The Revolutionized Soul of a Lamb

June 19, 2014

Gisela Konopka AAUW Achievement Award in 1977At an event celebrating her retirement from the University of Minnesota in 1978, Gisela Konopka, a professor of social work, told friends and colleagues, “When I was a teenager in the Youth Movement, they gave me a nickname. In German, it was ‘Aufgeputschtes Lammsgemut.’ Translated, this means ‘revolutionized soul of a lamb.’ I think sometimes that describes me still today.”

Born in Germany in 1910, Konopka had a lifelong commitment to promoting equality and speaking up for the oppressed. She said, “I have stood for something which is really very simple … the idea that no person, no group, no one is ever superior to anyone else.”

A prolific writer of academic articles and books about group social work, including one of the first studies of troubled girls, Konopka received an AAUW Achievement Award in 1977. At the award acceptance ceremony, she spoke of her remarkable life:

I have had the fullest life one can expect. I have experienced degradation, scorn. … I have known fear and hunger and cold and utter despair. … I know the gentle friendship of young and old people and the exhilaration of standing up for my ideals, even in the face of terrible rejection. … I have seen horrible misery and extraordinary beauty in nature and art and even in human beings. I have had indeed a rich life.

The influence of her dramatic life on her work is undeniable. Konopka joined a German socialist youth movement as a teen and learned about equality between the sexes and the oppression of peoples. She also met her future husband, Paul, though the movement. With the rise of Nazi Germany, Konopka joined Hamburg’s underground resistance and in 1936 was arrested and sent to a prison camp. After her release, she made her way through Czechoslovakia, Vienna, and Paris before coming to the United States in 1941, where she and Paul were married.

Konopka earned her master’s degree in social service administration from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctoral degree in social welfare from Columbia University. At the University of Minnesota, Konopka organized community programs for the Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and served as director for the Center for Youth Development and Research.

An expert on youth issues, Konopka traveled the world giving lectures. At the behest of the U.S. State Department, she returned to her homeland — despite her earlier imprisonment — to help the country rebuild its education and social services programs after the war. In 1979 West Germany honored her with its highest merit award for this work, a testament to her belief in love, compassion, and understanding.

Konopka concluded her AAUW Achievement Award acceptance speech with these words:

I accept this award in the spirit of someone who has tried, sometimes with impatience, to erase negative borders created by people to prevent them from living up to what they can be — contributing, intelligent, and loving human beings. … I think that AAUW with its great width of interest has helped in this direction.

 


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