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Knowing who you are: What the Root Foundation has to do with identity. A peace offering from the author to her colleague Paul Klahre.

Text: Annika Böttcher /

Dear Paul,

You probably thought you could get around it, unsuspectingly opened this magazine: and now this. A letter. From me, to you. And what is it about? Of course, about identity, about this word that you write in every flyer and for which you have not yet given me a definition in the style of the Duden (German dictionary). But I insist on details. That's why I looked it up in the Duden. It says: "1a. Genuineness of a person or thing; complete agreement with what it is or what it is described as; 1b. inner unity of the person experienced as "self"; 2. complete agreement with someone, something in relation to something; sameness".

But because it was already clear to me that the topic is now ticked off for you, I did further research: more than a dozen interviews, a few books, articles and lots of podcasts later, I feel safe and believe that I can take on your 3-minute WhatsApp voice message.

In it you said, "that this difficulty [of using the term identity without defining it further] does not arise for me because I think identity is clear and already defines itself. So: identity is defined by self-perception and by cultural circumstances. And if we talk about 'strengthening personal development' in the Root Foundation, then we would also have to start asking ourselves: what is personality? and from that comes an identity that insofar suggests belonging, that is, ... Yes, you're right, maybe we have to think about that."

Oha, a first concession. Paul, you didn't go too far out on a limb. In fact, however, some things are the same as in the Duden! However, at least as much is mixed up there: the authenticity of a person, for example, is not the same as the recognition of external perceptions as part of one's own self. Nevertheless, the interrelation between 'inside' and 'outside', as is clear here and also in your memo, is probably what forms the 'I'.

Many interviewees answered quite vaguely to the question of what identity is: Identity is what makes me, who I am. The term was often linked to certain characteristics, such as nationality or sexual orientation, it was associated with abilities or interests, swimming or politics for example. Belonging to particular groups plays a central role; it is an expression of who or what we were, are and want to be and, on the other hand, affects us again. But to reduce identity to the sum of individual affiliations would be a simplistic description. In such a description, the aspect of temporality would be missing:

“Identity development is a lifelong process”,

says Berthold Böttcher, 65 years old. He is a former teacher at a vocational grammar school and in his statement he unconsciously refers to Freud and Erikson, who first advocated this very assumption in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

One question Berthold Böttcher asks himself, as we do, is: "What is the mission of education in a person's personal development?" To impart competencies that enable us to form our identity, is his answer. So if the Root Foundation sees itself as a place with an educational mission, it is identity-building. One challenge, however, according to Berthold Böttcher, is not to make one's own ideas the standard of evaluation: "I cannot and must not evaluate an opinion, only the way towards the opinion." The constant evaluation is problematic anyway - what is allowed and what can be evaluated? But one thing is certain for him, despite many uncertainties: "The level of education has a lot to do with whether I can say who I am.

I also discuss this with Ernest Mpawenayo. He himself was involved in the Children's Centre of the Root Foundation and later moved away from Kigali to work for VSO in the field of teacher training. "Education offers possibilities between ways you can go about your life," he says.

Consciously choosing future steps in life, that is identity. But also reflecting on passively adopted ways of acting or habits of the environment. "Education is a process of forming and shaping people.” This also includes actively changing one's own behaviour.

Sarah Stemper, a 19-year-old journalism student, compares becoming an "I" to building a house: "The older a person gets, the more bricks can no longer simply be built in, but only brought in; whether they are integrated into the walls of the identity building is up to them." She calls close people from the immediate socio-economic environment the "family safety network"; this is where we find our first building material. But she believes that it is rather impossible to emancipate oneself completely later on.

Well, Paul, do you notice anything? Sarah Stemper approaches the Duden: "1b. inner unity of the person experienced as "self"" - so you have to be at peace with yourself to be able to go further. She also describes, without knowing it, the concept of the Root Foundation: which ultimately tries to improve the "family safety network" or, if that fails, to offer alternatives.

