Gisela Konopka and group work. Gisela Konopka (1910-2003) made a profound contribution to the development of social group work and the deepening of practice with children and young people. In this paper Janice Andrews charts Gisela Konopka’s life and assesses her work.
It is a daunting task to discuss the contributions of Gisela Konopka to social group work in one brief presentation. After a recent interview, a writer (Clancy, 2000, p. 14) with a University of Minnesota publication accurately described her. “There’s a remarkable symmetry to Gisela Konopka’s life. The rebellious teenager who asked difficult questions has become a rebellious old woman who still asks difficult questions.” Another writer (Haga, 2000, p. A1) explained that
She somehow knows how to hold heartbreak and hope inside the same rib cage. She is often furious at the cruelty she sees, and yet responds time and again with gentle insistence that we must all do better.
Her contributions cannot be seen outside of the context of her long life – her childhood; the German youth movement; the horror of the holocaust; her life-long love, Paul; her studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work in the early 1940s, and later her studies at the New York School of Social Work in the 1950s. They can’t be understood without a review of her prolific writing — over 300 articles, many books, translated in various languages all over the world. They can’t be understood without also understanding the role she played in other fields: psychiatry, youth and adolescent services, education, history. And finally, her contributions cannot be understood outside of her private writings – poems, journals, letters, and her private life in the home of her dreams on Lake Calhoun in the state that she and Paul came to love so much, Minnesota.
Beating your fists against the wall,
Sometimes you break your bones
Against the wall –
But sometimes not.
Langston Hughes, 1936
Perhaps the most daunting aspect of it all is that Gisela Konopka, who will be 91 years old in February (2001), is still an active participant in her journey on this earth. She still meets with groups, gives presentations, lends support to those in pain, opens her home to a wide array of visitors from around the world. Recently, for example, she comforted a woman who is a client at the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. This woman, from the Balkans, had experienced unspeakable pain and denigration. Later, the Center told Konopka how much the woman was helped by her time with Gisa.
The Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota, a collaborative effort of the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health continues her work by bringing insights, through research and study, to those who work with or engage in policy on behalf of young people. Since her retirement in 1978, there has been an annual “Gisela Konopka Lectureship” (first sponsored by the School of Social Work; later, by the Adolescent, Health Unit in the Medical School; and now by the Konopka Institute) to honor Konopka for being “the moving force behind numerous innovative methods in practice and research in social work and youth services.” They acknowledge her as the pioneer in making scholarly knowledge about youth available to practitioners and for the “unerring devotion to making human services humane that has characterized her outstanding career” (1978, Lectureship Brochure).
This author’s humble attempt is to integrate some of the many facets of this important woman’s profound contributions to social justice and group work. Interviews with her have occurred over the past two years occasionally and, weekly, since February, 2000, in her home. Additionally, she has made all of her private papers including her most intimate, personal diaries, available to the author. The poems in this paper are from writers she frequently quotes. The book Markings by Dag Hammarskjold, for example, sat by her bedside with her favorite passages marked.
What I ask for is absurd: that life shall have a meaning. What
I strive for is impossible: that my life shall acquire a meaning.
I dare not believe, I do not see how I shall ever be able to believe:
that I am not alone.
Dag Hammarskjold, Markings
But at some moment I, did answer Yes to Someone – or something –
and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and
that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
Dag Hammarskjold, Markings
Konopka was born Gisela Peiper in 1910 to parents who had emigrated to Germany to escape the pogroms of Poland. Her parents owned and operated a small store in Berlin and the family, including her older sister Hanna arid younger sister Ruth, lived in two rooms attached to the store. While they were poor, her father’s love of books was instilled in all of the children. All three of them went through the Gymnasium and the University (the story of her early life is poignantly presented in her autobiography, Courage and Love)
In adolescence, Gisela joined the youth movement, or Wandervogel, a movement little understood by most North Americans. Her participation in this movement, and the freedom from authority it afforded her, profoundly affected her life and is an important link to her later work in Germany as well as in the U.S. She experienced first hand both the positive influences of group dynamics (in her socialist youth group) as well as the negative influences of group dynamics (as a result of the Nazi movement) while a young woman.
