Karin Schmitt-Promny: AACHEN’S GREEN THUMB

WHEN: 5 July 2014

WHERE: Bütgenbach, Belgium

INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski

Q: We are sitting in the lounge of the hotel at the end of our first day of SISTERBIKE XIV, a cycling adventure involving 38 participants, mainly from Aachen and Arlington, that started this morning in Aachen, Germany, and will eventually cover about 500 Km through Belgium (where we are today), Luxembourg, and France, ending on 13 July in the French Champagne capital of Reims.

 

I will start by asking you, Karin, about your background. Where are you from? Where were you born?

 

KSP: I was born in 1953in Arsbeck, about 50 km from Aachen. My family came to Aachen in 1962. I have lived in Aachen ever since—went to school here, passed the Abitur, studied at the university RWTH Aachen. I began working in the field of University didactics.Already as a student and later on as a scientific employee we’ve been a group of young people who initiated projects in media works and student learning, eventually with my future husband, with whom I founded an independent media technology company in 1987 , AK Media. We do planning for media spaces and also do the installation work. Since 2008 I have been active in the Joint Welfare Association (Deutscher Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband). I worked with DPWV for 15 years on a voluntary basis before becoming part of the professional staff. I am an advisor for day-care centers – Kindergarten. I serve DPWV’s member organizations, responding to inquiries with information about the structure, financing, personnel issues, legal developments and anything else related to day-care centers. I then help the organizations find solutions to whatever challenges they present. So I operate on two professional tracks presently. Beyond that, I am politically active in Aachen and its region. I am a member of the Green Party. Until earlier this year I was a member of the Aachen City Council (Stadtrat) and switched over to the Städteregionstag—Aachen Regional Council—comparable to the Arlington County Council. I enjoy this engagement, especially in the two policy fields of education and economic development. Concurrently, I am engaged in regionaldevelopment issues in the Rheinland.

 

Q: That is a broad palette indeed. Before we get into it more, let’s return to your growing up in the 1950s. Tell us about that period of your life.

 

KSP: FirstI attended a school in a little village with only two classes—1st-4th year and 5th-8th. Germany and the state of North-Rhine Westphalia still had the Volksschule, where all the children were taught under the same roof. When we came to Aachen in 1962, school was different. As a city, Aachen had more schools and – already in the primary classes for each age level. From there I attended a Gymnasium, a high school for girls, the only girls-Gymnasium still in existence in Aachen—Sankt Ursula.

 

Q: A Catholic school?

 

KSP: Yes. I was brought up in a Catholic environment, attending a Catholic high school. In the case of Saint Ursula’s, a girls school where I had the luck to have teachers who were liberal in orientation. This translated into a culture of open discussion from which I profited greatly. At the same time I participated in a Catholic youth organization.

 

Q: What organization was that?

 

KSP: It was the Association of Parish Youth Groups.

 

Q: What sort of activities defined the association?

 

KSP: One responsibility was to prepare the celebration of masses, selecting Biblical readings and the like. We had fun spending our leisure time in a group of young ones and we also were active in communal life. I passed the Abitur (German high school exam to qualify for study at university) in 1972, after which I took up studies at the Aachen Polytechnic (RWTH=Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule). At this time the situation of women in our society became very important, the differences between men and women as well as the competition between them and the question of inequality of opportunity for women in their professions. That turned out to be important for the development of many young women. Promotion of specialfemalePrograms was infrequent in Germany, which limped behind the United States in this respect. For example, there is no college/university for women on offer in Germany.

 

Q: We have some in the States.

 

KSP: Yes, I know! During my feminist periodI got to know much about the United States in connection with this issue. It is necessarythat we come together as women to protect and expand our rights. The issue remains, despite the German constitutional provisions (Grund Gesetz). Equal pay for equal work still does not prevail. In general, further progress, further political engagement is required.

 

Q: Was there any American connection to this?

 

KSP: In the 1960s and in the 1970s there were female protests. We were aware of them, along with those directed against the Vietnam war and those for the rights of Afro-Americans. In the case of women, they are fighting for rights over their own bodies as well as for social rights. Connections between German and American women existed.

