Community organising in Germany.

Author:Penta, Leo J.
Position:Notebook

The current political and social climate in Germany can only be described as on edge. A new wave of xenophobia, excited by a bestselling book (Sarrazin, 2010); attraction to charismatic non-politicians; and large-scale street protests (especially in Stuttgart; see Giglio, 2010) characterise current domestic affairs. Jurgen Habermas analysed these three phenomena in an op-ed in the New York Times (Habermas, 2010). He concluded that, though their motivations are different, they raise fundamental questions about the understanding of German democracy, especially whether it is of merely a formal nature or whether it has 'the deliberative meaning of including the arguments of citizens in the democratic process of opinion-and will-formation?' He ended his essay: 'democracy depends on the belief of the people that there is some scope left for collectively shaping a challenging future'.

Where Habermas stops (suggesting concretely only that the 'political class' in Europe needs revitalisation), the story and the challenge of community organising in Germany begins. Is there a way to add greater scope for people to collectively shape a challenging future, especially people who are not members of the political class? How can German democracy, which emerged after World War Two in the Federal Republic as a highly formalised representative system, become more functional at the level of ordinary citizens? How can there be, especially at the meso-level of society - in cities and metropolitan areas - enough long-term potential for serious and disciplined political action that is not solely dependent on political parties? How can people who have played virtually no role in political life (many immigrants or the increasing number of the depoliticised) or those who have been repulsed by party politics and symbolic protest find a (new) role as shapers of their shared urban spaces? How can single-issue pressure groups broaden their scope and become more effective in shaping a common rather than a balkanised society?

This bundle of questions goes to the heart of the overarching issue of the development of a new sense of civil society in Germany: the question of whether it can attain the status of an independent and politically active partner vis-a-vis both the state and the market. Or will it remain a sometimes useful, but generally passive appendage of the (still generally corporatist leaning) German state - seen as useful by those on the right who wish to use it as a convenient place to devolve social welfare responsibilities and by those on the left as dependent on the state and therefore of little political relevance in itself?

The challenge of community organising in Germany

For about twelve years now - as a bilingual American ex-pat - I have been preoccupied with the task of making my lengthy experience of broad-based community organising with the Industrial Areas Foundation in New York and Philadelphia fruitful in the German context. In that time, my German colleagues and I have managed to establish several robust and successful community organisations, both in Berlin and Hamburg. Several others are slowly taking shape in other cities. In addition, we have been able to establish an Institute for Community Organising (Deutsches Institut fur Community Organizing, or DICO), which serves both as a centre of competency for organising and organisers as well as an 'instigator' for new community organisations (1). With the founding of a Funding Network for Community Organising in Germany by three major civil society funders in September 2010, DICO reached a new level of recognition. It is no longer a question of whether organising is possible in Germany, but what place and role it will have long term in the development of a democratic and politically active civil society.

As a general model we have followed the lead of our colleagues in the US and the UK, especially the Industrial Areas Foundation and Citizens UK, though not slavishly. Instead, we have attempted to translate, in the...

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