Cesy Leonard (en)

This interview is part of the series Questioning the Notion of Neutrality.
Click here to read more about the project and to find more interviews.

Cesy Leonard is the co-founder of Radikale Töchter. Radikale Töchter uses (action) art for political education workshops with youth/young adults in rural Germany.

Interview – video

in German

Keywords / Overview

(political) standpoints as a teacher
role of a referee

being radically democratic

what is (not) political?

code of conduct
classrooms as playing fields

speaking up
group dynamics

ideal teachers

neutrality as intimidation tactic from the far right

limits of acceptable (political) positions

empathy and attentiveness
neutrality as holding a space

Interview - transcript

in German · in English

Hi, I'm Cesy Leonard, I co-founded the “Radikale Töchter” (german for Radical Daughters); I did political action art for 8 years before that with the “Zentrum für politische Schönheit” (german for Centre for Political Beauty). I see myself as an artist, but I've always had the ambition to move things politically, and I’ve seen art as a damn good way to do that. And out of that came the idea of founding the Radical Daughters. The Radical Daughters are funded by the Bundeszentrale für polische Bildung and we confront young people with political action art - the focus is always on wanting to change something; on drawing attention to the issues that one cares about. When we work with young people, it is very much about encouraging them to want to become more political again, beyond voting, but also, of course, to encourage them that it is important to vote, that it is important to participate in a democracy - otherwise there will perhaps be problems that we will not be able to maintain democracy as it is.

I think it is important to have a stand-point. And the good thing about a democracy is that my perspective as a teacher can be very different. I can be extremely conservative, but I can also be very liberal. I can be market-liberal, I can be environmentally friendly, and all of these are positions which I can represent as a teacher. The good thing is that children and young people then get to know different people and attitudes. And I think the most important thing is that… I see it a bit as being a referee for democracy. So I am neutral in the way that when there are different opinions in my classroom, for example, as long as they do not run counter to the constitution or are hostile to human rights, then I can see myself as a referee who is neutral and allows both positions. But what I think is often misunderstood with this having to be "neutral" is that people don't intervene as a teacher if a person breaches the rules. And disregarding the rules means openly expressing hostility towards people, openly disregaring constitutional principles, discriminating against other people because of the colour of their skin or because of their beliefs. That is indeed something where I would say that the position of a referee is neutral as long as the rules of the game are not violated. And if the rules are violated, then it's my job to intervene. And I think that's something extremely important - to also define these rules again and again - be it with the consensus in the classroom, how do we want to be with each other, how do we talk to each other - I'm not neutral there either, yes, we have our rules and then the rules are adhered to, otherwise you have to leave the room. And it is the same with the rules of the “Grundgesetz” (German constitution).

We call ourselves “radically democratic” or stand for radically democratic values and what we mean by that is that we are in a time now where we have to ask ourselves differently again, how we can keep the democracy going, how can democracy be something that we live and that not only "the politicians" live but that we as citizens want to live. And that means that we get radically engaged, that we radically turn towards people and ask them to contribute. It's actually about the radical defence of democratic values, which in this time are also increasingly... [pondering] well, in danger, you can say. People are increasingly questioning whether democracy is still the way of living we want to live, and for us it is also about questioning what it means to fill a democracy with life. In other words, to not just hide behind majorities, for example, but really using democracy to bring about change.

We work a lot with the young people - we don't really talk so much about our positions. Of course we bring ... I bring my attitude to express when someone asks me, and I am playing the referee, with a very clear position, when someone makes unbelievably misanthropic statements, and in that you can see my politics perhaps. And the political art examples that we bring are of course political art actions that are definitely left-wing or liberal, and we would never bring an action that was made by right-wing radicals. You can see my position in that sense. But what we do in terms of actions with the young people is that we talk about things a lot: What is political? We play games where they have to send us pictures from their mobile phones and then we talk with the whole class about "Is this political or not political?" and then it just starts a discussion about whether a photo of my couch is political. Where did the couch come from, could I afford it, could I not afford it, and so on and so forth. And this way I think an exchange just happens, not so much about pro-right, pro-left, but rather about a much broader spectrum: what do politics mean to me? And what does it have to do with my life? And I think that's how you tend to create a consensus within a class or with people, because you address very basic values of people that are important to all of us, namely: letting yourself be heard, being seen, environmental protection also often times comes up... things like that.

I think that what we do a lot in our work is that we have a certain code of conduct, i.e. how we want to behave towards each other, which we bring with us - but which we also create together with the students, which means that usually everyone agrees they want to be heard, and no one wants to be discriminated against. And I do believe that this attitude that we have - and I may not share it as a private person, but I do have it in my figure of an educator, in order to hold this space - it is very important to me that these statements can take place, even from the more extreme fringes, I would say. And that is quite challenging to us, because you also have to pay attention to who has how much speaking time - does everyone really have the same speaking time? Because that often becomes a problem. I believe that trained teaching staff are in question for holding this space. Because it is the case that more extreme, louder positions often take up much more space and then also simulate a majority that perhaps does not actually exist in the class, but which then falsely comes across as such. These are perhaps the difficulties that come along the way. You maybe have to find ways of translating things into images, that you have to use images or surveys in class again and again: Okay, what do you [the class] actually stand for, and maybe you don't dare to show this position in public... But you can reflect the collective opinion(s) with a survey and so on... to find images for what the majority in our class actually stands for, and so it’s not the loudest who are most represented.

