From 1996 to 2018, Vuslat Doğan Sabancı worked her way up the ranks of her family’s business, Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper publishing group, one of the largest media companies in the country. During that time, she helped lead the firm’s transition to digital, and pushed for greater coverage around gender equality and human rights—particularly women’s rights and domestic violence. In her last decade there, she served as the company’s board chair. For her, the experience was a heady whirlwind, an opportunity to bring a large, influential media operation into the click-click-click internet age, and to do so, in part, through social cause and action.
But by 2017, Sabancı says, “I felt that I had lost hope in what I was doing.” She was exhausted by the endless drive for quantity—to hold readers’ eyeballs and attention—often at the expense of quality content. “I began to wonder,” she says, “How could we go into another culture, where we listened more?” So Sabancı decided to take a sabbatical, and began “meeting [with] people who were out of my comfort zone, and just listening. Of course, it wasn’t easy.” The thought of a media executive becoming what she now refers to as a “generous listener” seemed to some, to put it mildly, contradictory. What she discovered, though, would alter the course of her life and career. (Sabancı sold Hürriyet in 2018.)
Here, we speak with Sabancı about what, exactly, entails being a generous listener, and what led her to start the Vuslat Foundation, launched last year, and its Generous Listening platform, which aims to create global change by showing people how to open their ears and hearts through projects including exhibitions, symposiums, and partnerships with universities.
Let’s begin with the sabbatical you took in 2017. Who were some of the people you were speaking with and listening to?
Because women’s issues have been my most important area of interest, I wanted to listen to women first. My first curiosity was conservative Muslim feminists. They call themselves feminists, but they’re religiously conservative. I’m a Muslim—I was born a Muslim—and it has always been difficult for me to understand them. I wanted to learn more about how some of the fundamentals of women’s rights and of Islam go together, and why you choose one over the other, and so forth. And I wanted to listen to women who have seen violence, who have been abused, who are in women’s shelters.
I also wanted to go to prisons, and listen to men who had [been] violent or who were murderers. Those were the most difficult listening experiences I’ve ever had. I wanted them to talk, but it was…. I also faced my own judgments.
Along the way, in 2009, you received an email from Lubna al-Hussein, a Sudanese journalist living in Khartoum, Sudan. Could you talk about that email? What did it say, and how does it fit into this conversation?
While tired and checking my emails at 11 p.m. one night, I found an email from this woman calling for help—a journalist. I’m part of the International Press Institute, a network of journalists, editors, and publishers who are trying to protect the freedom of speech around the globe. So she goes into that network and sends out a message, saying that, because she was wearing trousers in a coffee shop in Khartoum, with many other women—like, twenty, fifty more women—she got brought to the police station. She was told, “You can have a lash now”—like it’s the Middle Ages—“and then you can go home. But if you don’t accept that, you are guilty. Then you’ll go to court, and then maybe have more lashes.” All the other women got the lashes, then went home quietly. But this woman says, “I don’t accept. I’ve done nothing wrong. I want to use my right to go to court.” At that moment, I felt like covering her story was not going to be enough. I needed to be there physically.
The next morning, I was on the plane [to Khartoum]. By that time, there was a lot of fighting in South Sudan—there was a war going on. I went to the court. In front of the court building, there were two hundred and fifty or so women protesting. Across the street, there were twice as many policemen with guns. Out of the press, it was only me, from Hürriyet, and Reuters. That was it.
They told us the court was not going to be continued that day, that it was delayed. So I got in a car and said to the driver, “What is the opposition newspaper here in Khartoum?” He said, “It’s called Hürriyet” [no relation to Sabancı’s former company], which means “liberation” in Arabic. I said, “Take me there.” I went in and introduced myself. The editor and the publisher took me to a room, and said, “We have a surprise for you.” The door opened, and Lubna walked in. She was hiding there after the court hearing. I couldn’t believe it.
She gave me a hug and said, “We never had Atatürk.” [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk was the leader of the Turkish Republic [from 1923 to 1938]. We Muslim women owe a lot to Atatürk. He was very progressive in introducing women’s rights in the country. That was a very, very, very touching moment.
It strikes me that this was more than just an act of listening. You were responding to Lubna’s email by listening to what she had written, but also taking this very direct, incredibly generous approach of getting on a plane and going there.
It was also listening to my intuition. Something tells you, “This is what you’ve got to do.”
What was the impetus to begin the Vuslat Foundation and the Generous Listening project?
