leaders, including Charlotte City Council Member Braxton Winston, who became engaged in local politics after the shooting of an unarmed African-American man, Keith Lamont Scott, by police in 2016, and Shanna Hughey, President of Think Tennessee, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helps strengthen civic engagement throughout the state. In both cases, these individuals are providing voices to the disenfranchised and working to improve the lives of those around them.

Continuing the speaker series on social cohesion, the ACG and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius hosted discussions in Pittsburgh on September 24 and Chicago on September 25 with international television presenter and journalist Ali Aslan (2010 ACG Young Leader). More than 60 people attended the two events in which he discussed the impact of changing demographics on society and politics. In Pittsburgh, the event was held in partnership with Classrooms Without Borders and the Rodef Shalom Congregation. In Chicago, Mr. Aslan spoke alongside Pamela Roesch, Director of Health Equity and Assessment Research at Sinai Urban Health Institute, who helped provide some local context on social cohesion in Illinois. In addition, Mr. Aslan met with students in both cities.