I find that interesting - for us it's just quite normal: I always pay attention to who is silent? I always pay attention to how can we get those who are silent to speak out? Why, for what reasons, do they not speak out? Because that's actually why we do the Radical Daughters: because I assume that there are so many people in Germany who, for some reason, don't feel able to or have the feeling that it's no use for me to participate, that it's no use for me to say what I think, that I won't be able to change anything anyway. That is, so to speak, our interest at the core: we assume that for democracy as we see it, it is important that every single person has something to say or gets a voice or also has a desire to express their voice. And I think that's what we're trying to bring out. This desire to express oneself happens either in group work, but also through humour, or through the trust that is created over a period of working together. That it is important to us that this Code of Conduct, or how we deal with each other, is adhered to. I actually think that what I know from my own time at school, and I don't know so many other teachers, because I do this or we do that, but what I know from my own time at school is that teachers sometimes simply don't have so much time in this very tight construct of curricula to take care of the social climate of the class. And I would say that it is essential for us is to build up a basis of trust and to establish contact. And only in the next step it is about the content.

I think, to answer it so broadly, what one wants from a teacher... I think that the teacher (basically what I already said)... the teacher sets out a playing field very clearly. And, thank God, this playing field is incredibly broad in a democracy. And it's great that it's so broad. And the teacher is actually there, like a kind of coach, to encourage people - including young people - to also express more extreme positions from within the democratic spectrum. I think that is very important, because there must be these spaces, or as we say: there must be these stages where we are allowed to negotiate. So it's complete nonsense to say that we want to get rid of the trenches that run through society. I think there are these opposing positions and that's the great thing: where should they be discussed controversely if not in classrooms or in political education? But I think, or not I think, it's definitely clear that when boundaries are crossed, when it becomes about violence towards others or discriminating against others, then it's simply the job of the educator to say "Stop, now we’re entering an area that's no longer okay". I do think that a teacher, and of course this also depends on the age of the youth or children one is working with, just to mention the keyword of indoctrination... But as a teacher, you can have an opinion. You don't have to call out and say "don't vote for this party" or "don't do this or that", but I can have an opinion myself and say "I am in favour of accepting refugees in Germany". I am allowed to do that. And I think, if you ask me, what should political educators do, or even teachers... they should be authentic with their stance. And also take a stand for it and allow other positions.

What I find quite strong is the fear that the AfD (Alternative for Germany, far-right German party) plays with, for example on this platform, where teachers could be reported. I think... I wouldn't be afraid of that – they can go ahead and report me and then in the next step it should be decided whether what I said was okay or not - in court. But I think that unfortunately a lot of people are intimidated by such things and no longer dare to say things that are perfectly okay to say. And I think it's good that many initiatives have started to explain more about this, what is actually their mandate, how neutral do they have to be, and whether it isn't completely okay to say you're going to such and such a demo.

I think it was specifically about issues like: As a teacher, is one allowed to say, "I'm going to the demonstration against refugees - ehh [she misspoke] - against the AfD or for refugees", so to speak. What I've read about it is that as long as I don't call on others to do it, I'm allowed to do it. Or also the other way round: Whether you're allowed to say that you're going to a PEGIDA demo, for example, as a teacher. It was about these kinds of things. And I think courts would interpret that differently. I can say for myself as a personal person: For me, that would be a problem. For me, it's also a problem if someone openly admits to voting for the AfD as a teacher, because the AfD, as I said, the “Verfassungsschutz” (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) wanted to place them under observation, they clearly have fascist tendencies… but nevertheless it's a question, so to speak, that ultimately the courts have to decide.

That is a position of power. Even just because you stand in front and because you have the right to speak and the others do not. I think of it, as I said before, as a coach or ... yes, coach is almost better than referee, because I am actually a role model in my attitude, how I deal with the people in front of me, first and foremost. And that is a very clear position and not neutral. I behave in an attentive manner. I behave in an emotionally emphatic way. These are, so to speak, values that I represent, and I am not a robot. But I really believe.. yeah, where are the limits... That's probably difficult, a lot has been written about it. For me, I would simply emphasise again and again, or it would be important for me to convey the feeling that something is my position, but that I create an open space for many other positions and opinions, and that I inspire and encourage the exchange of these opinions. This is what makes democracy or the world become exciting: the different opinions. And, as I said before, a good space for discourse must be created at school. And I believe that it is precisely through these polarising opinions, or opinions that are a bit more extreme, that the ability to argue is also sharpened. It’s super interesting. And if I create a space, as a teacher, in which no other opinion is permissible except mine, or I convey that feeling, then I have a dead classroom. And maybe that is somehow ... maybe that is what is meant by neutrality, namely holding this space, where all opinions - again, as I said: those opinions that are within the democratic/consitutional framework, not misanthropic – have space.