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.
t 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
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
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, sits by her bedside with her favorite
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
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).
Move to the United States
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
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 New 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
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
[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
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 conference Gisa 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
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, a
man 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.
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
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,
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,
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
Gisela Konopka died on December 9, 2003 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital
in Minneapolis. She was 93.
Gisela Konopka's philosophy
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.
'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
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
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.
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.
Gasterstaedt, C. (Hrsg.). Autoren: Goll, D., Goll, G. Kalcher, J.,
Kruger, G. (1995). Drauben war druck, aber im HJB konntest du aufatmen.
Haga, C. (2000-2-11). Honoring a lifetime of vigilance- Star Tribume.
Hammarskjold, D. (1964). Markings:
Kalcher, J.(1995, January). Gisela Konopka wurde 85: Ein besuch bei der
grand old lady of social group work. (translation: Peacock, M.)
Konopka, G. (1941-current). Konopka's personal diary. Private papers of
G. Konopka, Minneapolis, MN.
Konopka, G. (1944). Refugee children in wartime. The Federator XIX
(4), pp. 3-6.
Konopka, G. (1944). Group therapy at the Pittsburgh child guidance
center. The Federator XIX (6), pp. 8-11.
Konopka, G. (1949). Therapeutic Group Work with Children.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Konopka, K. (1954). Group Work in the Institution - A Modern
Challenge. New York: Association Press.
Konopka, G. (1954-1999). Annual Letters. Private papers of G. Konopka,
Konopka, G. (1956, January). The generic and the specific in group work
practice in the psychiatric setting. Social Work 1(1), pp. 72-80.
Konopka, G. (1958). Eduard C. Lindeman and Social Work Philosophy.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Konopka. G. (1963). Social Group Work: A Helping Process.
Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NT
Konopka, G. (1966). Adolescent Girl in Conflict. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Konopka, G. (1968). Our Outcast Youth. Unpublished manuscript,
Konopka, G. (1977). For Each Other: Sculpture for Gisa by Paul Konopka;
Poems for Paul by Gisa Konopka. Private printing as a memorial to
Erhardt Paul Konopka by Thomas and Phyllis Coldwell.
Konopka, G. (1981). Perspectives on social group work. In Abels. S. &
Abels, P. (Ed.) Social Work with Groups: Proceedings 1979 Symposium.
Louisville: Committee for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups,
Konopka, G. (1988). Justice with compassion; Women's particular
contribution to the philosophy of social work. Paper given at the annual
meeting of the Council on Social Work Education, Atlanta.
Konopka, G. (1988). Courage and Love. Edina, MN: Beaver Pond
Konopka, G. (1998-2000). A series of interviews with the author.
Schiller, H. (n.d.) Gisela Konopka (translation). A paper in the
private collection of Gisela Konopka.
West, M. (1963). The Shoes of a Fisherman. Dell Publishing.
West, M. A. (1990, September 2-6). The loss of professionals for
protecting children in Nazi Germany. Paper given at the 8th
International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect, Hamburg, Germany.
Wison, G. & Konopka, G. (1944). Social group work in a psychiatric
setting. The News-Letter XIV (2), pp. 35-43.
National Association of Social Workers (2003) 'Gisela Konopka' in
Social Work Pioneers,
December 12, 2003.
This feature, reproduced here by permission of the author: 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 and republished as
'Gisela Konopka and group work' in the encyclopedia of informal
education, www.infed.org/thinkers/konopka.htm. Last updated: July
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.