Category Archives: 2014

Thinking Critically About Study Abroad

IMG_2604On this final major bus trip from Kapadokya to Rize,  it’s sad to think that our wonderful trip through Turkey is coming to an end in just five days. Before we reach our goodbyes, I’ll let you in on an ongoing conversation in the group:

Thinking Critically About Study Abroad

As an admissions session leader at my university, I can tell you that most students on college tours are concerned about study abroad opportunities. Sometimes, the availability of programs is the deciding factor for potential students! Most universities offer hundreds of programs, ranging from university-specific to university-approved. The approved label means that the program is probably not run by the university itself, but meets the requirements for credit transfer. Our background as a group is diverse in the spectrum of study abroad. Sofia just finished a Duke-in-Turkey program, Galen and I opted to attend the Field School instead of a semester-long program, and Andrew is going into his sophomore year, when most students decide if they are going to go abroad. Given our conversations, here are some tips to consider if you want to go abroad!

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Question 1: Should I go abroad? When should I go abroad?

YES. Without question, the number one regret of most college graduates that I have spoken to is that they did not go abroad. Once you graduate from college, chances are the ability to go to another country (or countries) is limited to work opportunities. Most often, financial aid transfers to abroad programs- so you would be paying about the same as a semester’s tuition. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, JUST GO! I can guarantee that you will not regret it.

Most American college students tend to go abroad during their junior year. I’m not really sure why this has become the norm. If you’re a freshman student struggling to find an internship after your first year, spend your summer abroad! There’s no rule that states that you must be a junior and that you must go abroad during the regular semester. Summers offer a great time to leave the country without missing out the four years you have at your college or university. Do what is best for you, not what everyone else is doing! If you plan it out, you can potentially study abroad in more than one country during your college years.

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Question 2: Is there more than one type of program?

YES. Study abroad is a hugely ambiguous term for many types of programs and options. Do you want to go to one country, or multiple? Are you looking for language practice or to learn a new language all together? How many hours will you be in the class room? One thing I never thought of while searching through programs is the ratio of time actually spent in the classroom and time actually spent out and exploring the country. Be sure to ask your study abroad counselor or the program director to figure out if the program is right for you. One of the biggest reasons I chose to do the Field School was because Lisa explained the entire program in full the first time we met!

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Question 3: Who are the students that attend this program?

If you’re looking for an escape from your current campus, perhaps a university-specific program is not the best option. Many programs bring together students from a wide variety of backgrounds, whether from colleges and universities in the US, internationally,  or from different majors. Be sure to ask where students are from, and how many students are in the program. Having a variety of backgrounds and disciplines is key to taking in the abroad experience for more than what you may be experiencing.

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Question 4: Who can I talk to about choosing a program?

Reach out to prior students of the program to get the most honest opinions about the program. It’s a great idea to ask about major pros and cons. Yes, many students who go abroad will rave about how wonderful their time was! Even so, chances are the student is not representative of the entire program and whatever advertising mechanisms they use.

Finally, Study abroad is a huge part of the undergraduate experience. Be sure to make the most of your time in college and go abroad! Whether that means during the semester or during the summer, sophomore or junior year, GO ABROAD. And most importantly, research programs and ask questions before signing on to a program.

Mist and Reverse Migration in Pokut Yayla – June 23, 2014

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There’s nothing quite like being jostled around in the back of a Land Rover like a piece of fruit in a toddler’s lunchbox, as one climbs higher and higher on a dirt road in the Hemşin region of northeastern Turkey, a valley or two over from the village of Çamlihemşin.  Past thick evergreen forests, over a reddish-orange dirt road, along switchback after tight switchback on some of the steepest slopes I’ve seen, we bumped and pitched for close to an hour, from the clear, compact torrent of a river below to Pokut Yayla on the very top of one of the steep, jagged, greenly forested mountains that characterize the region.

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Thrusting open the back hatch and staggering out onto solid, stationary ground, I felt a little bit like I’d just been on a rough voyage to some far-off, alien land.  Looking around, I realized that wasn’t so loose a comparison.  The whole area was shrouded in a thick fog; I could see our vehicle and another, the road behind us, a slope with some grasses and shrubs, and a trail wandering up the slope, soon disappearing into the white, wet unknown.  There was a definite sense of mystery about the place; there was no telling what was there beyond the meager 15 feet one could see around oneself before the white shroud started keeping its secrets.

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We walked a while on the thin, muddy trail up a gradual slope through the damp, balmy air.  Then, the fog mooed.

IMG_0434A few steps later, some beige cows came into view, wearing colorful collars with copper bells and grazing next to the trail on the plateau just below their barns.  A few minutes down the trail, we talked to the owner of some of the cows and her friend.