So identity is not only who I am, but also who I was, who I want to be, and how I and others place myself in the world - origin and cultural affiliation, two other topics that are booming. Iris Bruchhäuser, 60, is involved in Limburg with people who have experienced flight and has often observed in this context "that these people either withdraw strongly into their community or assimilate completely with German culture. I find both understandable, but it can also inhibit - integration or peace with oneself." Identity, she says, is thus a tightrope walk between demarcation and belonging - both of which we strive for permanently.

So modern concepts of identity seem to have their pitfalls, to have limits in their demands for creativity and self-organisation. But there are few sources on what happens to the individual when the self-process fails. A taboo subject? For whether satisfactory or not, identity in the modern age is, it becomes clear here, the risky and ongoing act of constructing an "I" that is constantly in flux and can flexibly face a wide variety of situations and their demands.

"What happens when the house is completely brought down?", I also ask Sarah Stemper on the phone. "Probably the old material will be used again, our experiences and memories are what make us. But surely you can't find all the building blocks in the pile again and you will have to fill in the gaps in a new way. After all, a person is more than just his past."

Less optimistically, Nicke summarises: "The disadvantage of a processually conceived identity is its relativity, which reduces the functionality of identity. If identitarian manifestations are formed in relation [...], then long-term and permanent patterns of orientation are reduced as potential identity categories for the individual."

With its holistic approach, one could now argue, the Root Foundation tries to prepare its protégés for this very reality, which it does by giving them approaches to personal identity formation for coping with. I'm beginning to get fed up, Paul, with the idea that you could be right just like that, without any meaningful justification, with your statement: The Root Foundation is identity-building.

The spontaneous, the situational in the ego is therefore not only important since the age of the digital. What is listed in the Duden under "1a. Genuineness of a person or thing" becomes a challenge: the human being assumes roles and discards others; he shows himself to the outside world. At the same time, since Descartes, there has been the substantial notion of an identitary core within that determines who we are. Because of the permanent change of the ego, however, this symbol can be described as outdated.

Many times I had to laugh during the research: I saw you in front of me, Paul, throwing your arms in the air. Which is it? Core or process? Does identity form passively through external and internal factors, is it there from birth and only needs to be worked out, made visible, or is it actively constructed by the subjects themselves? All this can be asked because of the tension between substantial and processual positions in the discourse of identity concepts. "Perhaps concept and person [...] share the same experience. Both long for an ontology that can be justified linearly and historically, but at the same time face the claim of flexibility [...]", Huber surmises in the book Understanding oneself through reading. So we can forget about the core. That sounds promising. Actually, only one question remains:

Who are we if we drop all masks, no longer take on any role, and, contrary to Shakespeare's principle, no longer regard the whole world as a single stage? Or, to put it another way: Is identity really about who we are "in real life", or is it not rather about how diversely we can stage ourselves? Is it not perhaps even the same thing? Yes and no.

Theories of narrative identity, for example, assume that first-person narratives are central to the creation of self-images; sometimes even that we would not be able to grasp ourselves as selves without the narrative form. In this framework, however, they also reflect on the extent to which the act of narration actually constructs identity or (merely) presents it. And they come to the conclusion that a clear dividing line can rarely be drawn between these two functions. The Root Foundation, to stay with the metaphor, offers participants a new, promising narrative.

Similar to Sarah Stemper's emphasis on the beginning of life as a formative phase, the 29-year-old medical doctor Irakoze Magnifique also describes our entry into the world. In addition to the prenatal influences on our biological becoming, he describes birth as perhaps the most immediate bodily experience of all, the first moment in which we become aware that we are a "self".

He thus confirms Freud's theory of a "body-ego" - the idea that a person primarily perceives himself as a bodily being - but at the same time also emphasises that the way we deal with external perceptions is primarily shaped by our social environment. The (external) perception of bodily aspects such as skin or hair colour, for example, are thus always dependent on social factors, what role they play in certain contexts, and how they affect the development of other areas of life.