Many of the leaders of the reform movement in education and delinquency in Germany came from the youth movement. The youth movement started around the turn of the 20th century as a protest against a parent generation which seemed to be too comfortable and bourgeoisie to the younger generation. Youth came together to discover a sense of community through hiking, their own kind of festivals, and many discussions. By selecting their own leaders, and strengthening their own sense of responsibility, a deep sense of bonding, order and purpose was brought to their lives (Konopka, 1968).
The movement, not unlike the youth movement of the 1960s in North America and elsewhere, demanded the acceptance of new forms of living The ethics of sex, for example, differed from the mainstream in that the double standard was rejected and, honesty between partners and respect for each other’s feelings were underscored. Both men and women rejected traditional dress and wore sandals and loose clothing. The women wore ribbons and flowers in their hair. They carried guitars arid sang and read poetry. They did not believe in drinking alcohol because it was the drink of the bourgeoisie. They rejected all differentials based on social class (Konopka, 1968). It was a radical spirit to which Gisela was profoundly drawn and in which she met her soulmate, Paul Konopka. Paul, a non-Jewish German, a few years older, became the love of her life despite years of separation and times when one did not know if the other was still alive. Paul was the jovial, often smiling and joking complement to Gisela’s serious; worried, more despairing manner.
Gisela Konopka was just finishing graduate work in philosophy, history, and education when Hitler came to power and found that, despite being an honors student,, she would be unable, because she was Jewish, to .teach and live a professional life. She and Paul joined the resistance movement leading to life and death involvement in underground work. Both were imprisoned at various times (she was seized in 1936 and put in the HamburgFuhlsbuttel concentration camp) and, eventually, had to flee the country. Paul, hunted by the Nazis, escaped in 1936 and made his way to France. Later, Gisela went to Austria to do more underground work, but, after another imprisonment, fled to France where she eventually connected again with Paul where they lived in hiding. During this time, she occasionally wrote articles in Anti-Nazi magazines (Letter to Louise and Larry, 9-16-42).
In the spring of 1941, they emigrated to the U.S., Gisela three months earlier than Paul. They married three days after his arrival in New York and Paul, later, always liked to tease Gisa that “You never gave me a chance to meet the American girls.” She wrote of their wedding day in 1941 in her 25 year anniversary tribute to Paul (privately published in 1977 with poetry by Gisela and pictures of Paul’s artwork).
How can anyone know? This marriage is a miracle. According to The Nazis, none of us should be alive. Anyhow, we surely should not be married. The justice of the peace, a French Nazi, in the little southern French village from which we just had come, had even refused to marry us because no Jew and non-Jew should be united. But here we are! …Paul and I rehearse. He does not yet know English, and he is concerned about understanding the Justice of the Peace. `How will I know when to say yes?’ he wonders. (Both of us do not know that the right way to answer is ‘I do,’ and we find that out only years later.) We agree that…I will squeeze his hand when the time comes to answer.
They were very nervous during the ceremony and Gisela could not understand the judge’s rapid English ; as a result, she was not sure when Paul should say `yes..’ To make sure it is said, she kept squeezing Paul’s hand and he said `yes’ each time his hand was squeezed. The judge kept giving them surprised looks. But, they got through it and finally, after knowing each other for 12 years, they were married.
By September, they were in Pittsburgh where Gisela Konopka became a group work student at the School of Social Work and Paul got a job in a factory. Gisa chose Pittsburgh after meeting in blew York with Clara Kaiser who recommended that Gisa talk with social group worker Gertrude Wilson, a professor of social group work at Pittsburgh. Paul and Gisela made friends with Americans active in the labor movement in Pittsburgh because they had been active in the labor movement in Germany. She took a course on labor problems offered in the school of social work and wrote her master’s thesis on a labor union topic, Worker’s Education in Pittsburgh.