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After talking to these two women while being warmed by the wood-fire inside the one’s house, we walked back along the same trail on the plateau, and now took it into the woods.  The fog had cleared momentarily, so we could see the robust evergreens that markedly curved out of the sharp slope by gravitropism.  Out of the woods, once again shrouded in fog, Uğur – our guide – gave an obscene call to the mist, which replied in kind.  The call is a tradition in some of these plateau communities, both to let your neighbors know that you made it and that the noise they’re hearing isn’t a dangerous animal.  A few more steps into the mist, we recognized we were in another small settlement – one with similarities to the other we’d just been in, but with it’s own distinct character.  We joined a recent return migrant in her new pansiyon (bed and breakfast), enjoyed her delicious Hemşin food, and heard a part of her story.

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Both she and the women on the other side of the trail had told us about being return migrants to the area.  They’d been born and grown up in Pokut Yayla and the surrounding valleys, but moved away to larger cities in Turkey like İzmir, for reasons including more employment opportunities and their own or their children’s education.  It was especially intriguing to hear recollections of growing up in the area (30-40 years ago, if it’s not rude to judge age), such as how they used to have to bring water up from the river in the valley every several days, an arduous task that would take hours; and then, one had to be conservative with the water.  Only about 10 years ago, electricity and water utilities were brought to Pokut Yayla; these, and the labor-saving machines they allow for (like the milking machine) make life much easier on the plateau; but, as her friend of the first woman we met mentioned, they also bring the distractions of cell phones and the internet, interfering with the close person-to-person interactions that made that community so tight when the two friends were growing up.

Of course, the make-up of the community in Pokut Yayla has changed since the women we spoke with were children.  For one thing, many of the residents are now elderly, or at least nearly so.  After all, the women we spoke with weren’t the only ones who left as children or young adults, but they’ve been some of the few to return.  They are valued by the community both for their rarity and their utility: they represent the younger generation, and they can do more work than many of their neighbors.  Yet, even some of the women we talked to will only be there for part of the year; they’ll winter in a larger city.

As we bump and jostle back down the darting, ragged road, I mulled over the interesting situation of the communities of Pokut Yayla.  On one hand, the community needs people to persist, and this is an asset in scarce supply in this region.  And certainly, the women we spoke to are trying to do something about this.  The woman past the woods mentioned that tourism is relatively strong in the region, and evidently she’s trying to bring more of that to Pakut Yayla with her pansiyon.  One of the first women we spoke with remarked that everyone should stop working like a slave in the big cities, and instead come to Pokut Yayla, where they can raise a family on two cows.

IMG_0307On the other hand, though, one gets the sense that if the area were to become flooded with those who had less of a personal connection to the area, something would be lost.  Certainly, the mist would still shroud the wooden buildings, and the newcomers might be just as passionate about the land and its customs as those who call it their childhood home.

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Yet part of the aura of Pokut Yayla is its sparseness, its isolation and its obscurity – the sense one gets that one is in a space apart, separated even from the comparatively cosmopolitan village along the rushing river in the valley below, where we stagger out of the Land Rover for a çay and a seat on solid, stationary ground.

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Be connected… (to nature)

image (1)This day was one of the most interesting days not only of our trip, but also my entire life. I visited a wooden house built by Birol Topaloğlu in Arhavi totally made out of chestnut wood and brought there from Çamlıhemşin; secondly I saw my first beginning of a HES Project, first tea field, and then met Mehmet Gürkan and Hüseyin Acar from ‘’Brotherhood of Rivers’.’ Afterwards I met a village representative who lived in the States for eleven years, and finally heard about Uğur Biryol’s venture.  Each and every one of these interviews was very special and inspiring to me… Additionally, I witnessed that here, people’s way of resistance, converting, changing society is completely different from each other and most importantly, not centralized.

Ezmoce (dream)  is the name of the house built by Birol Topaloğlu and even though we couldn’t have chance to talk to Mr. Topaloğlu, our guide, Uğur Biryol told us the history of this dream house which is used not only as a pension and/or café, but also used as a gathering place for the enlightened people of this region. We learned that Mr. Topaloğlu’s aim was to revitalize Laz culture through music. He built this house not only for business purposes, but also to represent Laz culture and to meet other people who  migrated back like him. We can say that this place helps them to create a new but closed community. In that sense, it reminded us of Latife Tekin’s Gümüşlük Academy. Like that closed, ‘’anti-social’’ community, this community is also created from people who have similar motives to come here, I would say. He has produced five music albums and makes contributions to the Yayla (plateau) Festival to raise awareness about Laz culture. Even though this created community seems to be so closed, I appreciated his effort put on this project and built an informal cultural center there.