Despite the general fact that a person cannot live out of him or herself, i.e. that he or she is and remains bound to a so-called social identity, the cultural and political discourse on identity is increasingly being conducted with the utmost acuity. But if one asks Jesko Hennig, a 20-year-old political science student, to what extent identity can (or even must) be thought of politically, he remains, contrary to expectations, with the individual: "Identity becomes political when it becomes clear on the basis of one's own development that the self is not provided for in the current status quo. At the same time, the status quo is not apolitical, nor does it come into conflict with an inherent identity. On the contrary: Identity is apolitical, it only becomes political because the outside world is."

He also believes: "If one assumes that identity is largely created through relationships (including the relationship to oneself), then as one ages, one is simply more likely to be secure in one's identity." So what we need is obvious: a thicker skin. Or, if nothing comes of it, "a kind of social contract", as Jesko Hennig calls it. This would serve the purpose of enabling all people to pursue their own happiness in the best possible way.

Umutoni Divine also sees this social obligation in the legal system. She is 22 years old, studies law and works part-time at the Children's Centre of the Root Foundation. "The state and the law are there as a legal framework for people, not the other way around." Their social, societal protective function is thus also their legitimisation. At the same time, they function as guidelines, in a sense giving recommendations on how to live as socially acceptable a life as possible.

So this is a major, institutionalised educational task, the fulfilment of which is supposed to make living together within national borders easier? To a certain extent, yes. Nevertheless, Umutoni Divine warns: "Laws can lead to exclusion mechanisms, to discrimination, to blind spots and the feeling that I am not welcome as the person I am."

Felicia Rolletschke, 26-year-old trans* activist and active in educational work, also speaks of this. She reports on her own transition and informs about queer issues on and her Instagram account of the same name. "Similar experiences of discrimination create a sense of community," she explains. In addition to obstructive legal frameworks, she emphasises the antagonistic structure of society. This necessitates a constant struggle for recognition, sometimes even a right to exist. "Because queer people are constantly discriminated against, they probably deal with this aspect of their lives more. This process can be very identity-forming."

This can also be applied to the participants of the Root Foundation: their often marginalised position on the edge of society brings them together and becomes the basis for thinking about themselves. The difference: the former can sustainably change their situation within the discriminatory society with the help of the Root Foundation, whereas queer people cannot - they try to sensitise the awareness of their environment in the long term.

But not dealing with something is also a form of dealing with it, says Felicia Rolletschke. At this point, a deficit of the Root Foundation becomes obvious: Probably also because it is socially taboo, the topic of gender is still under-recognised despite sexual health workshops. The Root Foundation has not yet achieved its ambition to offer all participants a safe space and the opportunity to be themselves. On the contrary, it tolerates discriminatory behaviour because it may not even recognise it as such; it is thus a negative identity-forming component of queer participants.

This is precisely why, Umutoni Divine concludes, there is a constant obligation at every level of society to change towards the human being in order to make a good life possible for everyone. As Umutoni Divine speaks, it strikes me that she not a single time refers to concrete legal texts, but remains, like Jesko Hennig, with the individual, his or her convictions, characteristics and abilities. As if identity were something exclusively private that could not be categorically or institutionally grasped, however narrow or free legal frameworks might be. Their answers often begin with phrases like "I think..." or "I believe that...". And they raise the question in my mind whether, if it is not possible to arrive at a clear definition of identity through facts, perhaps faith can provide an answer.

Christina Bartholomé, a 22-year-old literature and theology student, would probably say yes. Faith is more permanent and less situation-bound than a hobby, for example, because it defines her values and not how often she attends church. She shows me notes from a lecture on research on the Old Testament: By now, one has moved away from reading people as a collective. Today, one tries to emphasise the individual more. Nevertheless, the community is still very important.

It was interesting to note what many German volunteers at the Root Foundation had to say: Faith, community and family have a different status in Rwanda than in Germany, and appeared to be much more present in everyday work and life there. Although all the interviewees saw their social environment at the beginning of their lives as a formative time par excellence, my German interviewees in particular no longer defined themselves primarily through this network, but almost equally through their profession or the main job they do.

