S1 E7: To Challenge Dominant Narratives, Activist Memory Workers Reclaim History

Activist movements make the world more just by exploring forgotten or concealed aspects of the present and the past. In this episode, we talk with Kirsten Grimstad, a scholar of post-war Germany and feminist thought who is working to preserve cultural memory and to make history more accessible. With guest host Lauren Instenes, she discusses how activists can use the knowledge of previous activist moments and movements along with the memory of past societal injustices to “ignite the fire of civil courage.” She discusses the importance of holding ourselves and our countries accountable for past harm – and of promoting reparations and healing in the present.

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Episode Notes

More about Dr. Kirsten Grimstad: 

Dr. Grimstad has a PhD in Comparative Literature and is the Co-Chair of Undergraduate Programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles, where she teaches classes on literary modernism and Holocaust memory work. She has published a book on the German author Thomas Mann called The Modern Revival of Gnosticism and Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, and was also a co-author of the New Woman’s Survival Catalog published in 1973 and republished in 2019.  

Buy The New Woman’s Survival Catalog here or find it at your local bookstore.

Learn about Undergraduate Studies at Antioch University Los Angeles or watch the AULA Undergraduate Studies Anytime Open House.

Recorded May 3, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released May 26, 2021. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.

This episode was guest hosted and edited by Lauren Instenes. The host was Jasper Nighthawk. Special thanks for this episode goes to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, Melinda Garland, and Simon Javan Okelo for their contributions.

S1E7 Transcript

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[00:00:06] Jasper Nighthawk: Welcome, and thank you for joining us. You’re listening to the Seed Field Podcast presented to you by Antioch University. 

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With every episode of the Seed Field, we celebrate and share stories of those who embody the spirit of our founder, Horace Mann, as they win victories for humanity. My name is Jasper Nighthawk, and today I’m joined by Lauren Instenes, she’s our guest host for this week. You may recognize her name from our credits because she’s normally behind the scenes producing and editing every show. Today she took the lead in coming up with questions and interviewing our guests. Lauren, what was it like hosting?

[00:00:54] Lauren Instenes: Hi, Jasper. I’m so excited to be here. I had a great time hosting this week. I really enjoy it talking with Dr. Kirsten Grimstad who was our guest this week. She’s just had such a diverse career full of things that are incredibly interesting to me, and I think will also be to the listeners.

[00:01:13] Jasper: Can you just give us a taste of what is most exciting to you about her career and her accomplishments?

[00:01:19] Lauren: Yes. Kirsten and I got to dive into some really thought-provoking discussions about activism as a whole, different activist movements and their history, and how pushing back on the dominant narrative can not only help activist movements evolve and progress, but also help protect our democracy and our power as individual citizens and holding our country and our history accountable.

[00:01:46] Jasper: These are such important questions for us to be asking today. I’m so glad that you got to ask them, and I’m just excited to listen to this episode.

[00:01:55] Lauren: I hope you have as much fun listening to it as we had chatting. 

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[00:02:04] Lauren: Today we’re lucky to be joined by Dr. Kirsten Grimstad. Dr. Grimstad has a PhD in Comparative Literature and is the Co-Chair of Undergraduate Programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles, where she teaches classes on literary modernism and Holocaust memory work. However, Dr. Grimstad’s expertise actually spans across multiple fields. She has been an active participant and researcher of the feminist movement since the 1970s. She also works in the field of art conservation through her involvement in the Getty Villa, where she has served as Chair of the Getty Villa Council and an editor and consultant on numerous publications. We’re so excited to have you on the podcast, Kristen, thank you for joining us.

[00:02:47] Kirsten: Thank you for inviting me, this is a thrill.

[00:02:50] Lauren: We have obviously so much to chat about your career is so long and diverse. On the one hand, with your German studies, you’ve written a book on Thomas Mann called The Modern Revival of Gnosticism and Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, and on the other you’ve studied feminism, but also been extremely involved in the movement yourself. Your work across and at the intersection of these fields started very early in your career, correct?

[00:03:16] Kirsten: Yes. I was completing my doctoral work at Columbia when Columbia was a hotbed of student activism in the early 70s. I got captured by that and particularly by the women’s movement that also emerged at that time. That’s how those two things intersected for me.