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Our second meeting, with Mehmet Gürkan and Hüseyin Acar, started very unusual because, it took a while to convince especially Hüseyin Acar that we are there just for our field school and independent from any organization and institution. Even though, firstly I found his approach strange, then I decided to evaluate, study this as a part of their story. He stated that, when the government can’t enter a place, they send some people there to pass through the ‘’enemy-line’’, so it was the reason why he found us ‘’suspicious’’ but just because we were Uğur’s guests it didn’t take long for him to believe in us. During the meeting, according to them, the crucial questions that should be asked were following: Do we really need this energy, if not, for whom this energy is getting produced and aren’t there any other options for saving energy through like ecofriendly lamp balls. They claimed that, it is so obvious that HES Projects in Turkey that dry up rivers and damage the ecosystem were built to meet EU’s energy supply requirement and export energy to certain countries. For example, even though France gave up building nuclear centrals on its own land, it invested in the construction of the nuclear power plant in Turkey. Moreover, on 2,000 rivers 4,000 dams are scheduled to be built and it is also because of the tendency of the government to make money out of selling the right to use water to certain companies, countries. Not to mention, it should be made clear that one can’t decide on how to use water and to whom to sell it because the water doesn’t belong only to people, but also to plants and animals. It was also so interesting to me when they said that they don’t let in any workers, military policeor non-locals to start construction on hydroelectric power plants and it is a matter of life or death for them. In addition to that, he said people can get united when they feel that their way of life is threatened and I think that it must be one of the most daunting tasks, especially in a country that uses bribes and creates extremely biased educational materials on the topic of energy.  In primary school, building dams and HES projects are portrayed as a positive and alternative way to use and produce energy in a proper way… For instance, even wind energy and sun panels that are very positively portrayed in books also destroy, damage the natural ecosystem in a way that changes birds’ migration routes with the wind energy and replace plants with sun panels. To be honest, I didn’t think about these ‘’alternative’’ energy types that were taught in primary schools as being positive, so it was a new thing for me to think about. They were also complaining about people who came there, to Fındıklı and made a documentary about their resistance without including an objective view of the reason for their resistance.  I want to end this paragraph with two striking sentences:

‘’One should admit that the nature doesn’t belong to him but he is only a part of the nature.’’

‘’While I was studying in the college, I ended my school in a dark room because there were no electricity and it didn’t take me away from studying, I found my way and graduated from the college!’’

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Our last meeting was with Uğur Biryol who owns a café named Livera in Çamlıhemşin and migrated to his hometown from Ankara, so it was not usual for me because the notion of migration always reminds me of people who move from rural to urban to study, work or for another reasons. While we were talking to him, he showed as his books, so he is a writer, also a journalist and the owner of this café that can be also considered as a ‘’culture center’’. According to him, the concept of his café is very new and rare for this region, because Livera is also a book and music store in which Black Sea Culture can be experienced very well through meals, music and books that are sold there. He has three books, one of them is Kaçkarlar’da Bulut Olsam that reads the geography and culture of the region, second one is Hemşinliler, Göç ve Pastacılık: Gurbet Pastası  which deals with the worker migration from Black Sea to Russia, Poland and the workers’ getting experts of bakery in these countries and their coming back to town. The last one is Karardı Karadeniz)and it includes eight articles that were compiled by him, so, one of the reasons he came back Çamlıhemşin was his willingness to write about this region by living within this environment, feeling it by heart. Furthermore, I learned from him that Hemşin people are originally Armenian and they used to be Christian and Laz people who are members of another ethnic group migrated here from Caucasia. Afterwards, we talked about that there are no maps of natural parks, tracking roads or information centers in Black Sea and actually it is not specific with this region, all over Turkey we don’t have a proper map of even Efes which is world-wide famous touristic place. According to him, Turkey doesn’t use its potential for tourism and in general, Turkish people and the government don’t approach the nature as something that should be preserved, but, instead, the government is always eager  to make money out of it.

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While we were talking to him, a man came in the café and Uğur introduced the representative of Hilal village in Hemşin and he also came here from a big city, İstanbul and lived in the States for eleven years. His story amazed me because after living in such big cities, daring to live in a village with the population of maximum 100 in summer time when everyone is in the village. Even though, he didn’t exactly tell us the reason why he migrated here, he pointed out that living here and dealing with people, the nature is not that realistic and, of course, it is not easy. It took him eight years to get used to the way that people speak, ‘’curse’’ each other in their daily lives and also it took the villagers approximately 5 years to accept him in this community, because there was a rumor that he came here to escape because he killed a man in the States. I suppose this statement  clearly shows how much harder it is to get included in a community as a foreigner, even though this place is your hometown. He stated also that women in the villages don’t want to marry men there, because they know that tasks here are labor intensive, so they choose to marry men from big cities or, if possible, abroad, so this is one of the aspects which trigger migration. In addition to  this, he said that it took him 5 years to teach men to do the tasks that women do, because the tradition and knowledge about planting, working on the field and harvesting shouldn’t be lost, so he one of his concerns was that and I appreciate his effort. This man showed me how a person can adapt in a community, how to change people’s life there as a representative of the village in a world that the representatives mostly work for the constructions of new roads etc… He also put forward that he needs young people to settle there, in Hilal Vilage because he needs labor force and develop the village. His final words are like the summary of the entire interviews we have done:

‘’Be connected to nature and just respect it!’’

