12/08/2014 07:45 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Fighting for Equal Opportunity in Germany

Revolutions elevate a new and unexpected group of people to power. In East-Central Europe in 1990, an electrician became the president of Poland, a playwright the president of Czechoslovakia, and a philosopher the president of Bulgaria. After this brief period of the world turned upside down, the professional politicians took over again (or in the case of Vaclav Havel, the playwright morphed into a professional politician). But for a year or two or three, "ordinary" people were suddenly in charge of transforming the country.

Marina Grasse is a biologist who was involved in the independent peace movement in East Germany in the 1980s. I met her in 1990 (when she was Marina Beyer) to talk about the Pankow Peace Circle and how it was adapting to the new circumstances in a democratic East Germany. As the mother of four children, she was also passionately interested in educational reform. In fact, on the evening just before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, she helped to organize a forum on educational reform in East Berlin. They expected 10-20 people. A couple thousand showed up.

Later, in 1990, Grasse joined the newly democratic East German government as a state secretary for equal opportunity. Her confirmation process inadvertently revealed the need for just such a government position.

"There was a coalition between the new East German Social Democratic Party and the old CDU," she told me in an interview in June 2013 in her apartment in Pankow, a neighborhood in Berlin. "And in this coalition, they agreed that there should be a kind of state secretary responsible for equal opportunities for women and men. They were looking for somebody who could do that. Some people in the Social Democratic faction knew me. So they asked me if I would do that. I did. I didn't know what a state secretary was, and I didn't know what "equal opportunity" meant. But nevertheless they invited me. This was such a crazy time. I already had four children at this point, two boys and two girls. I was invited to come to the Volkskammer to introduce myself. I didn't know why I should go there. But I went there.

They asked me, 'Now, what are you going to do?'

'What should I do?' I asked.

'You'll be the state secretary for equal opportunity.'

'But I don't know what that is!'

'It doesn't matter, we don't either! Now tell us your biography and some ideas about equal opportunity...'

I didn't know what to say. But in the end, I said, 'Okay, equal opportunity for women means that, since probably women are discriminated against, they think they need equal opportunity...' So I talked for some time about that.

Then it was time for questions, and a man stood up and asked me as the first question. 'We have heard you are the mother of four children. How do you think you can combine your private responsibilities as a mother with your responsibilities as state secretary?'

And I thought, really, what am I doing here? This is completely stupid! But then another person stood up and said, 'That's a very interesting question because in this group there are many men who have two, three, four kids. And never, never, never, never has somebody asked them how they could combine their responsibilities.'

That's when I understood what it was about, and I agreed to do it. I needed some days to talk with my family and with my husband and with my kids to see if they would agree. Nobody knew what it was all about, but they agreed. As I said, that time was crazy. So I became state secretary for equal opportunity."

Grasse discovered soon enough that equal opportunity was not on the agenda. The East German parliament, tasked to oversee the transformation of East Germany into a democratic society, very quickly became focused on one issue about everything else: reunification. And reunification, in turn, imposed a very abrupt term limit on all the new members of the East German government. Grasse decided to apply the principles of equal opportunity for women more broadly in the region.

"Then the so-called unification came, and my job was over because the government was over," Grasse explained. "And I was not so interested to work with the new government. But I was also not so interested in going back to the university. So, together with some women from this Peace Circle and some other friends, we sat down to think about what we should do next. And we decided to set up a project called the East-West European Women's Network (OWEN). The idea was that after the fall of the Wall, it would be very important that women who are interested in politics and women's issues to organize a kind of exchange to understand what other society and what it meant to grow up in this other society."

We talked about the work she and OWEN did in Ukraine, the unfortunate careerism of both the educational system and NGOs, and why change is about people and not ideas.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I remember. You know this was a very exciting time full of hope. And in the DDR that was the time of many citizen...

Burgerbewegung? Citizens' movements?

Yes, Burgerbewegung. I was working at the university, and I was always interested in education. In spring 1989, not only in our university but in also in many other places in the DDR, people set up citizens' initiatives for changing the educational system because there were a lot of things that we didn't like. The Neues Forum also had an interest in the education field. So we decided to organize an open forum about what kind of education we would like to have for our kids, for the next generation. We organized this in a big conference hall in the Alexanderplatz. We didn't know who would come because there was no e-mail and no Internet. We held it on November 9. 1989. And it was scheduled to start at 6 pm. I was one of the few who were helping to organize it. We thought maybe 10 people would came, maybe 20. And it was completely full.

So, like a hundred people?

It was two or three thousand people.

Two or three thousand people?!

They came from cities all over of the DDR. There were teachers, students, parents, young people... it was completely full. And together with some colleagues of mine I had to moderate it. Our idea was that people could stand up and talk about their experience and nothing more. People started to do that, and it was very surprising that the others were listening. For many of them, it was the first time that they talked in the public. But they had the courage to do that. And all of us there were just listening. And it was not easy to listen. And then around -

Why was it not easy to listen?

Because people were talking about very different experiences. Therefore it was not easy to keep an atmosphere where the people in the audience didn't say, "No, you're wrong," or were disgusted by something someone said. It was about experiences, not about wrong and right. It was about us. It was very important, again and again, to say, "This is about us."

We started around 7 pm, and then it was 8:30, and something was going on. People were running around, coming and going. I asked my colleague to go and to ask, "What's going on?" And he came back, and he said, "The Wall fell down." I don't think I understood what he said because I answered, "It doesn't matter, we'll continue." After another 30 minutes, the hall was empty.

Everybody just started leaving...?

Around maybe 30 or 40 people decided to stay. For me that was a shock. And I understood that it was over. The DDR was just over. And I started to cry. Because for me that was... I thought we really had a chance. A friend of mine came up from Dresden that night, and she said, "Oh, the Wall came down, let's go!" But I was not interested in doing that. I was very, very angry. I was very disappointed, very angry, very worried. And so we ended up staying at home. It was already very very late. Then my husband came home and said to me, "Oh, you have heard? The Wall came down! It's over." And then we started to discuss, and I was really very angry. We went to bed around 1 am.

Then somebody knocked at the door. It was our very close friends who had left East Berlin for West Berlin in the 1980s. And they said, "Come on, open up, let's go!" And so, I decided to go with them to go into the West. We had a wonderful night. In the end we had a wonderful night, and then we crossed back. So, something opened and something closed. And I would say I'm still in the same situation, still trying to understand what it means to say goodbye to something and whether to welcome something else.

That's quite an experience.

Yes, I would say it was very symbolic. In the end, I'm happy that I could be a part of this kind of event.

Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in the Pankow Peace Circle.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.