Gaby D’Annunzio is a social activist, community organizer, podcaster and educator. Gaby is a community powerhouse, working together with multiple organisations to open up, not just Berlin’s music scene, but provide access and opportunity to everyone looking to share their story through the mediums of music, radio and journalism. Gaby works with Refuge Worldwide as their Head of Community Development and Education, she is the co-founder of Open Music Lab and hosts the Agora podcast series for Give Something Back to Berlin. In our conversation, Gaby discusses how she brought together her love of the arts and passion for social work, how her time working with Syrian refugees in 2015 lead to the start of the now renowned Open Music Lab workshops, the moment she realized the power of sharing stories, and more.
Hi Gaby! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi! My name is Gaby D’Annunzio and I’m currently working for Refuge Worldwide as Head of Community Development and Education. And I’m also the co-founder of the Open Music Lab.
And where are we meeting for coffee today?
My favourite spot to go for coffee is Companion coffee, which is actually right next to refuge. So it’s very convenient. They really do the best coffee in town. I get a Flat White with Hafermilch (Oat milk).
Maybe a little bit about you to start, how did you find your way to Berlin?
After I finished studying at Edinburgh University, my boyfriend at the time was back and forth from Berlin and he decided that he wanted to live here. After university I was up for a little adventure, so I joined him in Berlin and never left.
In a previous conversation of ours you’d said that you were studying psychology. Now you’re a social activist, a community organizer and a podcast host – how did that transition happen?
I’d always had a keen interest in working with people on social topics and volunteered throughout university. I chose psychology because I was looking for a ‘stable career’ but I was always also interested in art and being creative. So, moving to Berlin gave me the opportunity to explore that creative side. I started in a gallery space where we would curate exhibitions, do magazine launches, and movie screenings. This was my first introduction to the art world. But working in that space wasn’t fully resonating and I wanted to reconnect to this social side. So in 2015, I started volunteering in refugee centers in Berlin, and I quickly realized that I could bring some of my expertise to introduce some sort of creative activity that would bring a bit of joy to the people that I was working with.
And it was off the back of that, that you co-founded Open Music Lab?
Yeah! While volunteering in the refugee centers, I was working quite closely with a social worker who was working with youth that had arrived in Germany without their families, so unaccompanied minors.
And I was thinking about how I could brings some of Berlin’s cultural elements into the space. At the time I had a lot of musician friends and was involved in the music scene myself, so I thought this would be a brilliant cultural reference point.
I collaborated with a producer to run a one-off music production workshop for youth. We brought equipment to a space and the teaching began. It was amazing, and something that I couldn’t have imagined happening – we had a room full of teenage boys who were quite awkward and shy and, introducing music to that space just instantly sparked joy, everyone was interacting and laughing and smiling. In that moment I realised how music can go beyond language and culture and unite people. We had something special and did a couple more workshops in that space, but I soon realised I needed to raise some money to buy equipment and find a more accessible space. We ran a fundraiser so that we could purchase equipment to allow us to run more regular music production workshops.
I then joined forces with Ben Osborne, the Open Music Lab co-founder who was actually running a very similar project at the time. We pooled our resources and began with workshops focused on music production. It started off very much as a project that was focused on supporting refugees or newcomers in music production. But we quickly realized that it was important to open it up to a wider audience of people that couldn’t gain access to music education, or equipment because of economic barriers.
Could you tell us about Give Something Back to Berlin and the Agora podcast?
The connection between the Open Music Lab and Give Something Back to Berlin is that we sit underneath the umbrella of Give Something Back to Berlin. Give Something Back to Berlin is an incredible organization that works with migrants and locals, and creates spaces and meeting points for people to come together and connect and share experiences. They have a range of different projects, for example, they have a cooking school where people can meet and cook together and exchange on different cultures, different values. They also have the music school. There’s the language cafe where people can meet and learn German and English in a relaxed, casual way. I’ve been involved with them for six years and last year I was asked to host the Agora podcast series.
It’s something I never imagined I would do because I’m quite shy. It’s a podcast that was filmed and I’m not very comfortable in front of the camera. So, yeah, I never imagined that I would do something like this, but it was at a time where I was up for challenging myself.
The idea behind the podcast series was to highlight stories from within the Give Something Back to Berlin community, and to highlight stories from people that inspire us – change makers that are working in the cultural sector in Berlin.
It was a wonderful experience and great for us to connect with other organizations, and give community members the chance to share their stories.
Companion is also my place to go for coffee, and I walk past Refuge Worldwide almost daily, and I know the radio station is based there. But I also know it is so much more. Can you tell us, what exactly is Refuge Worldwide?
Refuge Worldwide is a meeting point and a space for people to connect and learn from each other. It’s connected to the music world but isn’t limited to it. People share their experiences and talk about their passion for music, but also issues that they care about. Whether that’s migration or identity or environmental topics. It’s much more than just a radio station, it’s a place to for people to grow their communities in a safer and open space.