Soon, after the U.S. entry into World War II, Paul was drafted into the American Army and, once it was realized that his German could be useful, served most of the time in London with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) doing secret work that he could not share with Gisa. He survived the Blitz. Despite their lengthy separations through all their political work in Germany in the 1930s, both agreed that Paul should contribute to the war effort on behalf of the Americans against their foe, the Nazis. Gisa wrote an old friend from the youth movement, Hilde, who had emigrated to England, already writing in English,
We both feel in a way thankful and almost happy that aliens in this country are treated like everybody else …And we both think that it is necessary at the moment to put every strength and much effort into the winning of the war … [Paul] writes very content and happy letters. . . [T]his is a country where the great experiment of many peoples living together is made. _. [Paul] feels thoroughly accepted as equal among equals, his skills are recognized, and they like to hear of his experiences (Letter to Hilde,11-9-42, Konopka’s private papers.)
With Paul gone, Gisela roomed with another MSW student, Mildred Keenan from Montana, in a rooming house. Keenan’s husband was also serving in the Armed Forces. They shared a bed and, with other young women in the rooming house, one hot plate and a bath. She worried about her family (her father had died, her sister Ruth had been killed in England and her mother and sister Hanna were is Palestine), and wrote Paul daily. Yet, she felt ignited by the stimulation of graduate school and by her experience in the field placement.
During her studies she, on the one hand, was impressed with the degree of racial integration in the MSW program and, on the other hand, she began to realize that this integration did not represent the .rest of the country. She committed herself to continue the fight begun in Germany against any unequal or inhumane treatment to anyone. The radical, African American poet Langston Hughes was invited to the MSW Program where he read his poems and spoke of racial issues. Gisa was very affected by his poetry and had him sign one of his books which remains a treasure and a source of inspiration to her to this day.
From 1941 onward, she began an occasional, personal journal that continues to this day. Her entries describe her classes including classroom discussions. For example, on April 29, 1942, she wrote “The discussion course of Miss Wilson is very good. Today the subject was the Negro problem [with the Negro] students [participating as] calm, intelligent discussion leaders.” The next week she writes (5-4-42) that Miss Wilson gave an address to the class that she had prepared for a professional social work conferenceGisa writes: “I am much impressed by the underlying philosophy so similar to ours. It is important to educate people not only [about] freedom ‘from’ but [also about] freedom ‘for’ which means responsibility. She expresses deep thoughts in a clear, understandable language.” In both Wilson’s and Marion Hathway’s classes in 1941, she found a heavy focus on the “cancer of American society, racism” (Konopka, 1988, p: 3).
She found at Pittsburgh, particularly from Gertrude Wilson, but also from her readings of Grace Coyle and Clara Kaiser (with their interests in the labor movement and social action) a philosophy that she and others had been talking about back in Germany before Hitler (Konopka, 1981). Now she could take all she had learned and experienced in Germany and integrate it with her new-found discipline: social group work.
The most awkward and unpleasant aspect of social group work for her was the recreation course taught by Gladys Ryland. She writes (9-29-42): “The class in the studio is silly. I am angry that I feel tired the whole day.” (9-30-42): “Had the studio course. Folk dancing! I just don’t like it, feel silly and clumsy…” But later, at the Child Guidance Clinic, she came to understand the importance of using art and dance to help the children communicate and work through issues. Today, Gisela credits both Wilson and Ryland with providing her an excellent education in social group work.
Gisela Konopka’s work at the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Clinic as its first group worker, work for which she is so well¥known today, began as a second year field placement and resulted in a professional position in which she stayed another four years. Early in her work with the children she came to understand that they all had one thing in common “…they are rejected children, rejected at least by one of the parents. [T]hey can’t grow straight,” she wrote. She added, “I know my work cannot be striking, but it can be helpful for them… It also might be helpful in a larger frame, that more people learn how important the work in a group is.” (Letter to Hilde, 11-3-42).
Finally, by summer, 1943, with Paul gone and her brave front now less brave, she wrote “They ask, ‘How are you?’ and I_ say ‘Fine’ and smile. I laugh with the kids. But the tears burn behind my eyes. It is this feeling of utter loneliness among so many people And my disgusting attitude: Why always me? Why had we to be separated all the time? Why – now again?”