[00:03:39] Lauren: I wanted to actually take us back to that time and talk about the new women’s survival catalog first which you published in 1973. As we were talking earlier, you just republished in 2019. I think it’s such an amazing document that you compiled with your co-author Susan Rennie, because it’s a record of women’s culture that I don’t think would have been documented anywhere else if you guys hadn’t taken this massive journey across the country to document these really valuable resources. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that time in your life and what drew you to create that piece of work.

[00:04:13] Kirsten: I,like so many other faculty and students at the time, I was very powerfully drawn into the uprising at Columbia, the civil rights aspect and the antiwar aspect, and then the women’s movement. I wound up working on a project for the Barnard College Women’s Center. I graduated from Barnard, and the Women’s Center had just been founded. One of the projects was to start an annual bibliography of women’s studies, which was a new field at the time. I took that on, to be the first editor, but I subverted the bibliography by including activist projects. I felt that feminism required that scholarship be married to activism.

Scholarship can’t just live in its ivory tower. No, it has to be applied in the world. I distributed a survey to all of the women’s centers and all of the women’s activist projects so that I could find out about through our local feminist newspaper and through the woman’s center. We found out about various projects. I send out this survey questionnaire, and I got all of this information back about women who were starting their own health centers, where they were performing abortions, because they were fed up with the male medical establishment, or women starting their own publishing companies.

That’s where it all started, was the awareness that in New York, but also outside of New York, throughout the country, Iowa City, Denver, Oklahoma City, there was some ferment going on right in the Heartland as well as on the coast. The way we saw it was women were creating a women’s alternative culture. Just like the Whole Earth Catalog created a sort of counterculture to the dominant culture, this back to the land ecology movement. What we were finding or what I found through these surveys, there was this parallel thing happening, this women’s alternative culture of initiatives that were very exciting.

[00:06:49] Lauren: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to create that piece, to connect with people across the country, and what the movement felt like at that point?

[00:07:01] Kirsten: It was really one of the most thrilling chapters of my life. Susan and I rented a car, a Plymouth duster, and we headed off to visit these women’s collectives and projects. We traveled 12,000 miles. We were the internet before there was internet, there was no electronic way of connecting with people, so we were it. We connected the dots from one place to the next. I had a little file box with index cards, with names and addresses and people knew we were coming. What happened when we got there, to our location, was that we would connect with whoever was expecting us.

Well, then they wanted to invite all their friends over. The next thing we knew there was like a dinner party and the whole feminist community, and Philadelphia chimed in and brought their potluck contributions. These conversations lasted all night, people were so excited to find out about what was happening elsewhere. That was the electricity that kept us going. What I’d like to highlight, is that while we had an itinerary, at each location, there was all of these spontaneous connections that happened through our personal connections with people there. It just built in this extraordinary way.

[00:08:44] Lauren: You were collecting information for your project, but it also seemed like you were also disseminating information to the people that you visited, and they wanted to learn from you as well about what was going on, what you’ve done, what you visited across the country, is that right?

[00:09:02] Kirsten: Yes, that’s right. That’s why they were so excited and wanted to talk to us. Some of the best connections were made that way. Due to the things that happened completely spontaneously.

[00:09:16] Lauren: That sounds amazing. I think we are really benefiting from you taking that time to go and do that, to have this catalog. It’s been, we’re almost 50 years later since when you originally published it. During that time, I think feminism has really evolved. We are at a place now where gender activists are really pushing us to question the gender binary itself. We’re talking about how fluid gender is and how these rigid roles that we’ve constructed are really a detriment to how we participate in society. You’re such a vibrant thinker in this space, and I was just wondering if you could talk about what your hopes are, not only for how people actually might use your catalog now in 2021, but also, what are your hopes for feminism as a movement and ideology moving forward?

