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.
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.
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”.