The US social worker putting her GSBTB Open Art Shelter experiences to use in the Trump era

Liz Ricks-Aherne volunteered full-time for GSBTB Open Art Shelter during the year she lived in Berlin. Before she left at the end of the summer, Open Art Shelter intern Madeline McKay sat down with her to talk about how her experiences in Berlin will inform her life and work back in the US.

Liz with one of her leaving gifts from the kids.

Where are you from?

I am from St. Louis, Missouri, and have been in Berlin since October of last year, so 2016.

What brought you to Berlin?

I was really headed down a career path that I was not happy with. It was fine, I’m grateful I had a job, I was able to pay my bills, but it was just really not fulfilling. I had studied abroad in Southern Germany, so I already spoke German, and really love a lot about the culture and language here, and was interested in coming back. My husband and I had a couple of bottles of wine one night, and were like, “you know, we just need to do something different with our lives. Let’s just have an adventure before we settle down and have kids,” and all that stuff, which doesn’t preclude adventure, but makes it more complicated. He said, “let’s just throw a dart at the map and pick a place!” And I said, “how about Germany, because I already speak German?”

So yeah, we ended up here. And Berlin was partly a choice that was about making it more comfortable for my husband who doesn’t speak German, to be able to make friends and integrate much better, because it’s easier in Berlin. But also, I specifically wanted to be working with refugees, and I knew there were a lot in Berlin, so that was also a huge driving factor. I wanted to change my career and head into social work, and I wanted to take a year to get some real hands-on experience, and get to know the situation in the world just a little better before jumping into the theoretical stuff with further study.

What surprised you most about working with GSBTB Open Art Shelter?

I just feel so lucky that I landed with Open Art Shelter. I feel like with the vast majority of organizations that are working with people who are new to a place – either refugees or other kinds of migrants – something that’s baked into the whole dynamic is a pretty strong sense of power dynamic and differential, that the people who are volunteering are there to give their time, and be good people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are some problematic aspects to that.

I was expecting to find an organization that fit into that traditional model, just because that’s really common. So it was a surprise, and a really pleasant surprise: I really like the way this organization disrupts that traditional model. It’s far more focused on relationships and friendships, and just kind of letting any “helping” come out of those relationships and friendships.

Like, when I go with people to deal with some logistics at the Rathaus, or a medical appointment, I just feel like I’m going with my friend and helping my friend out, just like I would with any of my other friends. And I know that they would do the same for me when I have needs come up. So it just feels really different in a lot of ways.

What is your life like in Germany compared to your life in the United States?

For a while I felt really torn about this, because I do see pros and cons about both places, but I think there’s a much better life balance in Germany overall. People don’t tend to work these crazy long days and value professional achievement above all else, like I think is really common in the United States. I see much more – maybe this is partly living in Potsdam – but I see a much more vibrant family life, with parents who are home and available, and still able to work and have their own adult identities. And I just love how walkable and accessible the city is. You can get almost anywhere by public transit here, and it’s amazing. I spend so much more time in nature here, just walking, as part of my commutes to different places, and it’s just a really different feeling.

Something I do miss, about the US though, is that I think, culturally, they have an attitude there that anybody can do anything. And I don’t think it’s quite that simple, there are a lot of structural barriers to that dream, but the ideal really pervades our culture. It’s what we collectively seem to strive toward. And I feel like in Germany, it’s not that that isn’t a thing, it just looks really different here.

Are there other things about living in Germany that you do not like as much?

I think the only thing is the language thing. Even though my German is pretty darn good, it would take me, I think, several more years to get to the point of fluency where I could talk about the range of topics that I’m interested in to the depth that I understand them in English. So I’m yet to feel that I can bring my full self, including my intellectual understandings of things, to relationships that are happening auf deutsch. And that’s hard, but I still think it’s something that, I’m glad I’m having that experience, because I can relate so much more to people who are also having that experience. Both here in Germany, and when I’m back in the US, because now I’ve done that, too.

So you have been here for the entire Trump era. What has it been like for you to be overseas as that has been happening, and how does that affect your life in Germany?

It’s been kind of surreal, because I wasn’t there. I listen to a lot of American media, and read several American newspapers, just so I can stay up to date on that perspective of things. So on the one hand I feel like we’re just hurtling through this crazy experience as a country and as a world, because the United States has a huge amount of influence, in so many ways. And yet I’m not around Americans every day talking about it. So I also feel some distance like. Sometimes I feel like maybe it’s all a dream.