 

Q: What did you study at RWTH?

 

KSP: After school, it was hard for me to decide which subject I should study. I started with Psychology, but ended up focusing on German Philology (Germanistik) and social sciences: Political science, Sociology and Economics.

 

Q: What made you switch?

 

KSP: There were programmatic changes in German Philology and social sciences that appealed to me. Collective approaches were synched up with individual study in new ways. It went beyond lectures and involved more active forms of learning. I liked that. Via this route I found my way to an institute for teaching/learning strategies in higher education (Hochschuldidaktik). There I had an opportunity to develop a student-organized project:students could get assistance for their studies there.

 

Q: This was part of a broader movement to reform higher education in Germany?

 

KSP: Right. We wanted to put an end to the university defined by academic dons—in German, the Ordinarien. In that model the professor was exalted; students gathered to listen to his lectures. No account was taken of how students actually lived and worked. We desired to find pathways to facilitate the further development of the students, i.e., students at the center of the process. One key concern in this field was academic staff development—in the sense of conveying to the teaching staff how to teach and be sure, that students can learn. Students were associated with this institute and they could develop projects. In my case, we organized a project on the media—how TV and film could be exploited to improve teaching. Once involved in this field, I was hooked.

 

Q: How connected were you in this movement to neighboring countries? Aachen is famously connected nowadays in many areas of life to developments in The Netherlands and Belgium. France is not far away.

 

KSP: Students already had opportunities to travel in the 1970s. Especially during vacations you could visit other European countries. Also student exchanges were possible. I did one in Romania; I did another in Egypt. I also had an opportunity to go to East Germany and the Soviet Union, to Belarus.

 

Q: You were widely traveled! What impact did your Catholic upbringing have in your encounters with the wider world?

 

KSP: The Catholic connection in school and in community work taught me to discuss openly, to think about the world around me, to consider options for the future, and to commit to action, also embracing personal transformation in the process. That legacy motivates me to this day.

 

Q: It sounds like there were people in the church that you encountered that facilitated the things you just mentioned.

 

KSP: Especially in Germany and The Netherlands there is a critical mass of those identifying with a broad reform agenda, even though the church is, on balance, a conservative institution. The circles in which I developed were shaped by this reform agenda. That said, I would not describe this as political in the usual partisan sense. Mostly, action was defined pragmatically vis-à-vis the university or women’s projects.

 

Q: So this was a culture that empowered you in important ways.

 

KSP: Yes, indeed. It has been an important influence in my life.(16:33)

 

Q: Why don’t we focus a bit on the 1980s, the decade prior to the founding of the Aachen-Arlington sister city relationship. What was your path in that period?

 

KSP: I received my Diplom in 1982 and found work in the same institute that I had done my studies. I carried over the student project, further developing it as a young researcher with my new professional credential. I worked on research about women, media, and the university system itself. It was also in the mid-1980s that [my future husband] Andreas and I founded our own company. We started out by making video films. We later moved into commercials and then media projects. Andreas handles project planning and I specialize in company finances.

 

Q: Not every couple founds a business together. How did that come about?

 

KSP: Well, it’s not always easy to reconcile the private sphere with the working one. We managed to succeed. We raised two children together: our son Dominikwas born in 1987, our daughter Laura in 1990. We had no choice but to reconcile the spheres. We had to resolve the classic issue of who would work first while the other concentrated on the work at home. Beside my engagement in the company, sometimes I took on the classical role at home, while Andreas took the leadership in the company. It was also during the late 1980s that I redirected my attention from women’s issues to children’s issues. In 1991, together with other parents, we founded a Kindergarten, a favorable environment for our children while we worked, a form of reconciling family and work-life. In our conception, parents are the leading staff of the Kindergarten. We organized it in such a way that we qualified for financial support from both the state [of North-Rhine Westfalia] and the city of Aachen, allowing us to hire professional educators for the children.