Ebru Revisited

IMG_1593 2Even though today we learned about a number of important and interesting issues that this region is dealing with in the present, a personal experience we had today was definitely the highlight of the day. Special enough that it deserved its own blog post! We got to witness Attila’s reunion with Sevda, the hemşin woman who he photographed for the cover of his book, Ebru. It all started when Attila told us in the van that he had arranged to meet with Sevda, the woman on the cover of Ebru, whom he hadn’t seen since he took her photograph ten years earlier.  We first met her husband at a cafe where he works. There he and Attila talked.  The husband was still not very pleased with Sevda’s appearance on the cover, even though at the time they were not married. After leaving the cafe we headed over to a mountainous road that led to Sevda’s house.  We arrived at the house and waited for a few minutes while Sevda came out. We could not wait to see Attila and Sevda’s reactions to seeing each other again. It was an amazing moment when we saw Sevda come out holding one of her children and saw Attila’s smile as he talked to Sevda and her mother and held Sevda’s  little girl.  It was the cherry on top of a wonderfully informative and scenic day!

Evaluating the Social Impact of The Cultural Museum

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This morning we had breakfast at Hezen Cave Hotel, which is rated one of the best hotels in all of Turkey. Afterwards, we were assigned field work regarding the social impact of Cappadocia Cultural Museum in Ortahisar, Cappadocia. Berrin Yıldız and Murat Sarikaya, the founders of the museum, are recognized as change makers by the Sabanci Foundation and we were interested to explore whether the museum has created social change. After watching the Sabanci change maker video, we set out for our assignment with Yusuf, a resident of the area, to try and develop an understanding of this social impact from the Ortahisar  community members themselves.

Yusef grew up in this area and first told us about the history of the lemon industry in  Ortahisar, which has suffered over the years due to government regulations and the competition of neighboring towns. This area used to be known for lemon storage because, during the summer time, the caves remain nice and cool for preservation. In the 1990’s, the government shut down many of the lemon caves in Ortahisar because they felt that it was potentially dangerous and could be damaging to historically significant land. Because of this, and other economic motivations, lemon growers went to neighboring towns to store their lemons. Prior to this time, the lemon industry contributed to 80% of the Ortahisar’s economy, but has drastically decreased to 20%. Due to the nine-year restoration of the Castle of Ortahisar, the tourism industry also suffered during this time. Yusuf explained that the castle has recently reopened and is located across the street from the Cultural Museum. While both of these sites are creating a positive impact towards the tourism industry of the town, Yusuf explained  that many tourists visit these sites in three hours, and that without hotels in this town, these sites would not be enough. This made me question why the Culture Museum is considered a change-making venture, while the other hotels in this area are not.

When we visited the museum, I was amazed to see that the majority of the building was actually a restaurant, and that only one room was designated as the museum part of the venture. As we talked to community members around the area, they too, explain that they felt as though the Culture Museum was primarily a restaurant and that the actual museum gets less attention. The restaurant is particularly appealing for  large tourist buses because it is able to accommodate  large groups of people. This was kind of disappointing for me because it made me feel as though the original purpose of the building was getting lost through its fancy restaurant. Some locals confessed that they do not feel welcome in the museum because they feel that they would disturb dining customers. This too was an interesting comment because, while the museum is about the culture of the local community, it seemed like they are unable to experience the museum as frequently as tourists. On the other hand, many explained their appreciation for the museum. A local cafe owner and a local barber both explained that, while the museum does not create drastic amounts of business for them, it still has a small positive impact. They told us that even if that impact is small, it is still greatly appreciated by them. Everyone who we interviewed, and who has seen the museum, also added that they believe it to be an accurate portrayal of their culture.

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The Sabanci Foundation website, outlines the criteria for change maker recognition. When looking at their website, I think that founders Berrin Yıldız and Murat Sarikaya fit the criteria for “supporting education and learning”, “providing economic development” and “contributing to culture and arts”. While studying the museum, I realize it is sometimes very difficult to understand which ventures are social enterprises and who gets to be called a change maker. I feel as though the Culture Museum is an example of a venture with many positive aspects, yet to me, it seems to also have several outcomes that are less related to social change.

On our way home from the Culture Museum, we had the unique opportunity to go into a lemon storage cave that is still working as such. It was a family run business and they were all so welcoming and kind.  Although this was a subtle moment compared to rest of our experiences this month,  it was very valuable and heartwarming for me.