Her sense of peace and safety had always been with Paul and his absence, yet again, made her feel unsafe. His life was her solace. A poem she wrote to Paul, written later on his 50th birthday explains (1977):
It is not far away
not in all the places
where light shines brightly
and the flowers bloom –
It is not in the silent mountains
nor the rushing waters,
the quiet trees that
spread a gentle shade
It is not even in the stars
that shine so brightly
over soft hills or lakes
which lie so still…
It is in us. in our love alone that we find
With a recent MSW and a very satisfying job at the Child Guidance Clinic, she began to write and publish. In 1944 alone, she published three articles: Social group work in a psychiatric setting with Gertrude Wilson as co-author; Group therapy in Pittsburgh; and, Refugee children in wartime. She wanted to not only make a difference to the children with whom she worked, but also to other practitioners who might benefit from what she wrote. Morris West, a writer who would come to have great importance to her, aman she felt “[gave] to me more than any other writer” wrote: ‘Then I began to understand something. If I lived for myself and with myself, I should always be hollow, always in solitude’ (Morris West).
In 1947, the Konopkas moved to Minnesota where Gisela was recruited to strengthen the Group Work Concentration at the School of Social Work. Once Gisela was settled in her job at Minnesota, she continued her prolific writing, participated fully in the local community, and became very active in professional associations. She connected with the St. Paul and the Minneapolis Urban Leagues and by the late 1940s keynoted their annual meeting. She had been active in AAGW since the 1940s and also became very involved with NASW in the mid-50s. She chaired the committee that developed the Working Definition, a definition generally attributed to Harriet Bartlett. Konopka considers it a “freak of historical research” that a definition that was written on her front porch by an excellent committee including Bill Gordon and Janet Gevov became known as Bartlett’s definition. Bartlett published it, but Konopka does not feel in any way that Bartlett purposely tried to imply that she had written it. In her view, it is simply an example of what happens to historical stories. (Oral History, p, 575).
One of her favorite associations was the Orthopyschiatric Association in which she served as national President. She was the first social worker to hold that position. She found herself flying to professional meetings several times a month, teaching full¥time, actively engaging in scholarship, conducting workshops, training, and lectures around the world throughout the year, and maintaining a home life of social exchange with a diverse group of visitors. The arts were central to the Konopkas who regularly attended the theatre and art shows.
Paul found work at General Mills as an engineer. Over the years, his responsibilities grew and Gisela was thrilled that he was able, without a formal education, to find such satisfying work. Time permitting, he completely rebuilt a run¥down, unheated summer cottage on a half-acre lot they had bought on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. Over the years their house, which Paul rebuilt into a magnificent home, was highlighted in a variety of newspaper articles. Finally, after years of travel through many countries as refugees, they had a permanent home. Gisela reported that “[Paul] said he didn’t know how to live in a place where you couldn’t touch the refrigerator from the bed”(Haga, 1986).
This home became a center for the disenfranchised, the disenchanted, those hungry for dialogue and belonging – for all who sought refuge for any reason. When she retired in 1978, a colleague wrote:
…it is a long, bitter-sweet time since you and Paul gathered us as young field instructors, faculty and students and shared your , home as the center of a philosophy of life as well as a method of work… [all of your] achievements will have lasting influence because each was founded on deep respect for human dignity and social justice, the principles by which you and Paul lived and communicated to others (Cohn, 1978).
In Minnesota, Gisela Konopka thrived at the University – particularly, as time went on, outside of the School of Social Work – and built an international reputation, not only as a social group worker, but especially as an expert on youth. As an “Ambassador of Justice” she visited institutions throughout the world, helping staff humanize the institutionalized experience of the young residents. Her 1949 book Therapeutic Group Work with Children placed her in a number of camps professionally: work with adolescents, group work, and psychiatry. Her rapidly increasing volume of articles and lectures reflected her interdisciplinary nature. She was not just a group worker or a social worker, she was an advocate for justice; non-stop fighter of wrongs, spokesperson for those silenced – often youth.