 

Q: In the 1980s Germany no longer had a reputation for being a hotbed of innovation. Yet, here you are, all these years later, in the very seedbed of start-ups in the region. How was it possible for you to conceive of starting your own business?

 

KSP: Some credit surely goes to our university institute and the work we were able to accomplish there. We were permitted, even encouraged, to follow our own star. We were motivated to try to develop our own business from the beginning. In that moment there was a general recognition that new business formation should be promoted. We were fortunate to live in the shadow of a great repository of knowledge, the RWTH, that could be helpful, if it could somehow be tapped. Aiding us was the economic transformation occurring around us: mining, particularly anthracite coal, was no longer economical and it, along with lignite, had provided the basis of the regional economy for a century. RWTH is one of the first German universities to have preoccupied itself with connecting technical knowledge and economic development. A special culture of innovation was spawned.

 

Q: All politics is local politics.

 

KSP: It is important to find a way to contribute to meeting challenges in your immediate environs. People from the locality are a great resource for regional development—they have skin in the game.

 

Q: I guess the presence of RWTH made a great difference.

 

KSP: Yes. It made it easier to leverage and localize the benefits of cooperation between budding entrepreneurs, the chamber of commerce, and the city and regional public administrations.

 

Q: A fascinating story. There are useful contrasts with the United States. Eastern Pennsylvania was the center of America’s anthracite industry, but when the economic bottom fell out in the 1930s, it never recovered. The difference between, say, Scranton Pennsylvania and Aachen is that Scranton did not have a latent economic development agent like RWTH and there was not the same level of commitment to regional economic development. The result was a huge migratory outflow of population.

 

Why don’t we move on to discuss the 1990s, the decade of the founding of the Aachen-Arlington sister city relationship. How did you come to discover that relationship?

 

KSP: I think I learned about it from a report in the newspaper. As a “local patriot” of Aachen I am pleased with our connection to Arlington, because such major landmarks as Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon are there.

 

Q: You thought you were getting the better deal?

 

KSP: I can’t admit that either. (laughter) After all, in embracing Aachen, you are getting one of Europe’s most interesting cities.

 

Q: Don’t we know it!

 

KSP: It’s about our location. Aachen is situated at the junction of three countries and so close to Brussels, Europe’s capital. Perhaps we are better known in the world than Arlington. Seriously, though, most of the people here have been well aware of Arlington National Cemetery since President Kennedy’s assassination and interment there in 1963. Many Germans followed those sad events on TV.

 

Q: Is that a personal memory for you?

 

KSP: Yes, it is. I remember the TV bearing the news. I was ten years old then. I also remember Kennedy’s “I am a Berliner” speech just months before that in August, 1963.

 

Q: Perhaps you were also aware of two more political assassinations in American some years later in 1968, Martin Luther King in April and President Kennedy’s brother, Robert, then a senator from New York.

 

KSP: Yes. I remember them. Our family saw the reports on the news. I was 15 and by this time had learned something about the racial conflict in the United States. I can also recall the reaction to King’s killing. The murder was a shocking, numbing event. We know his “I have a dream” speech.

 

Q: The times were fraught with other conflicts as well, such as the ongoing war in Vietnam.

 

KSP: It was a time of widespread protest actions in Germany, also directed against the prosecution of this war.

 

Q: Were you affected by the protest movements in the 1970s and 1980s?

 

KSP: Not so much during my time in high school. In that time, I was aware of the protests but did not participate in them. I became more political when I was at university.

 

Q: We were discussing Aachen-Arlington.

 

KSP: During the mid-1990s when the Aachen-Arlington relationship was in its infancy, so were my children. It was a busy time for the family. I needed to devote time to our company. And my Kindergarten project also demanded a lot of attention. So, although I followed the early years of Aachen-Arlington with interest, I made no effort to join in.

 

Q: What were your impressions of the relationship?

 

KSP: I was aware of both the Arlington and Reims connections and perceived them as channels for people-to-people exchanges in which some joint projects might be possible. That was already important for me. If we want a peaceful world, it is necessary to know about each other, to make connections, to cooperate, to communicate. We need communication between countries and peoples. Sisterships are one way to address this need. It is a good way, often giving rise to joyous occasions. This we know from our cycling (Sisterbike) tours. They provide a way of getting to know the people and the country.