I realized during my sabbatical year how I started connecting to so many people through listening. As a media person, I’d been going after the quantity of connections: How many people do we reach? Who is our audience? But it was not sustainable, and it was not fulfilling. There was something lacking.
I wrote a short concept paper and sent it to thirty people. I wrote, “We’re lacking quality connections, which is making us super anxious, fearful, lonely, afraid of the unfamiliar, and also detached from nature. Without fixing this, it seems like we can’t fix any of the big problems.” My question was: Is this timely? Is this important? After two days of discussion, these people—who are all on my advisory board now—said, “Vuslat, this is timely. This is important. But we don’t know how you’ll do it, because it’s abstract.”
I came back home to Istanbul, and started deconstructing what authentic connectedness is. I [focused on] listening. In Turkish, the saying is “listening with your heart’s ear.” When Covid-19 started, we all reconnected on a Zoom call. I said, “The golden key is generous listening.” Everyone was enthusiastic. I got great encouragement and support. From there, I started building [the foundation].
So much of how we listen and receive information has to do with the media. Does the idea of a healthy media diet—or a slower, better media system—play into your Generous Listening effort somehow?
Unfortunately, the current economic business model of media dictates it not to be a good listener, but to be super-provocative and sensational—to have a loud voice. Media is generally either [instilling] fear in society, or scapegoating. Even if it’s not the tone, it’s the selection and creation of news, which is: How am I going to get attention? How do I get more reach? That doesn’t give much space [for slow, thoughtful content].
Not just broadcasting, but listening—I think now, media is going into a new phase, into an era…. I hope that current outlets will have to create spaces for listening. There are going to be different initiatives, like what you’re doing [with The Slowdown], or even Clubhouse. There will be other trials, too, which are going to bring more attention to listening.
Where does listening to nature, not just humans, come into this for you?
When I talk about generous listening, I talk about three components: Listening to oneself, to the other, and to nature. They’re supportive of each other, and they’re inseparable. Being a generous listener is a state of being, which includes being in nature. We learn to slow down, and to be open.
How do you define the practice of generous listening, and why don’t people do it more often?
For me, generous listening is the connection we crave. It’s engaging the heart, in the end, opening the heart to the unknown, being humble, knowing that you might not know everything. It’s being courageous, because listening is a courageous act. When we speak, we know we can control what we say. When we listen, we cannot control what we’ll hear.
One of the reasons why we don’t listen is that we get distracted all the time. Distraction has become second nature for us. It’s our fault. It’s the habit of going onto social media. Then there’s the global culture of showing yourself, of being out there, of that performance, especially for youth. Being aware of these things is the first step toward change. When we don’t listen, we miss incredible moments to connect with our children, our partners, our colleagues, even strangers. Listening reminds us of the humanity in each one of us.
From even before birth, we’re taught to listen to our mothers. How do you think about listening within this context?
The first sense organ that forms in a human is the ear. Through hearing, we connect, and first, to our mothers.
I don't know if you've heard about this initiative called Dialogue in the Dark. There is a trend to eat in the dark. The conversations you have in the dark are so different from what we have with our eyes open, because visuals shape so much. If it’s just audio, it’s boundless. I remember when my teenage son was going through a particularly hard time. We were arguing a lot. Then we went to this dinner where we ate in the dark with him. We couldn’t believe the things he was saying. He told us so many things. There’s no way we would have had that conversation anywhere else. We’ve got to remember that power of listening.
You recently presented a Generous Listening symposium at the Venice Architecture Biennial, and you just launched a Generous Listening and Dialogue Center at Tufts University. You’re also partnering with M.I.T. on research around listening. Tell me about these initiatives, and your hopes and ambitions for them.
We want to create a movement. I believe there are three important steps we have to take in order to have people, especially the youth, embrace generous listening as an essential part of their communication. One is creating awareness. That’s why we were at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, under the theme of “How will we live together?” Art has a very important power in inspiring people, and inviting them to think beyond words. We will continue to do these kinds of projects.
The second pillar is experience. That’s where we develop exercises, which take the form of challenges. We also create spaces for listening—which you’re doing right now, listening to me. Thank you.
The third one is creating knowledge and research: What is a good listener? What are the barriers to listening? What happens if we create better dialogues, and better conversations on an individual level, on a societal level, and with nature? With M.I.T., we’re giving [a Vuslat Foundation Fellowship for Generous Listening] to students who want to work on how we create spaces for listening. I’m very curious to see how digital spaces for listening could exist. That’s going to be our area in academia.