With both Paul and Gisa working, they made the decision to live on half of their income, sending the remainder to those who needed it back in Germany: They sponsored many refugees to the US, many of whom lived with them for long periods of time; their home was always bursting with. people visiting or living at their home. Additionally, they took in troubled adolescents, some of whom now comprise the core of loyal Konopka helpers who visit her, care for her when she is ill, and help by taking her shopping. She calls this group which includes all those close to her, her. “Wahlvervandschaften” (family by choice) (Annual letter, 1999).
During her career, Konopka worked in countries spanning the globe bringing her compassion and values with her as she visited children’s institutions and treatment centers. A prime example of how she transported her notions of humane treatment and justice to others is her post World War II work in Germany.
In the early 1950s, she began a series of trips back to Germany, at the request of the U.S. State Department, to help rebuild the country after the war. She was instrumental in teaching democratic process through social group work. The country had not only lost the potential contributions of the millions murdered in concentration camps, but also had lost many intellectuals who fled the country. Over 25,000 professionals left Central Europe during the Nazi period. Of those who emigrated to the United States and made noted contributions, the International Biographical Dictionary of Central European Emigres 1933-45, indicates that 116 were social workers (West, 1990. It should be noted too that there were 290 psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts). Their departure was an enormous loss to German education and child welfare – both shifted after their departure.
Konopka, with her compassion for children and all in need, was eager to return to help. She treated this country which was the place of so much pain for her earlier, with dignity and respect and was unwilling to generalize her pain to all of the people. She wrote:
In Germany I represented, to those who had been anti Nazi all during the Nazi period, somebody who had stood up with them and therefore someone who did not generalize about all Germans. I also represented the United States and a profession that believed in respect for every human being, even though this wasn’t always put into practice (1997, p. 57).
To German social workers, Konopka is considered the “mother of social group work.” She brought to Germany her philosophy of “justice with a heart”, a concept that undergirds her view of the human experience. This view values the human being as central to any issue. It stresses human dignity, interdependence, and mutuality. As German group worker Jurgen Kalcher (1995. Translation by Peacock, M.) noted:
Her answer was not to turn away from the German people who had humiliated her and had forced her to flee. ..but turning toward helping them. Her humanistic stance wad responsible …in developing West German social work and in preventing it from falling back to barbaric conditions of social inferiority.
It was during her first trip back to Germany in 1950 that she met Elisabeth Sulau in Hamburg and began an intense, long¥term relationship. Sulau took Konopka’s teachings on social group work and applied them to her work in juvenile probation. Gisela returned in 1951 to teach courses ire social group work under the sponsorship of the Conference of the German Schools for Social Work and again in the 1960s to Erlangen to teach courses for instructors of social group work (Schiller, n.d.)
By now the author of many articles, two books – Group Work in the Institution: A Modern Challenge came out in 1954 -, and a world traveler as a teacher, lecturer and advocate for justice, she decided to get a doctorate during her 1954/55 sabbatical year from the University of Minnesota. She chose the New York School of Social Work (later, Columbia University) because she wanted to study under Eduard Lindeman, a man who “consciously, emphasized and constantly reminded the profession of its philosophical base” (Konopka, 1958, p. 11). He died before she got there; however, her interest in his philosophy was intense and led her to write a dissertation on him that was later published as a book, Eduard C. Lindeman and Social Work Philosophy (1958). Her dissertation committee was comprised of Nathan Cohen, Gordon Hamilton, and the historian Henry Commager. She maximized her time in New York completing all her course work and much of her dissertation in one year. In addition, she frequented art galleries, museums, and when she could afford it on her meager budget, the theatre.
Her time in New York gave her the perspective of distance as she pondered her future in Minnesota. She realized that hers and Paul’s joined life had taken root in Minnesota, its beautiful landscape moved them, and their home meant so much to them. They would not be leaving. From this point on, she easily turned down all job offers.
