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Social Cohesion in Erfurt and Frankfurt

On the afternoon of June 9, 2024, the third cohort of the American Council on Germany’s Study Tour on Cohesion gathered in Erfurt. The cohort consisted of ten American and ten German young professionals, all of whom are committed to making society more equitable. That same day, Germany voted in the European Parliamentary elections, and the results would be discussed throughout the week.

Seated around a dinner table, the group of American and German young professionals, united by their commitment to societal equity, found an immediate bond. The lively conversation that ensued, filled with shared challenges and experiences, underscored the common ground they shared across the Atlantic.

The following morning, the group was privileged to visit the Thuringian Landtag (State Parliament). They were warmly welcomed by the Vice President of the Landtag, Dirk Bergner, who underscored the importance of exchange programs, particularly in the context of social cohesion during a time of increasing political divisions. The group was then taken on a tour of the parliamentary buildings, spanning three periods of German history. Notably, the oldest of the buildings, once occupied by the Gestapo, now houses a memorial in what was previously a prisoner cell, serving as a powerful reminder of the past. This visit provided a unique perspective on Germany’s historical and contemporary political landscape.

After the tour, the group met with Landtag members Franziska Baum (FDP) and Dr. Cornelia Klisch (SPD).  Both expressed concerns over immigration policy and its impact on staff shortages, particularly in the medical sector.

That afternoon, the discussion on migration continued with a visit to the Zentrum für Integration und Migration (Center for Integration and Migration). Here, the group was enlightened about the daunting challenges confronted by migrant communities, most notably the necessity to learn German to secure employment. The Center plays a crucial role in addressing these challenges with its language classes and assistance with legal paperwork and job placement.

The final appointment of the day was with Minister Doreen Denstädt of the Ministry of Immigration, Justice, and Consumer Protection for the state of Thuringia. She is the first Person of Color to serve as a Minister in a former GDR state. She discussed her life growing up in Thuringia, her previous career as a police officer, and now her critical role as a Minister.

On June 11, the group received a tour of the former site of Topf und Söhne, the manufacturers of crematoriums used at several concentration camps and now a place of remembrance. During the tour, Rüdiger Bender, Chairman of the Society for the Promotion of the Topf & Sons Place of Remembrance, described the need to stand up against injustices and never forget the horrors of the Holocaust.

Continuing the conversation on history, the group visited the University of Erfurt for a meeting with members of Decolonize Erfurt. Yanda Bango and Johanna Hügel discussed their work to acknowledge Germany’s colonial history, including efforts to rename streets and remove statues.

At the final meeting in Erfurt, the group visited the Charlotte-Eisenblätter-Haus, which houses several nonprofits and NGOs. There, they encountered documentarian Franziska Bausch and her intercultural documentary project Don’t Stop Motion, which tells the stories of Ahmad, Zahra, and Muntazar—three young people who have left their homes for a better life. Through interactive art installations, the documentarians shared the migration challenges through the lens of youth on the move.

On Wednesday morning, the group transferred from Erfurt to Frankfurt in Hesse. The larger city presented different challenges and a new atmosphere for conversations.

Frankfurt is a center for international companies, so discussing how corporations tackle social cohesion was important. After arriving in Frankfurt, the cohort met with Rupert Rivera and David Rooney from EY on Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Rivera had participated in the ACG’s Working Group on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Transatlantic Relations. During the meeting, he presented EY’s work to become more diverse.

The following morning, the group met with Gizem Gülcivan, Manager of Vielfalt am Main, and Rabab Flaga, Network and Project Advisor, from the Frankfurter Jugendring, the umbrella organization for youth groups throughout the city. Completely governed by individuals under 27 years old, the Jugendring promotes democratic values and fights against ageism. The organization provides access to politicians and funding for projects. Currently, the Jugendring is tasked with creating a group for queer-identifying youth.

Later that day, the cohort met with Jumas Medoff, the Chair of the Kommunale Ausländervertretung (KAV) (Foreigners Advisory Council) for Frankfurt. The council works closely with the city government’s elected officials to advocate for the needs of the migrant population, which makes up approximately 52% of the city. The council provides a voice for those not allowed to vote in elections.

At the day’s final meeting, the delegation visited two facilities of AHF – Aids-Hilfe Frankfurt, one of which provides counseling for queer asylum seekers and the other which provides meals for people living with AIDS. Roxana Kolb, Director of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, and Knud Wechterstein, Coordinator for Queer Refugees, described the challenges queer refugees face, from housing to jobs to simply feeling accepted by society after leaving their country because of their sexuality. The organization serves some 200 refugees a year from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Jamaica.

On Friday morning, the group was welcomed by Frauenrecht ist Menschenrecht e.V. (FIM); the organization was created in 1980 to prevent human and sex trafficking; since then, the organization has expanded to counseling and the empowerment of migrant women, vulnerable groups, and marginalized women. Tanja Wunderlich, Director of PR and Advocacy, explained the emotionally difficult work of protecting all women.

As the final experience, the cohort visited the DialogMuseum, which helps people understand the challenges of being blind. During a one-hour tour, each participant was given a White Cane and led into darkness through four different environments: a park, a movie theater, a market, and a restaurant. The group had to suspend their control and rely on touch and sound to move through the space.

The group met for a wrap-up session to discuss their takeaways from the week-long program. While the group recognized there are commonalities between the two countries, most critically, the palpable fear of what far-right governments may mean for social cohesion.

This September, the same 20 individuals will meet in Atlanta and Denver to continue the conversation on what communities can do to be more equitable.