[00:10:10] Kirsten: That’s a complex question you’ve just– I know there are different dimensions of it and I’ll just say as far as the book today, obviously, almost everything is out of date, maybe not the feminist press that’s still around. [laughs] There’s some things that are still around but what the book does today, is it stands as a reminder of the incredible energy of that moment in time 1973-74 when women were discovering and demanding their freedom. We wanted the same freedoms and privileges that men had. We’re going to create our own world, our own alternative culture where women we’re free. It’s a testament to that moment, and there’s so much when I look, page through it, the graphics and the language, it’s so in your face, it so spirited, it’s very [laughs] no holds barred. I think it signals, even if you don’t read it, you just get this vibe of this incredible energy and friskiness, just sheer friskiness and determination that, “Who needs the dominant culture? Go your own way. We’re doing our thing. Leave us alone.” [laughs]

[00:11:38] Lauren: Right.

[00:11:40] Kirsten: You mentioned the nonbinary aspect of what’s happening now in terms of identity and it feels to me like the further outgrowth of the revolution that started with the second wave, where first of all, we didn’t want foundation garments. [laughs] Then we wanted to be able to wear whatever we wanted. Then we wanted to define ourselves, it was that self-definition, not be defined by men or by the hierarchy, the patriarchy. We wanted to define ourselves. It’s logical, that [laughs] people today are still pushing the boundaries of what that means. I don’t think we thought about transcending the gender binary at that time, but it is a logical outgrowth of that demand to be able to be self-defining. That’s exciting. Now, where are we going from here? Well, as we all know, there’s a lot of work ahead still, because of first of all, violence against women has not stopped but through Me Too movement and other activists, that is being challenged, and some perpetrators are now in jail. At least one major one is in prison.

[00:13:07] Lauren: Yes. You were mentioning abortion earlier, as well. We’ve seen that come up on the chopping block, every election, every cycle, there’s even more restrictions being placed on abortion in the south. It seems like we’re taking steps backward in that issue as well. I think there is still a real need for that, like you were talking about.

[00:13:32] Kirsten: Yes, and because of the backlash in the red states, especially the backlash in the red states that women’s reproductive freedom is absolutely not established at all. These are two of the fronts where I don’t know where we are in the fight, but we’re certainly not at the end of it. Of course, the Women’s March after Trump got elected and took office that was extraordinary, this outpouring of the largest mass demonstration in anyone’s memory that extended beyond just the US, it was everywhere. 

Anyway, there’s that. Then there’s also like the Black Lives Matter movement, as you know, it has leadership of women and queer women. That movement, really, the dynamism of it, I think, has to do with this intersection between the cause of women’s rights, the cause of black rights, and awareness. These causes are intersecting in that movement in a very, very positive way, and there are so many more dimensions to that, that we have yet to discover and draw attention to and deal with.

[00:14:48] Lauren: Yes, that actually is a perfect transition because I want to move us into talking about your new work, The People’s Guide to Berlin. To me this is such an intersectional project because you – for our listeners, it is an app that allows you to explore grassroots movements in the German capital of Berlin, going back 800 years and through multiple different tracks of history, women’s history, queer history, Jewish history. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that project, why you wanted to create it, and maybe what you’ve learned about intersectionality of movements through creating that work?

[00:15:33] Kirsten: Yes, The People’s Guide to Berlin, it grew out of some experiences that I had in Berlin in 2011. I had become a, devotee is not too strong a word of the writer, W. G. Sebald. He was a German emigre who lived in England and a man whose books haunt me still and one of Sebald’s positions was that the Germans would never come to terms with their responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich, the crimes of the holocaust, that the Germans would always look away and forget. For a long time, that was absolutely true. There was this whole period that was called the Great silence when no one wanted to talk about it, post-war, through the 60s and into the 70s. What I saw while I had a short sabbatical, [laughs] in Berlin, I was renting an apartment in the Schöneberg district in what’s called the Bavarian quarter.

Outside of my window on this lamp, there was this sign. It was a friendly sign. It said “Herzlich Willkommen!” which means “hello, welcome,” exclamation point. Then on the other side, it said, it was a Nazi ordinance, it was from January 1936 in anticipation of the Berlin Olympics, that said, “Strong language on signs against Jews should be done away with for now. It’s sufficient just to say Jews are not wanted.” So – What is this? It turned out that this was a public art project by Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock. They had 80 of these signs throughout the Bavarian quarter with these advertising signs of images on one side and then a Nazi ordinance against the Jews on the other side. What it does, it’s these 80 street lamppost signs confront you in the middle of daily life with the way in which the Nazi bureaucracy systematically strangled the Jews in broad daylight for everyone to see.