Back, in Minnesota, she continued her schedule of sitting on boards, traveling, writing, and teaching. Major articles were published – by the time she finished her doctoral work, she had published over 30 articles and three books. A book that has been used all over the world in group work classes, Social Group. Work: A Helping Process came out in 1963. In it, she defined social group work as: “a method of social work which helps individuals to enhance their social functioning through purposeful group experiences and to cope more effectively with their personal, group or community problems.” She added that, “When the group worker uses his particular professional training and skill to work with groups of individuals who have problems in personal and social functioning, he enters the practice of group therapy.” (p. 34.). Another well-utilized book, Adolescent Girl in Conflict came out in 1966.
Konopka had always stressed the importance of interdisciplinary work and increasingly made adamant statements about the dangers of staying insulated in one’s profession. In the 1960s, she was a member of an interdisciplinary group who came together to discuss group work. Members included educators, sociologists, psychologists and group workers. She reported that “It was not easy to establish communication among the different disciplines, but the exciting fact was that a beginning was made. It was stimulating and very necessary to cross professional borders!” She added a warning: “Work with people cannot be looked upon only from the viewpoint of separated professions. We must build far more integrated knowledge and methods” (Annual letter, 1967).
By the late 1960s, with a couple of hundred publications and travel to teach in Cyprus, Brazil, Jerusalem, India, Japan, Thailand, more trips to Germany, and many other countries, as well as continued teaching in the social work program, she entered Administration at the University of Minnesota. In 1968, Konopka was appointed to the post of coordinator of community programs at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs The next year, 1969, she was appointed Special Assistant to the Vice-President for Student Affairs. She was instrumental in working with student leaders and activists during a turbulent year at the university. Students believed in. and trusted Konopka and administration was willing to listen to her as she helped them understand the students’ issues. Her role as a buffer between the two groups was explained by the 1969/70 student-body president, Tom Gilsenan:
“[The] upper administration people weren’t combative, but needed reassurance. Gisa provided that. She reflected back on her own youth movement and stressed how important it had been to her. She helped them understand that students were making choices — that different choices had different consequences. [Her message was always] nonjudgmental. Her core message was: These young people are speaking about a better world (Gilsenan, 2000).
Shortly, she became the director of the Center on Youth Development and Research. With a large grant from the Lily Endowment, she was able to conduct a major two-year study on adolescent girls. Many articles as well as a book, Young Girls: A Portrait of Adolescence (1976) resulted from the study. Her years at the Center were among her happiest at the University. Paul had retired and was now able to travel with Gisa and to take her to and from work. They enjoyed his retirement and their time together and were looking forward to when both would be retired. Sadly, in 1976, Paul failed to pick Gisa up from work. When a colleague drove her home, she knew she was going to find the worst. Paul had died of a heart attack sometime during the day.
Now alone, Konopka retired from the University of Minnesota in 1978 although it was a mere technicality. She continued a busy schedule of papers, presentations, consultations, travel, and work with organizations around the globe. Upon her retirement, she received many “thank yous” from colleagues, former students, and all whose lives she had touched. Ruby Pernell wrote: “Thank you for what you did to shape my career. You gave it direction because you believed and practiced affirmative action when no one else had ever heard of it” (letter to Konopka, 5-30-78). A former student, David Fogel, wrote that
[As an instructor] you didn’t denigrate the technology but you did teach that upon the morality of actual practice hinged the development of the professional. You taught us hope. You taught us to praise the light not to wallow cursing the darkness… You taught us what I never believed could be taught — passion for our profession and compassion for our clientele …You sparked an imagery of leadership for social justice.. .In a word, Gisa, `you lit up our lives.’ Anyone touched by you is today a bit more human” (letter to Konopka, (6-60-78).
A former student from Germany, Heiko Rohrbach, wrote that what he learned from Konopka was basically biblical: “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Konopka, he saw “a very sober, almost relentlessly critical love for one’s neighbour at work.” He believed it was the best lesson he had ever learned (letter to Konopka, 5-17-78).
