Èlan with Ann Hesse

By Nancy Coleman, DA Norway

From our series "Meet the dynamic women of Democrats Abroad"

Ann Hesse is co-chair of the Women's Caucus for Democrats Abroad, serving together with Salli Swartz. She is also the chair of DA Stuttgart. Ann lives in Ludwigsburg outside Stuttgart, Germany, with her Peruvian-German husband and two teenage daughters. Ann's own ethnic background is Irish and Italian, and her US roots are mainly in San Francisco. Her immigrant grandfather was a streetcar driver in the city, and his son, Ann's father, became a professor of Biomedical Engineering at the time when this was a new field. Her father pursued his career at a number of universities, moving his family to Houston, Boston, and Palo Alto during Ann's childhood.

As a Californian, Ann was not knowledgeable about the segregated world of the South. Ann lived in Houston from kindergarten through third grade. Their neighborhood was all white and Ann attended a school that was still segregated. Their house had a toilet at the back near the kitchen. No one in her family thought anything about it, and everyone used it when it was convenient. It wasn't until Kathryn Stockett's book and the subsequent film The Help came out that Ann realized that the toilet was a colored toilet intended for the cook and the maid. The Help suddenly put her Houston life in a context she was unaware of while she lived there.

Ann found political science fascinating and considered studying it, but her father told her that that subject was for men. Not yet feeling herself up to fighting in a man's world, Ann eventually settled on opera as a career choice. She did her undergraduate degree at Santa Clara and graduate work at Indiana University. Ann is a coloratura soprano and became an opera singer at San Francisco Opera. 

Ann's story in Germany starts in 1986 with a lucky parking place. Her roommate in San Francisco, who was also at the SF Opera, had received a scholarship to Germany through the Goethe Institute. In connection with her friend's planned trip, Ann offered a drop- off at the Goethe Institute's office in San Francisco. She found a rare parking spot and on a whim, decided to go into the office and wait for her friend to conduct her business. It turned out that they had one more spot to go to Germany, and it was offered to her! Her course took her to Schwäbisch Hall in southern Germany for three months. This was her first trip outside the US.

In 1989, Ann auditioned for a position with the opera in Bielefeld, Germany, and when she got the position, she moved back to Germany to work there. From 1975-98, this opera gained international renown, and was known as the Bielefelder Opernwunder (opera miracle in Bielefeld). The company successfully revived a number of operas, and they also staged operas that had been considered entartete Kunst (degenerate art) by the Nazis and banned in the 1930s. Ann had roles in some of the rediscovered operas, as well as in the traditional opera repertoire.

1989 was a significant year in modern German history – the year that the Berlin wall fell, resulting in the reunification of Germany. Ann was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience these historical events firsthand. She went to Berlin, rented a chisel from a local who was also taking advantage of new opportunities, and started hammering away on the Berlin wall. It is fun to think that she was partially responsible for its destruction!

While in Bielefeld, Ann fell in love with her conductor, and they married. Ann married fairly late and had two daughters. After she settled into married life, she did not work outside the home. When she had her children, Germany was still a society with conservative gender roles, where mothers were expected to be homemakers. Schools sent the children home for a hot meal and mom's TLC at midday, and there was no childcare, unless you had a family network of grandmothers, aunts, or sisters who could help a working mother. So there was not much choice for women in Ann's situation. With more women entering the workforce, German society has had to adapt and is an entirely different place today.

Ann's family were Republicans of the comfortable, classic sort that used to be familiar. She grew up thinking that countries like Germany were able to provide things like free higher education because the US used its military resources to protect them, so they could have the luxury of providing services to their citizens. She was taught that social programs don't work anyway, and that they would eventually implode. Ann had American health insurance when she came to Germany, and was initially skeptical regarding socialized medicine. Ann was gradually swayed by what she had heard about universal healthcare as a government service, but she didn't think much about it. She was a young, healthy single, but she did support caring for those of fewer means, especially if they were honest and wouldn't abuse the system. But that was the point that had been engrained in her mind; in socialized medicine you would inevitably have millions of cheaters, who would abuse the innate trust and cause the system to collapse.