So you need things in common to feel like you belong. As the former president of the German Federal Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, put it in a faz-article, language is naturally one of them. That is debatable. But not about the fact that language and identity are in a very crucial relationship of tension.

In the WDR5 podcast "Über Identitäten und das richtige Sprechen" (“On Identities and the Right Way of Speaking”), host Elif Senel discusses language sensitivity with philosopher Svenja Flaßpöhler and Mithu Sanyal, author of the novel Identitti. Thanks to the new media, hitherto marginalised groups could also speak out, pointing out that their needs, including that of representation, were being ignored. However, the guests describe as contradictory "the fact that it is again increasingly about the representation of identity, when postmodernism actually aims at deconstruction", at the "blasting open of identities". "You can leave identities behind relatively quickly once you have them," says Mithu Sanyal, tapping into the assumption that the current search for identity makes the topic so explosive - also for the Root Foundation.

And in the new media, which possibly reinforce the deconstruction of identity, shift power relations, amplify themes. In a podcast discussion with Deutschlandfunk, cultural scientist Jörg Scheller says that simplifying, under-complex categories ignore the fact that people are beings of possibility. He pleads, as I did at the beginning of this letter, for a "temporality of identity politics". This means "sharpening the eye for the specific". One must not stop at identifying, but must then also move on to imagining, to connecting.

Photographer and writer Franziska Hauser, 46, agrees, believing that discourse must ultimately be about "being understood and understanding others". For her, identifying oneself means being able to put oneself in the place of others; putting oneself in their place, in turn, means enriching each other. Because one always refers back to oneself from new positions. And - in the attempt to understand - reflect on the discrepancy between self-perception and the perception of others. This is also the case with writing.

"Art can make a contribution to society," believes Franziska Hauser, "because it conveys ideas. Everything you want to change, you first have to be able to imagine; and if you can identify with the ideas in art, maybe that's the first step towards change." Franziska Hauser thus agrees with Elif Senel from the podcast "Über Identitäten und das richtige Sprechen" (“On Identities and the Right Way of Speaking”), who said, "If we don't have a language for certain things, we [...] can't even talk to ourselves about them anymore, which is another word for 'thinking about things'."And thinking about things in order to bring change is, after all, always the first, most important step, also for the Root Foundation.

This text contribution should and can therefore only remain an example. Identity as a whole can hardly be grasped in a single article. The text is incomplete, it refers mostly to white, German, academic voices; it comes from me - a single author and not, as would be necessary, from all those who are in relation to the Root Foundation. And even then...

Paul, I dug up the hatchet with "identity" written on it again, and I want to make you a peace offering: You were right - the Root Foundation is identity-building - but your reasoning was really miserable. You have to admit that. And we'll hear from each other when you're making flyers again. See you then!

Many greetings,


Special thanks to all the interviewees for their time and effort in contributing to this article. A more detailed version of the article can be found on the blog.

Quellen & References:

Duden. (last access: 05.10.2021).

Geyer, Oliver: „Immer Ich“, Fluter, 22.12.2016, (last access: 09.12.2021).

Huber, Florian: Durch Lesen sich selbst verstehen. Zum Verhältnis von Literatur und Identitätsbildung. Hrsg. von Heiner Keupp. (transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2008).

Nicke, Sascha: „Der Begriff der Identität“,bpb, 17.12.2018, (last access: 05.10.2021).

Schmarzoch, Raphael: „Menschen sind Möglichkeitswesen“, Deutschlandfunk, 27.06.2021, (last access: 08.12.2021)

Thierse, Wolfgang: „Grabenkämpfe gegen Gemeinsinn. Wie viel Identität verträgt die Gesellschaft?“, FAZ, 22.02.2021, (last access: 17.11.2021).

WDR5 Das philosophische Radio: „Politisch? - die Identität“, WDR, 12.04.2021, (last access: 17.11.2021).

WDR5 Das philosophische Radio-Podcast: „Über Identitäten und das richtige Sprechen“, WDR, 04.09.2021, (last access: 08.12.2021).



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