It was so extraordinary to see this and that showed me wait, Sebald should have lived longer. He should have seen this. No, he may have been right before but no, now there’s something else happening because these people are putting their terrible history on lampposts for everyone to see how that happened. These signs defy the argument that, “we didn’t know what was happening.” Oh, yes, you did [laughs] because the bread loaf sign on the back of that, “Jews can only buy foodstuffs from 4-5:00 PM.” Well, of course, from 4-5:00 PM those people would be lining up outside the bakery, everyone could see that, everyone knew. 

This seemed to be an example of people confronting their own historical legacy and the crimes of their own ancestors. That’s what interested me, that’s what got me started on this project was seeing that. Seeing how, through civic engagement, the whole German story was being reshaped by activists. Now, but your question was about the intersectionality?

[00:19:32] Lauren: Well, yes, because I think it’s so interesting that you include all these different routes to be able to– but I’m sure that some of them overlap. I was wondering what you could tell us about that overlap and what you’ve learned from that.

[00:19:46] Kirsten: Right, we’ve got these nine themes. Many of our entries fit under several different themes [laughs]. One example is the Schokofabrik. The Schokofabrik, which means chocolate factory, is the story of this abandoned chocolate factory in Kreuzberg district that in the 1980s, there was this anti-gentrification housing occupation movement that exploded in Berlin and particularly in Kreuzberger, there are people occupying vacant buildings. These buildings were being left vacant so developers could come along and sweep them away and build other things there.

The people started occupying them and upgrading them and then this Schokofabrik was occupied by [chuckles] a collective of women and lesbians and lesbian women and they turned it into a women’s center. It’s still there and it’s still functioning and it still offers childcare and it offers yoga and self-defense classes. The Schokofabrik in the late eighties and nineties, Audrey Lorde was going to Berlin because she was a visiting professor at the Freie Universität and Audrey Lorde was the inspiration for these groups of Black feminists, Black women, Black Germans, to discuss their identity and this whole term Afro German was coined through Audrey Lorde. I’m not exaggerating [laughs] and she and the queer Black women met at theSchokofabrik. That’s where they had their gatherings was at the Schokofabrik. So the whole Black Berlin, women’s Berlin, queer Brown, revolutionary Berlin is all intersects. We’ll tell the story of the Schokofabrik and there are many other examples.

[00:21:59] Lauren: Wow, I’m so excited that people are able to see those stories through this app. That’s going to be such a different experience of visiting Berlin, I think. I know you’re still working on it but I’m very excited about it.

[00:22:10] Kirsten: Yes, work in progress.

[00:22:11] Lauren: I also wanted it to– because it just makes me think of, as people go there and experience this history, I’m thinking about what they might be able to gain as modern activists from learning about this history. You say in your description of the app and its purpose that “At a time when democracy is imperiled by the rise of authoritarian regimes, the People’s Guide to Berlin aims to ignite the fire of civil courage and action among its users, by championing the stories of popular democracy that energize this project.” I was wondering if you could talk more about that purpose. What are you hoping that modern activists gained from learning about these stories?

[00:22:54] Kirsten: Yes. Well first of all, these are all examples of how civic activism has changed the public space in some way. These are not the dominant stories. These are the non-dominant stories, but they get forgotten about or erased and so it presents a different view of Berlin if you put them all together. Now, I was myself energized as an activist by these things that I told you about. The idea that ordinary people or groups of people can make a profound change if they have the commitment, this is what was clear to me from all that I learned about the activism around the Holocaust.

I don’t think it’s too strong to say that the place that Germany holds in the world today, people respect Germany because Germany has accepted its accountability and responsibility for what happened, not trying to airbrush it away anymore. They’re trying to make amends, pay restitution, but remember what happened and that’s what we need to learn and there’s even a book called Learning From The Germans. [laughs]

[00:24:21] Lauren: Do you think that America will ever learn from the Germans? I think that there’s such a clear connection there, a clear comparison.

[00:24:28] Kirsten: Yes. I think Americans can learn from the Germans and what Bryan Stevenson has learned from the Germans, Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who is a founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and who is responsible for or the instigator of the what’s often called the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, which is exactly it lifts up the non-dominant story. There it is. Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederacy. It has its whole Confederate narrative but alongside that is this other narrative.