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The Circle is Tightening…

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Today, instead of writing things about what  I observed in beautiful Ihlara Vadisi, Kapadokya , I would like to write my thoughts about  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s case against Attila Durak.  In the exhibition ‘’Bu Daha Başlangıç’’, which Attila curated, there was a photo of a graffitied message that read ‘’Faşist Tayyip’’ (Fascist Tayyip). Attila, along with photographer Kemal Aslan and the staff of the hosting venue are being accused of ruining and provoking democracy. While learning about this case I questioned again the definition of democracy which seems to vary according to different situations.

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As you may know, this course is all about experiencing social change and adventures of change makers by visiting and talking to them, so in order to understand this process in a comprehensive way, we are traveling through Turkey and experiencing it.  Now, I see clearly that change making is not always easy and perceived positively by some people, even the government, and I would like to mention some cases. On June 2013, during the Gezi Protests, Mehmet Ali Alabora who is a Turkish actor spoke to CNN and explained the world that this protest is not just because of the demolishing the park and cutting the trees, this fight, this revolt is because of the government’s arbitrary legislations and/or applications. After this speech, he was accused for armed insurgency against the Republic and the government is demanding 20 years of imprisonment, if he will be found guilty.  In addition to these cases, in Gümüşlük, Bodrum me and my friends heard the Academy’s history in details from Latife Tekin. Jandarma (the detective force in rural areas and suburbs) were sent by the municipality to examine each and every inch of the academy because they were accused of trafficking in drugs and women trade. The accusation was an excuse to raid the academy to intimidate people. In Turkey, the enlightened are always potential criminals who would challenge the government, for that reason, before a ‘disaster’ happens, the government wants to keep them in control. We also saw that even preserving nature is a challenge in Turkey, because the government works like a business. In order to make much more profit, they destroy nature. Yet, if you defy the government by trying to preserve nature, like the Gezi protesters, you are named as terrorist, as if you are the slayer, destroyer…

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Getting back to the subject, the exhibition ‘’Bu Daha Başlangıç’’ is a milestone for me as being the first exhibition about the Gezi Protest and I believe that it helps keep the resistance spirit alive.  I clearly remember that, after I got out of the exhibition, the things I saw it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was sickened that those eight people had to die and felt such anger towards those who are responsible for these deaths. As a participant of the Gezi Protest, I appreciate all of the people who made this beautiful project come true.  At that point, I didn’t even think that Attila Durak, Kemal Aslan and the others from Nazım Hikmet Culture Center and Nilüfer Municipality would end up getting sued.

Unfortunately, day by day I realize that our freedom of speech, protest and even living are getting taken from us and the circle is tightening… Maybe, I will be the next, who knows?

In short, I want to scream that;

We won’t give up the fight!

We won’t forget that the government turns its back to the enlightened!

And without you we are not completed!

Get involved, be the part of the change!

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Introducing the 2014 Field School for Social Innovation Cohort!

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Our final day in Bodrum began much like the past two days: warm, sunny and not a cloud in sight. Our bus for Konya leaves at 5:00 pm today and we have no appointments between breakfast and our departure. For us, that means catching up on blogs, reviewing research, packing, and journaling. It’s always nice to have some time to reflect on all of the traveling we’ve done thus far. Currently, we are in Southwest Turkey and tonight we’re headed to Konya, central Turkey.

The journey is supposed to take about 10 hours so we are going to take an overnight bus, which are very popular in Turkey. In fact, we are getting off at around the half-way point of the bus’s entire journey! A small but audible gasp came from the group when we took our seats, mostly because there were TVs in the back of the seats. (I will pause here to reflect on all my Peter Pan bus trips from New York City to Providence where there was no TV and no wifi). Sofia and I made ourselves comfortable and took in the landscape for the first few hours. Meanwhile, Galen continued journaling, Cansu listened to music, and Andrew conversed with his bus buddy using his Turkish vocabulary (his Turkish is fantastic!). We’re a pretty eclectic bunch, bringing together a wide range of interests, majors, and experiences. Here’s some info about us!

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I (Kimberley Charles) am a rising junior at Brown University concentrating in Political Science and Development Studies. I’m most interested in development as it plays out on the grassroots level. After studying theories of development, I’m excited to meet social entrepreneurs and hear their thoughts and critiques of development and innovation. This is my second trip to Turkey, and I am very excited to experience Turkey beyond Istanbul.

Sofia Linares Vasquez is a rising senior at Tufts University majoring in International Relations with a concentration in Development Economics. She spent her last semester at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul with the Duke in İstanbul program. On this trip, She is most interested in studying population migration in Turkey and improving her Turkish. For the world cup, she is rooting for her home country of Colombia.

Galen Rohn is rising junior at Brown concentrating in Business entrepreneurship and organizations (BEO). She is very interested in social innovation and change relating to the environment and sustainability. Her goal in Turkey is to look at initiatives that connect environmental sustainability to other social problems. So far, Galen has fallen in love with Turkey.