If everyone in the world started practicing generous listening—or if people just listened more and better—what do you think would be some of the greatest outcomes?
There will always be intertwined problems in the world, but we would be able to tackle them much more easily [if we listened to each other more]. That’s one thing. But something else is very important, too, which is people owning their potential, and playing it out. Without listening, we overshadow each other, and nobody can really be themselves. Highlighting one’s uniqueness, with everyone assessing that and showing that, is another important outcome I imagine.
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Keith Abrahamsson is the founder of the independent record label Mexican Summer, which operates out of New York and London and counts the likes of Cate Le Bon, Ariel Pink, and Photay among the artistEp. 3 of our Time Sensitive podcast.) Launched in 2008, his venture has grown to include a reissue label, Anthology, and a book publishing arm, Anthology Editions. In an effort to soothe anxious, isolated souls, Abrahamsson put together a playlist of transporting tunes for us. “It’s culled from material both in and outside my orbit—songs I work with directly or have connected to as a co “Love Is A Jungle,” Peter Ivers “For Lise,” Matchess “Rectifiya,” keiyaA “Stay Sane,” Pink Siifu “Charlotte's Thong,” Connan Mockasin “Infinitamente Nu,” Sessa “Min
An international pandemic may seem like an unusual time to kick-start a podcast called The Art of Travel. But for Olivia Lopez, a Filipina fashion blogger whose pre-Covid life entailed constant globetrotting, being stuck at the first episode of the podcast, which she launched over the summer. Through the project, Lopez hopes to provide a “temporary escape for listeners, whiYOLO magazine founder Yolanda Edwards, who talks about an unforgettable trip to Greece; Life House Hotels founder Rami Zeidan, who discusses how to make travel more meaningful; and perfumer Frédéric Malle, who explains how to travel via the senses. The conversations have been a balm for Lopez, who, like all of us, has been missing the excitement of everyday life. “
Music fans missing a regular calendar of gigs will find a lifeline in Iris Flow, headphones made to mimic the sound qualIris, which is backed by Queen drummer Roger Taylor, the device features a patented algorithm that restores complex spatial
In 2015, German-born British composer Max Richter wrote an epic eight-and-a-half-hour-long musical cycle titled “Sleep,” with the intention of it being the soundtrack to one night’s snooze. It consists of 31 tracks that each last about halfRichter said ahead of the piece’s U.S. premiere. “It’s a political work in that sense. It’s a call to arms to stop what we’re doing.” Recently, with the help of the Bean app of the same name. Divided into three sessions—Sleep, Meditate, and Focus—users can set timers for the music to play according to a chose
In the early 1970s, the nonprofit educational program Creative Music Studio (CMS) opened in Woodstock, New York, with an unconventional aim: invite artists—regardless of their musical ability, soTime Sensitive podcast.) Martin recently unveiled Creative Music Workshop, an online platform that builds on CMS’s legacy with free masterclasses and an ever-growing library of archival footageMedeski Martin & Wood (MMW), of which Martin is the drummer, called “Inside the Minds, Outside the Lines.” “Our general philosophy is to continuously reinvent ourselves,” Martin says of MMW, which plans to detail strategies fo
The Black Music History Library is here to bless—and educate—your ears. Launched this past August by New York–based music journalist Jenzia Burgos, thean episode of the Heat Rocks podcast as well as a list of preeminent musicologists, historians, and scholars. To those open to pure exploration and discovery, Burgos offers a roll-the-dice folder that randomizes selections from
Reporting on the climate crisis is a balancing act, where journalists must convey a sense of urgency without provoking dHot Take and How to Save a Planet, forgo the subject’s usual doom-and-gloom approach in favor of storytelling, where emotion and calls to action engage l
An activist, M.C., artist, and the first-ever hip-hop ambassador to the U.S. State Department, Toni Blackman—who runs hip-hop meditation workshops—describes her passion-driven role as being “more of a mindfulness educator, and lea playlist of her favorite tracks that help center her. “I was totally unaware of how much music was inside of my head and heart. Some of these songs I play on repeat every oEp. 55 of At a Distance earlier this year. “In between tears and mourning and political frustrations, I am enjoying my journey!”