The narrative of what happened to the enslaved people who were brought to Montgomery and warehoused there and put on auction blocks there and then this whole Memorial to lynching, it’s called the Memorial of Peace and Justice, but it basically names over 4,000 people who were publicly lynched on these steel pillars by county. It’s each county where there was a public lynching there’s a pillar in this Memorial and the people are listed by their names and then there are some very brief stories of using air quotes, “Why they were lynched.” One because he wrote a note to a white woman or another because he wouldn’t sell his seed grain to the White people. Anyway, that is an example and Stevenson writes about how impressed he was about the visibility of history in Berlin. He talks about that and also the apartheid museum in Johannesburg and in Rwanda, the genocide, he talks about all of those things.

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[00:26:40] Jasper: Hi, this is Jasper cutting in for a second. I’m loving Lauren and Kirsten’s conversation. Before it’s over, I want to let you know that the seed field podcast is produced by Antioch University. Let’s make the world better together. Complete your bachelor’s or your master’s or study for a doctorate degree with us here at Antioch University and join a community with a 160-year long commitment to social justice. Win one for humanity. Learn more at antioch.edu.

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[00:27:21] Lauren: Kirsten, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you today and I just have one final question for you. We always like to close our show by giving our listeners some tangible action or concepts that they can bring into their own lives. While we may not all be able to be Bryan Stevensons and make incredible public history memorials, I was wondering if there’s anything that you think our listeners could do on a local basis or in their everyday lives to challenge the dominant narratives in our country and maybe center alternative ones?

[00:27:56] Kirsten: I guess I’d just like to say that for us, I think we need to take the example from the History Workshop Movement, which was very active in getting this engine going in Berlin and elsewhere. The History Workshop Movement took as its motto and this is really important, “Dig where you are standing.”

This is a quote from the Swedish writers, Sven Lindqvist, “Dig where you’re standing.” Now, he was promoting that workers in factories in Sweden should research the histories of their factories, but the history movement in Germany took that motto as a guiding principle for each district, looking at well, what was going on in my district under the Nazis who lived here and what happened to them and finding those stories about your local locality. Dig where you’re standing and you can go a long way just by following that principle of digging where you’re standing.

I’m digging where I’m standing too. I’m looking at my ancestral history. My grandfather, he went to the Dakota territory and built a farm there when he was in his early twenties and he writes about it. He writes about this empty land. It was only empty because the government had driven away the people who had once lived there and this is a part of my digging where I’m standing that awaits me. I need to know more about that, about who lived there before he came and found it to be empty. Our family narrative would be that he was one of these brave pioneers, [chuckles] set out and settled the country. Now, that’s settler colonialism, is what that is. That’s the narrative that I need to understand, and how that impacted who I am. I think we need to be inspired by these examples of people who have made a difference by being unwilling to live with the status quo that privileges some people and disadvantages other people. For every person, that depends on where you’re standing. [chuckles] What is the status quo, and how did it become the status quo?

[00:30:37] Lauren: I think those are really great questions that we all should be asking ourselves. Then we can have help from you and others that are doing amazing work like The People’s Guide to Berlin and Bryan Stevenson. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to learn those things when we’re having such amazing help from you guys. Thank you so much for all the work that you do. I’m really looking forward to The People’s Guide to Berlin. Definitely when I go back, I will check it out and use it. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, Kirsten.

[00:31:09] Kirsten: Thank you Lauren, it’s been a real privilege and pleasure to chat with you. I enjoyed it very much.

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[00:31:21] Jasper: If you’d like to learn about Antioch University’s undergraduate programs, you can find a link in our show notes. We’ll also have a link there to buy the book, The New Women’s Survival Guide, though we encourage you to find it at your local bookstore. As we’re recording this podcast in spring 2021, The People’s Guide to Berlin is not yet available, but if you follow Antioch University on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn, we’ll be sure to post there when it’s been released. We post the show notes on our website, along with full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. Find these at theseedfield.org. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. A special thanks to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, Melinda Garland and Simon Javan Okelo.

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[00:32:17] Jasper: Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time, and don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been the Seed Field Podcast.

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