A Giant in Adolescent Research

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Minneapolis, Minn.—Gisela Konopka, who fled Nazi Germany after being jailed by the Gestapo, and then influenced generations of American youth workers as a “godparent of adolescent research,” was remembered fondly last month in a memorial service attended by hundreds.

Konopka, 93, died here on Dec. 9 after a brief illness.

Called Gisa by her friends, Konopka taught social work at the University of Minnesota from 1947 to 1978, when she retired, having elevated the school into national prominence with her studies of adolescents, particularly girls. With her National Youth Worker Education projects in the 1970s, Konopka broadened and sharpened the definition of adolescents.

“Gisela Konopka fostered and developed a greater appreciation of adolescence and adolescents,” said sociologist Judith Erickson, former research director at the Indiana Youth Institute in Indianapolis, who did extensive interviews of youth workers a decade after they arrived on the Minnesota campus.

“After 10 days there, they overwhelmingly didn’t look at adolescence as a medical condition. They saw it as a period of incredible diversity.

“I don’t know if it was Gisa’s magnum opus,” Erickson said, “but it was the culmination of her career.”

Born in 1910 in Berlin, Konopka married Paul Konopka in 1941, days after they had arrived separately in the United States. Both had worked in the German resistance and were briefly incarcerated by the Gestapo, before the wholesale slaughter of Jews and others.

She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Hamburg (1933), a masters in social service administration from the University of Pittsburgh (1947) and a doctorate in social welfare from Columbia University (1957).

A youth worker before she was an academic, Konopka brought together countless children, from ages 9 to 18, in group situations. In 1966 she published a study of delinquent girls, The Adolescent Girl in Conflict. In 1976 she published Young Girls: A Portrait of Adolescence, based on interviews with 1,000 girls from across the country who represented all ethnic groups.

In a profile in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2000, Konopka was quoted as saying, “All my life, it seems, I have talked about how people can’t be bad just because they’re black, or Jewish or women.

“Well, they can’t be bad just because they’re young.”

Though she stood under 5 feet tall, Konopka was a formidable presence. Several friends described her as “feisty.”

“She was curious and committed, and she was determined and passionate,” said Dick Mammen, who oversees Change Inc., a human development program in Minneapolis. He laughed and added, “She could be very, very cranky.”

“She knew what she wanted, and she went after it,” said Keith McFarland, former dean of the College of Home Economics at the University of Minnesota, who oversaw Konopka and her Center for Youth Development and Research. (That center no longer exists, but the university does have a Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health.)

“Gisa showed that there was much more to adolescents than problems,” said Erickson, who earned her master’s and doctorate in sociology during Konopka’s tenure at Minnesota. “Rather than focus on the abnormal, she said we’d be far better off if we focused on the normal and accommodated a wide range” of behavior.

At the Jan. 9 memorial service at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Robert Blum was moved by the array of faces he saw.

“One of the things that continually amazed me was her friendship network,” said Blum, a professor of pediatrics who heads the university’s Center for Adolescent Health and Development, and called Konopka a “godparent of adolescent research.”

“As I looked out on that sea of people, I saw the entire range, from people at the young end – 16 or so – to those in the mid- or upper 90s, and many in between.”

To the end of her life, she enjoyed the companionship of young people. Her friends tell of her visit last summer to a county prison housing adolescents. As recalled by Judith Kahn, director of the Konopka Institute, one boy asked, “What’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen?”

Konopka lowered her head in thought, then looked him in the eye and said, “I have witnessed the most ruthless dictators this world has seen, who did things you would not want to imagine. But I have seen a small group of people rise up and fight back. That’s the most incredible thing – the resiliency of the human spirit.”

Nolan Zavoral can be reached at nzavoral@highstream.net.