 

Q: Were you aware that President Bill Clinton received the Charlemagne Peace Prize of Aachen in June, 2000?

 

KSP: Of course. In fact, I participated in the protests against this award. One point was the disruption to city life associated with it. When a president comes to town, the town is transformed. Security precautions were overblown. I witnessed the same thing at the World Economic Summit in Cologne the year before. Beyond the disruption, there were the differences between America and Aachen we wished to articulate. We didn’t think it was wise to give the award to Clinton under the circumstances. We didn’t see a close enough connection to Europe. After all, the Charlemagne Prize was created to recognize contributions to Europe. We suspected that the prize committee was more interested in associating Aachen with an American president than in recognizing the contribution to Europe. We thought it’s a mistake that the question of media attention was more important to the committee than the substance. Prizes to lesser-known individuals might result is less media attention and fewer dignitaries taking part. But for European development, lesser known groups are working assiduously, achieving great things, and arguably more deserving of the prize. It was a good idea, for example, to give the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union two years ago, in recognition of the record of peace over 60 years in a continent that has always experienced war.

 

Q: Have you been involved in the EU?

 

KSP: I ran for a seat in the European Parliament in 2009 on the Green Party list. I did not run this year, but I was quite active in this year’s campaign because the European dimension of politics is so very important for the issues I care about most.

 

Q: As long as we are addressing the EU and EP elections, let me ask you how you view the debate animating the media today about the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) – the effort by the European Parliamentary leaders and other European leaders to advance democracy in Europe by tying the election of the next EU Commission president to the outcome of the European Parliament election only five weeks ago in May.

 

KSP: It is an important idea. My party already nominates two Spitzenkandidaten—one woman, one man – for European elections. The largest European parties organized transnational primaries, the Socialists selected Schulz (from near Aachen!) and the People’s Party, the Luxemburger, Jean-Claude Juncker, as their Spitzenkandidaten. The People’s Party achieved a plurality of seats in the new European Parliament. The European Council (the heads of state and government of the 28 member-states) have the duty to nominate a Commission president. I think it is good that now Juncker will be that nominee, one of the Spitzenkandidaten. Schulz will revert to the post of president of the European Parliament, a position he has held previously. Schulz has succeeded in transforming the EP presidency into a much more political position than had been the case before. He is a staunch advocate of the role of the Parliament in the EU institutional setup, a stance very much to be supported.

 

Q: Returning to Aachen and Arlington, when did you get involved in the sister city relationship?

 

KSP: It was in the years after 2000. I think I must have come into contact with the program and people from the Partnerschaftkomitee in the context of my engagement with the Aachen city council. Later, Silke Bastian made me aware of the cycling tours. By that time, I had already been in touch with the high school exchange through friends of mine whose children had participated in it. My son wanted to go to Arlington, but he wasn’t chosen from his school—he had already been an exchange student for a year in the United States. He was passed over in favor of someone who had not yet had the experience.

 

Q: Where did your son spend his American year?

 

KSP: He has been in Louisiana, in a little town near Shreveport. During that year we visited New York and friends in Washington/Arlington. We were invited by a family that participated in the elementary school exchange. Our son joined us from Louisiana. The Arlingtonian commented: “well, here’s the first German I have heard speaking English with a Louisianan accent!” (laughter)

 

Q: A Cajun accent? I did an exchange program in Louisiana, too—it was called basic training in the U.S. Army. (laughter) I spent two months at Fort Polk in the summer of 1972 and at least once was invited to a weekend barbeque at the home of one of the guys in my training company from a Cajun family. That period was challenging, but I remember it fondly.

 

KSP: My son learned a lot there about the American way of life. Also in politics and social questions. Louisiana is conservative. It is Republican country. When my daughter and I joined our son in Haynesville, where he was living, we entered into discussions with people and discovered some striking differences of political opinion. You will have already guessed that I am not on the Republican side. But it is important to have those conversations.