Cansu Erdogan is junior at Koc University, Istanbul, concentrating in Sociology and Psychology. She is very interested in gender studies, women’s empowerment and social change in Turkey. On this trip, among other things, she was amazed by Tara Hopkins’ effort to connect poverty, women employment and sustainability through her venture at çöp(m)adam. So far, she is so glad and content with the field work.

Andrew Scanlan is a member of Brown University’s class of 2017 from Bradford, Pennsylvania, USA.  His anticipated concentration is mechanical engineering, but his interests go beyond that specific discipline. Andrew is most interested in learning about people’s value beliefs.

Now that you know a little bit about us, feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the program! We’ll probably be raving about this trip for the next year, and would love to talk to any interested students!

Traveling in Turkey

IMG_2507After a short day in Konya today we were on the road again. We headed towards Kapadokya where we will be for the next couple of days. I am excited to go back to Ürgüp because it was the first place I saw in Turkey other than Istanbul. I was there in February as part of an excursion with my fellow Duke in Istanbul classmates. (Fun fact: on our plane I sat behind Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, who was then one of the last remaining reputable members of the AKP government (before the Syria tapes came out)). Going back to Ürgüp I had all these memories fresh in my mind and was ready to see what else was in store.

As we drove in the car I came to the realization that my first travels in Anatolia mimicked the structure of our trip except I before I had traveled in the opposite direction, starting in Kapadokya and ending on the Aegean coast. As we drove I reflected on how my perspective of the places we visited has changed from the first time I went there to now as I revisited them with the Field School.

I had been to the area around Ayvalık before, but hadn’t realized how deeply linked this location was to the population exchange after WWI. As we walked around the town we saw the shells of the Greek houses and saw the traces of the Greek culture scattered around in the form of churches and greek lettering on some building . Also previously in Küçükkuyu, near Dedetepe, we had seen a statue commemorating the population exchange in both Turkish and Greek, demonstrating the depth of the impact this event had on the population living on the Aegean coastline.  We also had the opportunity to see the incredible city renewal that had taken place in this area, as Attila was amazed to see a church in Cunda completely renovated, which he had photographed ten years ago in ruins. I had also been in the area in mid May and was able to see the change in the church as it went from being under renovation until now when it is open to visitors.

When I visited Konya I had not particularly seen as a birthplace for innovation, but this time around I realized that political and religious conservatism does necessarily stifle social innovation. I had been introduced to Konya with it being one of the most conservative places in Anatolia, as well as a religious center because of its Sufi heritage in the form of the Mevlana Museum and the legacy of Rumi. This time around I was able to see its Hittite heritage as well as to visit the DownCafe, a very prosperous social venture.

Finally visiting Kapadokya again I learned more about the region in terms of how it depends on the lemon trade and how seasonal migration plays a role in the area’s economic activities. When I had come before I had been more entranced by the history of the region and the history of the Rum and Christian populations in the area. Thought to be amongst the first Christian converts in the world the people who lived in this area created ornate churches in caves all around the region.

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Revisiting parts of Turkey has allowed me to understand that going to one place does not mean you have really understood every facet of it. Going to these places again allowed me to view them in a different light, different than what I had seen in them as a tourist before.  I feel like what I have gained by revisiting these places has been a closer understanding of the people who live there now, how they make a living, which problems they face and how they deal with these problems.

Gümüşlük Akademisi; The anti-social social venture

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June 14, 2014

During a delicious breakfast at Gümüşlük Akademisi this morning, we prepared for afternoon interviews, which we would be conducting with a variety stakeholders in this community. While brainstorming and discussing in the Academy’s thought garden, Latife Tekin, one of Turkey’s most famous novelists and the Gümüşlük Akademisi director, came by our table. When we asked her if she would be available for an interview today she suggested, “Why don’t we do the interview at the beach!” With that, we took a last bite of breakfast, gulped down our çay, and hurried off to our rooms to put on our bathing suits.

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Latife and Emre, the operations manager of Gümüşlük Akademisi, brought us to a very remote beach with a breathtaking view of the Aegean Sea. Under a shaded canopy, built by Attila and Emre,  Latife told us about the establishment of Gümüşlük Akademisi. She explained her desire to leave the busy city life of Istanbul and her aspiration to live in a place where one could live freely and independently. The Academy is an artist community where a variety of workshops are held for painters, writers, sculptors, etc.

She explained that among the founding leaders of the Academy was Ahmet, a mechanical engineer who was educated in Germany and founded the Green Party in Turkey. He was the original visionary of the Academy and came from a very wealthy family. Unlike Ahmet, Latife came from humbler beginnings, but was already a well-known and highly influential author at the time of the Academy’s inception. The third co-founder was Hüsmen, a Turkish architect who was educated in the United States. Each of these individuals came from very different backgrounds and because of that, they each provided unique ideas about how the organization should be organized. This multidisciplinary team was very important for creation of the Academy.

