One summer, Lea Detlefs spent her time going to a mixed martial arts gym where the rest of the clients were male. She recalls an atmosphere of homophobia. They blasted music with lyrics she found sexist. But she never complained.
“I was afraid to speak up,” Detlefs said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
Detlefs – a facilitator from CommonGround, part of the University of Michigan’s social justice education program Intergroup Relations – shared that anecdote with a group of students as an example of how sex, among other things, can put up invisible walls between people. The students had gathered at the UM Alumni Center to identify, discuss and break down those barriers artistically as part of the University Musical Society’s Freedom Without Walls project.
The idea for Freedom Without Walls started with one partition in particular: the Berlin Wall. In November 1989, Germans took sledgehammers to the wall dividing their capital. Now, in celebration of the 20-year anniversary of the Wall’s fall, as well as of the UMS presentation of the Berlin Philharmonic on Nov. 17, students will design public art installations meant to tear down the less visible walls that still exist in their southeastern Michigan communities.
As part of the project’s kickoff on Oct. 4, participants listened to a variety of speakers describe the history of the Berlin Wall. Washtenaw Community College humanities instructor Elisabeth Thoburn spoke with quiet emotion about living on the east side of the Wall and having rocks thrown at her as she walked to church, standing by her parents in their refusal to give in to the atheism advocated by the communists. Kerstin Barndt recalled her life in West Berlin, how the people had more freedoms but still feared nuclear war and lived in a divided world.
Other speakers included Simon Walsh, a UM German Studies graduate student who just spent a year in Berlin; and Victoria Moessner, who has a Ph.D. in German from UM and recounted her first trip to Berlin when the city was still divided. As they shared their impressions of the German capital, footage of people climbing and taking chunks out of the graffiti-laden Wall played on four big-screen TVs behind the lectern.
After students heard about the history of the Berlin Wall, Detlefs and her fellow facilitator Nicole Stagg rounded them up to discuss how the information they’d just taken in related to walls in their own communities. The students moved their chairs to form a circle. They sat with plastic cups of soda and piles of papers balanced on their laps, looking expectantly toward Stagg and Detlefs.
How did the Berlin Wall relate to their communities? What divisions did they see?
The students sat hesitantly silent for a moment as they considered the question, but soon they spoke up with examples.
“I hear a lot about the division between Ann Arbor and Detroit,” Sarah Berkeley said.
Berkeley, a second-year graduate student who spent two years in Berlin, said Ann Arbor comes off as a sort of “ivory tower,” where people are educated, wealthy and Caucasian. Detroit has a reputation as just the opposite.
Other students brought up the walls keeping less privileged people from obtaining higher education. One man observed that there’s a wall around the nation’s health care system.
Will Bland, a Lawrence Technological University graduate student, spoke about the invisible and sometimes physical barriers around high-income neighborhoods and gated communities.
“People who drive a beat-up car can feel people staring at them, like ‘You don’t belong here,’” Bland said.
Dexter High School senior Hayley Gerber described the social pressure in her school.
“Dexter’s so conservative. It’s hard to be different,” Gerber said. “It’s definitely true that there are these big walls.”
As part of the discussion, students filled out forms classifying themselves according to various categories (gender, sex, race, religion, age and more). Then they checked off how they felt about those identities – which ones they were most aware of, least aware of, and which had the greatest effect on their self-image.
Bland described his awareness of being the only black man in many of his college classes. One woman remarked that she’d been aware of the gender divide from a very young age: as a child, she couldn’t understand why her brother could take off his shirt and she couldn’t.
Another woman volunteered that race isn’t so much “real” as it is a social construct.
One of the facilitators responded that all of the categories on the paper were social constructs. Grinning, she took her copy of the classification form and tore it in half to emphasize her point.
After the discussion ended, Bland said he thought the exercise was “great.”
“I think a lot of people spoke freely about various topics,” Bland said. “Talking about the walls…opened up so many different avenues for discussion.”
Claire Rice, University Musical Society’s interim director of education and audience development, explained that the students will now spend about a month working on their designs. On Nov. 17, their work will be displayed in the Hill Auditorium lobbies, coinciding with the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance.
Rice said the German Embassy initially proposed having students from different universities in the area create graffiti on a replica of the wall and then tear it down in honor of the 20-year anniversary.
Although UMS liked the “germ of the idea,” Rice said they decided to let the students have more creative freedom by coming up with their own artistic designs. As to why UMS asked for high school and university students specifically, Rice said it was partly because they knew most of those students, due to their age, wouldn’t consider the Berlin Wall and its fall a significant influence in their lives. She said the students will hopefully learn to connect to the fall of the Wall in a personal way through the project.
“Of particular interest to us is that those students wouldn’t have the framework to understand this piece of history,” she said.
Rice estimated that the number of students signed up to participate was somewhere in the mid-20s, with 10 to 12 anticipated final projects. They can work as individuals or in groups, under the guidance of an artistic adviser.
Currently, UMS anticipates that the art projects will be installed in Ann Arbor next spring. As to which designs will progress to actual public art, that will depend on whether or not the students want to do the work – fundraising, going through the bureaucratic process – necessary to reach that goal.
“I think that we’ll talk about that with each of the artists involved,” Rice said. “We’ll certainly support them in any way we can.”
About the author: Helen Nevius is a local freelance writer.