 

So, we had already been following the exchange programs. By 2007 we began to pay attention to the Sisterbike tours. The first day of SISTERBIKE VII in Denmark was also the last for me that year, as I had a bike accident and was carted off to hospital. Undeterred, I returned the next year and every year since.

 

Q: Wow! That is more than a solid week every year day-in and day-out with Arlingtonians and Aacheners. How did you find out about the cycling tours?

 

KSP: Through my acquaintance, Silke Bastian, who is member of the staff of the Aachen-Arlington Partnerschaftkomitee. When our children were old enough to strike off on their own, Andreas and I started participating.

 

Q: I have greatly valued our encounters over the past few years—I think we first met on the SisterHike in the Shenandoah in 2010. The opportunity for intense communication is unparalleled on the Sisterbike tours. We chatted this morning about local and regional politics as we cranked our bikes side-by-side on the Vennbahn over a stretch of about 10 km. I learned a lot from you then and also in the meeting you set up with AGIT (Aachen start-up agency) two days ago.

 

What was the next tour you took with Sisterbike?

 

KSP: It was the Elbe River tour (Magdeburg, Dresden, Prague). We have become addicted to the the tours. Bernie Chapnick has done an excellent job over the years in organizing Sisterbike tours. So much work and planning go into them.

 

Q: You were attracted by the quality of the program—its planning, organization—as well as the connections made en route.

 

KSP: Just so. The connections made are at the heart of it. The Aacheners and Arlingtonians who share the adventure are special. Every one of them is an interesting person with interesting experiences and stories to share. I like to hear how the others are thinking, their perceptions, their criticisms. It is a pleasure to connect on a personal level and get a more profound, textured understanding of developments in our respective countries than is normally possible. And while not motivated by political considerations, programs like this have a salutary indirect effect on political discourse.

 

Q: Sisterbike tours have always brought together about 15 Germans and 15 Americans, an interesting mix. You have a chance to talk to each other, because you are with each other a lot.

 

KSP: The topics of our conversations are varied: culture, children, professions, the situations in which people live.

 

Q: Can you share any poignant moments from recent discussions?

 

KSP: It was interesting to learn that Arlington is a Democratic county because of its inhabitants’ preferences, that it is liberal, not a Republican county. I was surprised to learn how expensive it is to arrange a university education for your children in the US. It is a difficult challenge we in Germany do not confront in that way. That’s a critical issue for me. In Germany the goal is to give every child a chance. That’s not possible if education is so expensive. I understand that scholarships are available. Nevertheless, it is a difficult question.

 

Another German perception about America I have corrected in my engagement with our Arlington friends is that Americans always and only drive cars as their means of transportation. Well, that may be true in certain parts of the country, but Arlington is a progressive county when it comes to transport policy. It was a pleasant surprise for me to discover that Aachen and Arlington are so similar in this respect.

 

Q: A transatlantic policy learning community can come from relationships like the one Aachen and Arlington enjoy?

 

KSP: Absolutely. We all must adapt to new learning opportunities. We must train ourselves to update regularly the ways we perceive the world. Take the business environment. When we started our media company, the technology was analogue. Now everything is digital. There was no alternative to adaptation.

 

Q: You have participated in seven Sisterbike tours, then.

 

KSP: That’s right. I like them very much because they offer an easy way to visit several countries. One year we rode from the Atlantic coast along the Loire River to Orleans. We did a Danube tour from Vienna to Budapest. Our Swiss tour was surprisingly flat—as we followed the river valleys through the country. Whenever there were hills, we took the train. (laughter)

 

Q: It sounds like a paradox that a European would get around Europe with an American tour guide.

 

KSP: Not paradoxical at all. It is not the only way we see Europe. We still travel extensively with our children, with our friends. But Sisterbike is a special way of seeing Europe with a value of its own. For us Europeans, it also affords a way of showing Europe to the Americans. The experience is different when done jointly.