As we listened to her story, I was impressed with her bravery and perseverance throughout the construction of the Academy. She spoke about obstacles relating to funding, zoning requirements, and conflicting visions amongst founding leaders.While she laughed and joked about all of these challenges, I imagine that they required a great amount of strength to overcome. It is clear that the Academy is extremely important to her, and although difficult to establish, she felt very strongly that a place like it needed to exist. We all left the beach feeling very fortunate to have spend a beautiful day on a remote beach with one of Turkey’s most influential authors…not your average study abroad!

When we returned to the Academy, we broke up into teams to interview some other key stakeholders of this venture. Kim, Andrew, and Attila interviewed Zübeyde, the Academy’s cook; Sofia and Cansu interviewed Mehmet, Zübeyde’s husband and the Academy’s grounds manager; and Lisa and I interviewed Emre.

The aspect of Emre’s interview that stood out to me the most was when I asked him where he sees the Academy in ten years for now. He told me that it will be exactly the same. One of the academy’s main beliefs is to fight against establishment and remain in the foundation stage of existence. This is something that was hard for me to understand at first. While studying businesses and social ventures, it always seems that a company’s goal is to become developed, establish its brand, provide sustainable cash flows, and perhaps even expand. Yet, for Gümüşlük Akademisi, those are not the goals but rather the fears! Emre explained that establishment means categorization and restriction, which are the antithesis of the Academy’s values of freedom and independence. He discussed the fact that cash flows are intermittent, and maintenance projects have to be done one at a time over several years. It was important and very interesting for me to hear this because it shows that there is no fixed path that a venture must follow throughout its existence. I never really thought about the fact the there are organizations that choose not to practice a standard business development model. Emre explained that their conscious decision to avoid establishment is a reminder for its guests that this thought mentality exists and can be an option for how one lives her life. For me, it is not about whether I agree with one business structure or the other, but its about understanding that they both exist. It is easy for a system to become so ingrained that into one’s lifestyle, that they cannot see that other systems are possible. This mentality seems to be very important for social change. It reminds me of Defne’s comment “I don’t believe in nations, I believe in geography”.  Again, I feel that regardless of how you view the physical spaces of the world, it is important to understand that both mentalities exist. The Academy provides a reminder of this for its guests.

Emre explained that the Academy’s conscious lack of establishment is also responsible for providing the unique feeling and spirit of the place. Even during our three-day stay here, I feel as though I have some understanding of the feeling that Emre is talking about. The Thought Garden of the Academy is made up of a small pond with lush greenery surrounding it. There is a winding path through the small trees and shrubs, which leads to many private and protected work spaces. The environment feels very tranquil and welcoming for creativity, personal expression, and solitude.

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Before dinner, we spoke with Dr. Mustafa Sütlaş, who told us about his experience as a user of the Academy. Dr. Sütlaş is a former dermatologist who specializes in Leprosy. Throughout his career, he dedicated himself to advocating for the destigmatization of lepers and his efforts have allowed these patients to seek aid at every state hospital, rather than specialized leprosy hospitals as they previously had to do. His work has also improved how police officers, imams, and other community members treat lepers. After spending many years in the media spotlight during his activism, he greatly values the seclusion and privacy of the Academy. I think that the Academy’s social impact is less obvious and transparent than Dr. Sütlaş’ leper- related activism. Its goal is not to affect a wide-reaching audience like many social ventures, but rather provide a space for a small and selective amount of people.  Social innovation requires creative and unconventional ideas. Change makers must often challenge preexisting systems and explore alternative functioning methods. The Academy provides a space where these visionaries are able to do this with complete political, social, and spiritual freedom. Dr. Sütlaş explained that the academy’s existence is extremely important because, while other organizations have tried to create a similar space, the Academy’s lack of establishment and selective membership make it “water in the middle of the desert”.

Sustaining Down Cafe – June 16, 2014

Making a difference doesn’t always require coming up with a completely novel idea.  After all, if there’s untapped potential to make significant impact, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel; or, as a Turk might say, amerika’yı ikinci kez keşfetme: don’t rediscover America.  This is manifested in the success and impact of Vefa Demirkıran, who founded the Down Cafe brand and model.  After a long, long drive through the beautifully expansive plains and stark mountains in Turkey’s southwest, we met him over a restoring breakfast at the Down Cafe in Ereğli district, Konya province.

The reason we were at Down Cafe was not so much for the food (though it was quite good); we were there because of who serves the food, works with meal preparation, cleans and maintains the restaurant, and handles the logistics of the operation (ordering, etcetera).  Except for a few individuals, Down Cafe is staffed entirely by individuals with Down syndrome or other mental illnesses.  Of course, you wouldn’t know it from the service, food quality, or the cleanliness recognition awarded to the restaurant by the local government, but that’s just the point; Down Cafe serves as a face-to-face testament to the abilities of individuals with mild-to-moderate Down syndrome.