Her outlook changed when she discussed the subject with her husband. He pointed out that he would rather pay more for his healthcare so that a child who needed care could get it. But what about all the cheaters? Ann pressed him. He was willing to pay for them too, rather than risk that people who need care can't get it. That was a new way of looking at it, a "German, almost mathematical understanding of the reality" that Ann found convincing.  Ann started evolving into a liberal. The experience of bringing up children in Germany made her see the light in so many ways, and she realized that so much of what she had learned as a child and taken for granted just wasn't true. She joined Democrats Abroad and has been involved in their work for many years now.

It has been a while since Ann has sung any arias. When her children no longer needed Mother at home, she didn't want to go back to working in opera. In fact, she was pretty tired of singing Mozart. A coloratura soprano voice is distinguished by agile runs, leaps, and trills. But what she no longer sings, Ann makes up for when she talks, with agile running comment on any number of subjects, leaps to asides, and trills alternating from subject to subject. But she has gotten to be a fan of symphonic metal, particularly the Finnish group Nightwish. You can learn a lot when you have teenage daughters, and Ann's musical universe has expanded accordingly.  "Élan" which means 'hunger and thirst for life' is also a single by Nightwish, from their album Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and a favorite of Ann's.

I asked Ann what she valued most about living in Germany. The runs and trills stopped for a moment, and then she settled on an understanding that German people have that there is a standard of decency. You are not on your own here, and no one questions that everyone has the right to education, healthcare, pensions, and help when life gets difficult. In return, you try to be the best and most productive citizen you can.

Ann sees life in the context of an anthropological view of tribal cultures, where a life consists of three phases. In the first phase, you develop your self. The second phase is devoted to your family. In the third phase, you give back to society. By 2015, Ann was looking for ways to use her talents to give back to society. She signed up for a DA Women's Caucus workshop in Göttingen, an act which became a turning point. Cheryl Sandberg's book Lean In was a major inspiration for the workshop, and the women were asked to find out how they could lean in for the common cause. The workshop was very inspiring, and Ann asked herself, "Why not lean in?". On the next Webex call, Salli Swartz said she needed a co-chair, and Ann volunteered. Soon she was doing training to manage the Global Women's Caucus's website and other media outlets.

Now that we have entered the era of the Orange Dragon, it is even more important for women to lean in where they can. Ann uses another metaphor to illustrate the important tasks ahead, the story of the cave in Plato's Republic. This allegory asks us to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from birth. The people are chained so that they are forced to stare at the wall in front of them. They cannot look around, at each other, or themselves. Behind them there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised walkway where other people walk back and forth carrying puppets of people and other living things. The light from the fire casts shadows of the puppets onto the wall, but the people manipulating the puppets are concealed from view by a wall. The prisoners can only see the shadows cast on the wall in front of them. The people carrying the puppets talk, and their voices echo off the walls. The prisoners believe that the sounds come from the shadows. But then one prisoner is freed. The person looks around and sees the fire, but the light hurts. Then someone drags the person outside into the sunlight. The person is in pain from the light and feels angry, but gradually shadows become visible, then people and things themselves. Eventually, the person realizes that the world outside the cave is superior to the world inside the cave, and the person goes back to bring the other cave dwellers into the sunlight.

For Ann, this is a good analogy of what the DA should do. The majority of Americans are imprisoned in the Cave of the Orange Dragon, and they have no idea how other countries address problems and find solutions to create a well-functioning democracy that works in the interest of its citizens. Outside in the sunlight there is healthcare, free education and a security net. The Women's Caucus is the freed prisoner who has seen the light. Now we must go back to the cave and tell the other prisoners about it. The other prisoners in Plato's cave did not believe what the freed prisoner told them, and their instinct was to attack and resist. Returning to the cave is not an easy task, but as we know now and believe: She was warned. Nevertheless, she persisted!

Ann sees great potential in the membership of the Women's Caucus. "Love is the context of what we are," she says. Members are spread out, of different ages and economic ability. But if the DA can tap the pool, these members have the resources to help bring about change in the Democratic Party. 

Nancy Coleman, DA Norway