 

All that said, perhaps even more important than Sisterbike are the Aachen-Arlington student exchanges. It is vital that our children experience the world, to do so through the eyes of others with whom you are temporarily living.

 

Q: You are particularly concerned about the future of the student exchanges?

 

KSP: Yes. We should carefully consider what more we can do. I would propose that we should develop some sort of program between RWTH and FH Aachen and universities in Arlington. Similarly, wouldn’t it be possible to work out some collaborative relationships between the city and region of Aachen and Arlington’s municipal institutions? Precedents have been established. Professional exchanges involving the transport departments of the two municipalities have taken place in the past. We should do more of this.

 

Q: To segue into the next phase of our conversation, let me ask you this: when a group of Americans arrives in Aachen, what do you most like sharing with them about Aachen?

 

KSP: I like to show them our way of living. It is nice to have Arlington guests in our home. I like to present my town, because I love Aachen, I already told you, I’m a “local patriot”. I love to show off the cathedral, the town hall, special places, especially in the summer. I also like to show guests something of the region around Aachen, and generally our politics, our development.

 

Q: Thank you for organizing the session with AGIT the other day. That was very useful. So, we are back to Aachen in its region. Can Aachen exist without its Belgian and Dutch neighbours?

 

KSP: No. Not in the future. We must pay attention to Aachen’s development, but also and increasingly to the region, as the city is dependent on its transnational environment. Each municipality has its own identity, but they all need to cooperate in order to thrive. Culture and economy do not stop at the frontiers. We have to keep on working at living together in our Euregio.

 

Q: How strong is Euregio now?

 

KSP: We have already achieved something. Incentive programs, providing funds for transnational collaboration have facilitated that. In many cases, the three countries share issues along their mutual borders, so it makes sense.

 

Q: What is your prognosis for Dreiländereck, the Euregio Aachen-Liege-Maastricht?

 

KSP: What we already have achieved demonstrates a model for living Europe. Much remains to be done. We have to go on, with little steps, perhaps slowly, but steadily. I am, we are local and Europeanpeople, oriented to a European way of life. This is an important agenda.

 

Q: Let’s begin to bring our conversation this evening to a close by considering the future of sister city relationships, beginning with the Aachen-Arlington one. How would you size up this relationship? What sort of effect do you think Aachen-Arlington has had to date? What has been achieved since the launching of this relationship 20 years ago?

 

KSP: Clearly, Aachen is not inward-looking. Arlington is one of nine Aachen sister cities. There is Ningbo, one of China’s first cities. Our relationship with Reims is to be understood above all in the context of Franco-German reconciliation after WW II. Halifax parallels that spirit. There is Kostroma in Russia, and Naumburg in East Germany when it still was East Germany, before the fall of the Wall. Aachen is positively disposed to international contacts. There is much to go on beyond the annual Charlemagne Prizes.

 

Q: Arlington is part of a galaxy, a firmament of connections, then—recognized in its specificity, but part of something broader.

 

KSP: This is indeed what I mean. Our sister city palette reflects the conviction that in this day and age, different people need each other. This need, to know one another, is especially acute for the young generation.

 

Q: How do you respond to the sceptic who says that, well, in the 1950s sister cities made a lot of sense, when communication opportunities were much narrower than they are today, but that today, with instantaneous communication, it is easy to discover what is happening practically anywhere and that, consequently, the need for sister cities no longer exists?

 

KSP: You’re right. We have new possibilities. I was able to read ASCA’s online newsletter that provided a nice report of your 20th anniversary festivities on May 5th. But we need the quality of personal contact beyond mediated communication. Conversation is required.

 

Q: So, what does the immediacy of personal contact bring that the Internet cannot provide?

 

KSP: My daughter is again living in Mexico City. I am so happy that I’m able to skype, that I can see my daughter, that I can see her face. Still, it is not the same as if she would be in our town, where on the spur of the moment we would be able to drink coffee together and speakabout things that are important to us. Much is possible via the media and we should exploit the opportunities it provides. We will lose something if all communication occurs in this way. We still need direct personal communication.