The concept of employing individuals with Down syndrome in a restaurant or cafe setting is not brand new.  It certainly wasn’t an original idea of Vefa Bey; when he opened the first Down Cafe in Şişli (a neighborhood in İstanbul) in 2009, there were six other restaurants or cafes in Turkey that made a point of employing individuals with Down syndrome.  What makes Vefa Bey’s brand different is evident in the following statistic: Down Cafe is not only still around, but expanding, while four of those six have since closed or are likely to do so soon.

Much of what makes the difference between the Down Cafe and other similar ventures is Vefa Bey’s attitude toward the venture and his ability to cultivate and work connections.  For instance, before opening the first Down Cafe, he thought carefully about how to name and brand the concept, so as to be the most successful not only in terms of attracting customers, but in receiving support from both Turkish and international sources.  Along the same line, he told us plainly that in managing the venture, he keeps in mind his belief that “if this [Down Cafe] is a business, it’ll be run like a real business” [translation paraphrase].  This mindset is important when considering that Vefa Bey believes what’s important is not so much the idea, but being able to sustain the idea.

Vefa Bey hasn’t only sustained Down Cafe; he’s helped it thrive.  In addition to the original cafe in Şişli and the İstanbul Down Cafe food truck that soon followed, we were sitting at the Ereğli location (where Vefa Bey grew up, and moved back to to raise his children), and there are plans coming close to fruition for opening a branch in the city of Konya with the warm, strong support of the local government.  The local government has been one of the stakeholders with which Vefa Bey cultivated a mutually beneficial connection, and a strong one at that, evidenced by the District Governor of Ereğli’s presence at our table.  Vefa Bey explained that various policies and initiatives put in place by the local government have created exceptional opportunities for individuals with disabilities, such as classifying those workers at Down Cafe with disabilities as belonging to a protected work environment, which means that half of their salary is subsidized by the government.  The District Governor explained his vision to make Ereğli a model city for people with disabilities, in terms of both services and accessibility, but also opportunities for full-inclusion and involvement in society, epitomized by Down Cafe.  Seeing and hearing the local government’s genuine enthusiasm (and the District Governor’s long personal support), and learning about Vefa Bey’s contact with the Sabancı Foundation and others, it’s clear that Down Cafe is being well “sustained,” to say the least.

At the end of the day, though, its social impact alone makes Down Cafe  a social venture worth sustaining.   The testimonies from some of the waitstaff and explanations about societal challenges faced by individuals with Down syndrome gives the best insight into this impact.  With few exceptions like the Down Cafe, there are very few opportunities in Turkey for individuals with Down syndrome following their completion or aging-out of high school.  Vefa Bey characterized it by saying that the various institutions involved acted as though the lives of these people was over after age 18; after high school, they would end up being confined to their parents’ house, hesitant to go outside to join the rest of society – especially never alone – for fear of the ridicule that would accompany their visit to a public place.  Compounding this was the perception that people with Down syndrome need help (believing they are incapable of doing much of anything on their own); yet, there was animosity because of their receiving help in the form of disability compensation from the government.  As Hakan, one of our waiters, said, he was being insulted regularly by neighbors for receiving money from the government without working.IMG_2509

“Now, I am working; I am earning my own money,” Hakan says proudly [translation paraphrase].  He uses his salary to help support his mother; he hopes to buy a house soon.  Eser, another waiter, wants to spread the impact; he hopes to be selected for a municipal position in which he would advise with respect to and be able to aid people with disabilities.  Eser also added that if Down Cafe didn’t exist, he’d hope to create some sort of network or federation to allow individuals with similar disabilities to share with each other and provide mutual support.  Hearing from Vefa Bey’s wife, we learned that the self-confidence of those who work at Down cafe has improved remarkably.  It was the situation that they wouldn’t go in to public alone.  Recently, a few of the workers (and friends) went down to a nearby mall alone, enjoyed tea in public, and paid with their own money.

Certainly much of this transition has to do with increases in the individuals’ self confidence; it feels good to make one’s own money, and to know that one is serving a productive role in society.  Part of the transition, though, is related to changes in the local society’s perception of Down syndrome and individuals affected by it.  Down Cafe has changed the attitude of many in the community about Down syndrome and people with Down syndrome.  As one of the most clear examples, after being featured in prominent advertisements for Down Cafe, one of the workers has become the hero of his village.

Sustaining is not always an important goal for every social venture.  Indeed, some believe that there’s a definite (and short) shelf-life to their idea, or believe that being continually in the “start-up” phase is beneficial.  With so much real impact already, though – changing the lives of individuals, affecting society’s perception, inspiring government to go even further to help – and such promise for even more impact in the future, Down Cafe is certainly an idea worth sustaining.

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