Gisela Konopka died on December 9, 2003 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. She was 93.
While Gisela Konopka acknowledges that, to her, what is important about social group work is the philosophy which drives the concepts, she is not interested in seeing her philosophy named after her. She said, “Some of my students said I should call it the Konopka view of mankind. I am not arrogant enough to do so” (1981, p. 114). She believes that any theory, used dogmatically, is simple and false.
Throughout her career, she has warned against a too heavy reliance on technique. For her, it has always been the philosophy. Her early writings speak to this. In 1956, she pointed out that it was only with the “increased interest in method and technique in social work that group work and casework separated sharply”(1956, p. 74). This separation forced the development of tools “of which some would say is good,” she added. . However, to her, the value of the generic was in the thinking of social work as one profession and not one or another method. To her, good social work practice integrates concern for the individual and the group with concern for political action. Konopka (interview, 2000) believes that group work is the
Incredible opportunity to transmit an extraordinary theory about interaction, influencing the individual to help self and, in the process, help each other. It is not necessarily affiliated with any agency roots as in the Y or camping or settlements. Rather, it is a philosophy. I have seen this excitement from working with prisons or young people in institutions. Also, when I went to Germany, they got so excited. Someone said in Germany, `Where there is group work, there can be no fascism.’ The group helps people be themselves.
Konopka sees the tension in social work between micro and macro intervention (words she calls atrocious), “absolutely irrelevant” (1981). She has steadfastly maintained throughout her life that dualistic thinking is simple thinking. At one point, Gisela decided to not talk about group work again – she didn’t want to be identified with only group work, but with working to end suffering. Her focus was on those in pain and she came to believe that an interdisciplinary approach must be used. She did not want to be pigeon-holed as just a social group worker. But, in 1979, shortly after Konopka retired, Ruby Pernell, her close friend from their days together at the University of . Pittsburgh School of Social Work, came to Minneapolis to talk to her about a revival of social group work. Pernell said,
‘Now look, Gisa, there is a revival of group work. It has .been shunned, thrown away, by social work, and now there are a whole bunch of people who want to revive it. And we will have a meeting in Cleveland where we will …revive social group work’. And [Konopka] said, ‘it doesn’t interest me one bit’. Then [Pernell] began talking about how important it was still in social work education to get students at least acquainted with these thoughts. And [Konopka] said, ‘okay…if that meeting will be not a reminiscing, you know: Oh, how wonderful were the good old days when group work was so great – or just rehashing of anything we have thought.’ Eventually, [Konopka] agreed to participate on a panel during the opening plenary (NASW Oral History Project, 1980).
During the opening plenary of the new Committee for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups in Cleveland, she announced that many hopes she had for the social group work method were fulfilled. However, she added:
I think …that the affiliation with social work to which I agreed at the given time, probably was a mistake. The roots of social work are too closely anchored in authoritarian and bureaucratic historical developments. The acceptance of something as revolutionary as social group work was too hard for this profession …the social work profession wanted its practitioners to be totally ‘in charge.’ The power of members was feared. This prevented the profession and especially its educational establishment from giving fullest recognition to social group work ” (1981, p.115).
Gisela Konopka has never felt satisfied with herself. Her journals are filled with self-doubts, self-incriminations and despair: “I should do more”, “I must love more”, I cannot do it.” She has always wondered if she is doing anything of significance – does her work make the world a better place? She strongly believes that we are all responsible for the shape of human fate. When the Russian men were trapped a week in their submarines this summer (2000) and eventually died, Gisela herself had a sleepless week and struggled to breathe. She takes comfort in the words of Morris West when he says: “You taught me better than you know…You left me with this itch to mend the world, but you never taught me the art of living in it comfortably. ”
Ironically, this champion of justice who has her whole life fought for the human dignity of all people under all circumstances finds the current stance of multiculturalism curiously separatist. She does not accept narrow, racially biased solutions of complex individual and social problems. She believes that we are failing to acknowledge subcultures. While she believes in celebrating differences, she believes that it is what we have in common – the human ingredient – that should be underscored. She looks inward to remind herself and others of the complexity within us all. She sees herself often being the bridge between ideas and perspectives. She wrote in 1955 (May 5) in her diary: “…I always have been bridge: Polish and German Jew, Jew with Christian ideas, Europe-USA. Perhaps it is good, perhaps this makes for understanding. Social workers should have done a lot of living.”