And how did it all begin?
George Patrick, the founder of Refuge, which is now called Refuge Worldwide, started running an event series to raise money for grassroots organizations and particularly nonprofits who didn’t have financial support from big funding bodies. And in fact, one of the organizations that he chose to raise money for was the Open Music Lab. That’s how we started working together. And if it wasn’t for George running one of these parties and raising money for the Open Music Lab, I think we would’ve struggled to continue the project. So we’re incredibly grateful for that.
Is Refuge Worldwide still actively involved in the Grassroots and NGO community building?
Yes, that is still a huge part of Refuge Worldwide. Every year they have a nonprofit partner, where they’re not only raising money but also providing resources, access and materials and work with them to either develop workshops or connect them to networks.
The impact that Refuge Worldwide has already made on the communities at large is quite clear. I think what I also love about the refuge story is that it’s come back around and the communities that Refuge has supported have supported them in turn.
Just look at the crowdfunding to get that space on Weserstraße – I love the plaque in the bathroom with all the donor’s names on it.
What do you think it is that Refuge Worldwide did or is doing that has garnered that kind of support and does it differ in any way from other communities that you’ve been a part of?
I think Refuge did something quite unique in the music sphere. All of these projects that I’ve been involved in have unique things about them, but I think Refuge was very good at storytelling and communicating their ideas. They were very good at engaging and tapping into the music industry and being able platform those ideas.
But, bottom line is that there was always a good cause. And I feel like the music industry was really crying out for it at the time.
Has your approach to social work and activism changed at all since working with Refuge, Give Back and Open Music Lab?
Definitely! If I think back to when I was volunteering or working in the refugee centers and creating these workshops, I definitely came from this perspective of what can I do to give back? I was coming up with my own ideas of how to serve that community. But I’ve learned in the process that it’s actually very simple. It’s really, really important to ask the people that you’re working with, “what do you want and what do you need?” And to develop programs around those wants and needs and listen to the community and listen to what will really serve them.
I think my role is about providing access, education and opportunity, which is an approach that centres on sharing experiences and learning in a mutually supportive way.
Is that how the Monday workshop sessions at refuge Worldwide came about?
Monday’s came about because George was always interested in creating a community space, and I was keen to continue developing my work and move into the radio sphere, focusing on journalism, storytelling, activism, and DJing. Running the Monday night workshops at Refuge Worldwide seemed like the perfect opportunity for that.
Monday’s work on two levels. The first is about providing access to a professional studio with soundproofing and a high-end DJ and recording setup. Access to this type of setup is only possible for some people, and we want to make sure that we are opening up the space for marginalized folk so they can use the studio to practice and build on their knowledge of DJing, podcasting or hosting. Secondly, in the evenings, we run hosted workshops on topics ranging from sound meditation, journalism and editing to learning how to DJ or build microphones from scratch. We want to provide a space for participants to continue learning, connecting and sharing ideas. One of the main goals is to provide tangible opportunities within the industry and build a supportive network. Many people who have come through our workshops have then gone on to host radio shows or got gigs from being part of the community.
As a follow on from your signature question on Agora, “What does giving back mean to you?” I wanted to know, what does platforming mean to you?
Platforming for me is about storytelling and sharing ideas. In the work that I’ve done, I’ve realized how important it is to share stories. It helps people understand different cultures or different experiences, and I think it is one of the most important things – living in a society where there’s greater understanding and empathy for each other.
I had a moment where I realised just how important it was to share stories. Four years ago, the Open Music Lab ran a radio workshop with Mary Anne Hobbs, from BBC 6 music.
We’d never done a workshop on the radio before, but we were up for working with Mary Anne Hobbs and exploring the world of radio. At the end of the workshop, we went around the room, asking the participants to share their ideas for a radio show. There were so many brilliant thoughts shared that day, but one in particular stuck with me and sparked a new belief in radio and platforming. One of the last participants was from Syria but couldn’t speak English or German, so we had someone translate from Arabic. When the young boy shared his idea, he only said a few words in Arabic, the person translating paused for a moment to take in the gravitas of the idea. He then turned to the room and told us that his idea was simple but powerful; he wanted a radio show that helped people feel safe. At that moment, I realized platforming and storytelling were great ways to transmit ideas and experiences from all different parts of the world.
Thank you so much for sharing! I wanted to end with our signature question; what is your favorite sound?
That’s a really hard question. I think, honestly for me, my favorite sound is the ocean. Going to the beach and hearing the waves, hearing the sound of the sea, is very calming and soothing. There are lots of things I love the sound of, but the ocean is something that grounds me and makes me feel very calm and relaxed and reflective.
interview by Julia Joubert, for Bear Radio.