The sheer volume of awful things that have happened in recent months makes a person wonder if we’ll ever get it right. FRadical Imagination podcast, now is the perfect moment to discuss deep-seated issues such as reparations, extreme poverty, and police miscoEp. 67 of our At a Distance podcast. So far, she’s interviewed Stockton, California, mayor Michael Tubbs about his guaranteed income initiative, as well as
The pandemic and ongoing global shifts have caused us all to slow down—and not just here at The Slowdown. Our friends atTokyo Slow Mixtapes: guest-curated collections of songs on Spotify to soothe you through these high-stress, anxiety-inducing times. ContribEp. 19 and Ep. 36, respectively, of our At a Distance podcast), along with Le Sirenuse hotel co-owners Antonio and Carla Sersale, with neOur own co-founder Spencer Bailey’s mixtape, for which he turned to the 17th-century Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto for inspiration, includes tracks by the likes
The anticipation of hearing and chasing down an ice cream truck is a nostalgic American pastime, bringing joy to kids onColumbia Records even released a recorded version of the song, written by actor Harry C. Browne, titled, “N*gger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!,” a disturbing slice of American histoTikTok-er Vanessa Blackwell resurfaced earlier this summer in a viral post. Offering a sorely needed replacement, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA recently partnered with the ice cream maker Good Humor to crRZA said in a video announcing the project. “I assure you that this one is made with love.” Good Humor released the track for free, urging all ice-cream truck dri
Museums have begun to reopen in New York City—with appropriate precaution—and after months of prolonged closures and dig“Rashid Johnson: Stage,” an installation opening next week at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens, and offering a participatory platform for diEp. 25 of our Time Sensitive podcast. At once referencing hip-hop culture, public oratory, protest, and public intellectual and cultural life, “Stage” will
The summer of Covid may be coming to an end, but our hearts, ears, and minds are hardly retreating indoors. We’re listenFor the Wild, a weekly podcast and “anthology of the Anthropocene” that’s keeping us curious and engaged about our place in nature. Feasting Wild author Gina Rae La Cerva (who also joined us on Ep. 39 of At a Distance) on the “quiet and hidden” stories of foraged foods; The Nap Ministry founder Tricia Hersey on rest as an act of social resistance; and Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the CiCenter for Native Peoples and the Environment, on what we can learn about earth healing from indigenous cultures. Many episodes come with a call to action to up your
Working from home, at least for those who are fortunate enough to do so, isn’t all bad. Trading workwear for loungewear,The Kids, a creative agency based in Zurich, are not all right with this. The firm’s interactive online project I Miss the Office serves as a cheeky reminder of pre-Covid-19 life that simulates the mundane soundscape of an everyday workplace—the sma
At first listen, the Get Sleepy podcast’s format is surprisingly basic: Cue the lulling intonations of a British narrator, who slowly reads an intentioSlumber, launched in 2018). Get Sleepy’s ASMR-meets-bedtime stories appeal is apt for these high-anxiety existential times that
Zoom fatigue—which is to say, screen fatigue—is all too real in these extremely online and indoor times, making old-school telephone calls a welcome, intimate reprieve. While we eagerly await museum reopenings, we’re gettin
The Swiss Army knife of gadgets, smartphones make for very good alarm clocks. They’re comforting to sleep with, keeping harder to sleep, impairs vision, suppresses melatonin, and throws the body’s circadian rhythm completely out of whack. (The National Sleep Foundation recommends ending the use of electronic devices at least thirty minutes before bed.)
A love of theater and drama drives the work of architect and designer David Rockwell, who grew up in a theater-going famRockwell Group, has designed numerous hospitality, entertainment, and cultural spaces—from Nobu to NeueHouse to The Shed—plus dozens oKinky Boots and Hairspray. While theaters are officially closed for the rest of the year, here Rockwell brings the spirit of the stage home to us with a playlist of some of his favorite musical numbers. (For more from Rockwell, listen to Spencer interview him on Ep. 1 of The Workspace of Tomorrow podcast.)
This time of year usually signals rest and recharging for many, with relaxation and summer travels in store. All of thatNature Ecology & Evolution, scientists have coined a term for this particular window of time—the “anthropause”—and have set out to quantify its efbiologist Christian Rutz, one of the paper’s lead authors, told Wired. “And we acknowledge that in the article. But it’s one which we, as a scientific community, really can’t afford to missone scientist, volcanologist Jan Lindsay, said. “The ‘2020 seismic noise quiet period’ will likely become something that Earth science students of the future will lea