She “resent[s] the harshness of the professional attitude” (interview, 2000) and cannot reconcile that attitude with social group work practice where relationships cannot, in her view, be rigid and distanced. “In the group, we are all members” she often says (interview). When she received the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award in 1992 in Minneapolis, she told the audience that love is the only power that can defeat the power of fear. She explained that .
Fear is the base of hate …Let us be gentle with our young ones instead of constantly criticizing and chiding them …Let us give our young people joy and beauty and stimulation instead of dreary places to grow up in and no experience of the beauty of the arts, poetry, music dance.
She thanked the audience for giving her courage and hope to continue again and again (Annual letter, 1992). Her inspiration for this comes from South African Alan Paton whom she quotes in her 1992 annual letter:
It is my own belief that the only power which can .resist the power of fear is the power of love. It is a weak thing and tender thing. ..But I look for the day when …we shall realize that the only lasting and worthwhile solution of our grave and profound problems lies not in the use of power, but in that understanding and compassion without which human life is an intolerable bondage, condemning us all to an existence of violence, misery and fear. (Alan Paton, 1949)
Konopka is afraid to “let up”, even for a minute because someone may be hurt by her indifference. It keeps her diligent and for support, she remembers the words of Morris West:
I can be silenced, not by enemies, not by authority – but by my own comfortable indifference! I can believe that just because I have written a few pages which will be widely published, I have given full witness and earned the right to dream out the rest of time until Judgement Day.
Her bottom-line message in all of her presentations is not complicated: “No person is ever superior to anyone else – that is it, all in a nutshell.”
This paper ends with a poem written by a graduate social work student who; during the past year, has visited Konopka in her home
please don’t leave now,
i have only just
a ‘real’ adult who believes
what my core speaks to me.
i am not crazy.
you’ve spent 90 years full, vibrant, pained and joyous
i want to sit with your wisdoms
and sacred knowing and
soak in the trust you carry
and I impatiently seek.
you’d probably tell me it’s already inside me.
what keeps me alive is asking questions, curious dialogue, and
what do we do with our doubt?
what do we do with the ache of humanity’s pain and suffering?
how do we bear it?
i create: poem, picture, song or.
i drown in the undigestible emotions
that are the guts and heart of
those I serve and learn with.
the paradoxes don’t find resolution
do they? The tensions are the fertile ground,
the fruit or barrenness of our living
and how we learn to integrate them is our
It is all circle and cycle and understanding.
Stacy Husebo, 9-18-2000
A symposium reception and dinner to honor Gisela Konopka on her retirement from the University of Minnesota (June 6, 1978). Brochure. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
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This paper was originally given at the 22nd Annual International Symposium, Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups, Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada – October 19-22, 2000 – and published as part of the Minnesotans and the Holocaust pages at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota.
National Association of Social Workers (2003) ‘Gisela Konopka’ in Social Work Pioneers, http://www.naswfoundation.org/pioneers/k/konopka.htm, Accessed: December 12, 2003.
Acknowledgements: The picture, by FredArmitage/flickr is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic licence.
How to cite this article: Andrews, J. (2000) ‘Champion of Social Justice: Contributions of Gisela Konopka’, Paper given at the 22nd Annual International Symposium, Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups, Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada – October 19-22, 2000 andrepublished as’Gisela Konopka and group work’ in The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/konopka.htm.
Professor Janice Andrews teaches and researches in the School of Social Work at the University of St. Thomas/College of St Catherine. She is also Vice-President, Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups, International and is working on a biography of Gisela Konopka.
© Janice Andrews 2000 (updated 2004). Reprinted here with the permission of the author.
Last Updated on July 8, 2019 by infed.org