I also really like being surrounded by people who have different perspectives. I do know some Americans here so I talk with them about American politics, and certainly I talk with my family and friends in the US regularly, so I feel like I hear a lot about it. I like that I get that perspective, and that I get to hear the perspective of Germans, and Afghans, and Iranians, and just people from all over Europe and other parts of the world. I wish so much that more Americans could have that experience. Because I think what’s happening in the United States right now is really just an extreme manifestation of fear, and the fear takes the form of hateful actions, or at least actions where people are trying to get theirs rather than thinking about anyone else.

Living here, especially now, in the Trump era, I think has been a really rich experience for me, and definitely changes my perspective coming home. I’m looking forward to hopefully having more conversations with other Americans once I’m home, and bringing a little bit of my experience here in Germany to that.

You’ve talked to me on a separate occasion about feeling really dedicated to the United States, and dedicated to doing certain types of work there. Can we talk a bit more about that?

Going back to what I was saying earlier about language, that I’m fluent in English in a way that it would take me a really long time to be fluent in German. You could say that not just about language, but also about culture, and understanding the systems at play in a country. I’ve put a lot of work into understanding our systems [in the US], and it’s definitely a work in progress – it will be my whole life – but I feel like I have a depth of understanding there that would take so long to rebuild, and to be anywhere near as effective, in Berlin. But I think there’s a lot of value in those international perspectives and experiences, so, who knows, maybe I’ll be back here and it’ll feel like it’s really worth it to bring that international perspective.

I also feel like I hold a lot of privilege in the United States. I feel like it’s just the right thing to do, to do what I can to change our culture and our system so that what I have experienced, all the privilege I’ve experienced in my life so far in the US, is no longer exceptional. That I’m not gaining at the cost of other people, that other people can have the types of opportunities that I had and continue to have. And I know that’s not the path for everybody, but for me, I just feel like that’s how I have to live my life, is to try to do something about that, in the culture where I know, and have benefitted, and can be most effective.

How do you think your time here might inform the way that you want to approach your studies, and then imagining a career that could come out of that?

It’s really important to me to be here, and gain more practical experience before starting my master’s degree, so that my theoretical learning will be informed by this practical experience. I think that in the classroom what that’s going to do for me is that I’m going to be able to read a text and not just think about some people in some far off place. I’m going to be able to imagine like “oh, this situation sounds kind of similar to someone I know”. And not just what were the logistics involved for her experience, but also, how did that make her feel? What did that do in her daily life? What were her priorities? What did she tell me as a friend would be helpful for her?

I really love that kind of more friendship-relationship based approach that Open Art Shelter has, and I’m really hoping I can keep the spirit of that through my studies and into my practice of social work. Obviously things are a little bit different when you have a more formal client-social worker relationship, but I think there’s some room to play there, and I’m really glad to have experienced this. I don’t know how it’s all going to look, but I know in my heart this is what it feels like now to have a more relationship-based experience with someone that isn’t so based in power dynamics.

I imagine it’s going to be hard to leave Open Art Shelter, among other things. But you’ve just been so deeply involved with it!

Yep, I’m already saying my goodbyes. Like yesterday I said my goodbyes to the Tempelhof kids that I probably won’t see again. It’s really hard, really, really hard. It feels kind of surreal in a lot of ways. And also just knowing that even if I do come back, a lot of the people I know are children. They’re going to be really different in a year. Kids grow so much, so fast!

It’s a good reminder that an experience of a place is also an experience of a time. You can’t really separate the two. My experience here has been Berlin and Potsdam, 2016-2017. And the people will be different, the place will be different, whenever I come back. Same with US, it’s a different place – a very different place – than when I left.

How do you feel about going back and rejoining life in that community?

Mostly excited. I’m really looking forward to connecting with family and friends, and politically, I’m really excited to get involved in local politics in the city of St. Louis. The state of Missouri has, over time, become pretty heavily Republican, in kind of an extreme way. But the city of St. Louis is still pretty progressive, and there’s some really interesting work happening there. So I’m super excited to get involved with that, and I’m open to the idea of maybe running for office one day, because we definitely need more women running for office in the US. So, yeah, I’m just excited to explore that.

Editor’s note: GSBTB cannot wait to cheer Liz on when she runs for office!

Madeline McKay was GSBTB’s summer intern. A fellow American, coming all the way from Philadelphia, Madeline is currently studying Women & Gender Studies and Art at Bates College. Photos by Lindsay Bellinger and Hania Hakiel.