The other side of the world

I’m excited to share this excerpt, as it’s one of my favorites from the book and one of my favorite moments in Ae synchronicity. When I was in California for my event at Lauri Svedberg’s house I was asked to do an impromptu reading. I opted for this one and it was a perfect fit. I hope you enjoy it.


Home in California for the holidays, I cuddled with my family on the couch in the living room the morning after Christmas. Decorations still up and presents still scattered in contrast to the scene unfolding before us as we watched the news. Reports of the Boxing Day tsunami had hit the States.

My father is a Sri Lankan immigrant, and I was among the first generation of our family to be born in this country. Some of my older cousins were born in Sri Lanka, coming to the States when they were very young children. Many of my aunts and uncles would travel back to Sri Lanka for the holidays to visit their own aging parents or our cousins and family still overseas.

We hadn’t yet heard from any of them. What we had heard from the news coming in from Sri Lanka and other countries was simply heartbreaking. As the hours ticked by, slowly, we heard from my family bit by bit. Some had been without phone access even before the tsunami, and we relied largely on word-of-mouth communication regarding their current safety and whereabouts. While everyone in my immediate family was unharmed, unfortunately that was not the case for countless others. The Boxing Day tsunami took over two hundred thousand lives, an unfathomable tragedy.

I, like many other artists, will often use creative work as a channel for grief, finding it a healthy way for me to process intense emotions. I was compelled to curate a exhibit in response to the event, and artists from across the States joined me in this effort. The Art of Tragedy opened in January 2005, with sale proceeds and door donations going to a tsunami-relief fund Save the Children had established. Curating this exhibit helped provide a productive and effective way to channel the helplessness I felt after such a pivotally tragic event.

Lauri Svedberg, Sorrow

Lauri Svedberg, Sorrow

The exhibit was beautiful and somber, featuring sculpture, painting, and photography. Melody Villars’s sculpture The Face of Famine featured a bronzed, emaciated form holding in her arms a small, bundled baby. Sally Grayson shared a poignant series of works from her time in Delhi, India, working with the Sewa Ashram—an organization that takes care of the poor and hospiced. Lauri Svedberg shared Sorrow, a soberly painted work featuring a figure in mourning. The opening night was less a lively opening, more like a warm gathering of friends and community. One thing that was nice about being a little bit under the “cool” radar: sometimes the quieter crowds were a better fit.

During this time I was also employed as an accountant at Peace Coffee, a fair-trade coffee roaster in Minneapolis. Fair-trade standards, under which more fair and consistent market prices are paid to producers in developing countries, was then still a fairly new concept. Across the ocean from my family in Sri Lanka was our Sumatran coffee cooperative, also hit by the tragedy. Even our customers were contacting us, concerned. (And no, not about their coffee supply—they were very genuinely concerned about the farmers and their families. This is the beauty of the fair-trade community.) Staff struggled with what to do. How could we help them effectively, and how could we make the biggest impact? My coworkers and I put our heads together and came up with a plan. We decided to add a donation to the cost of one of our popular Sumatran roasts, creating what we called the Tsunami Relief Roast. For every bag of coffee purchased, $10 was set aside to the fund, with Peace Coffee absorbing processing charges and fees. Our customers responded resoundingly—and together with them we raised over $40,000 in funds to send to the farmer cooperative in Banda Aceh.

Several years later I had the privilege to visit Sumatra as part of our continued work in the fair-trade community. I was able to see first hand what those funds had done for the village in Banda Aceh. The community voted democratically on how to use the funds and decided that a dedicated clean water supply and irrigation would be the best long-term use. The entire community benefited from this decision, and though the system had only recently been installed the residents were already seeing the positive results of the clean water supply in their village. Long-term, that irrigation system would mean more substantial crops, localized wealth, and increased educational opportunities for their children. An entire community changed, all for approximately one year’s American salary.

TJ Semanchin, Andy Lambert, Nate Stevens

TJ Semanchin, Andy Lambert, Nate Stevens

At the time, I was grateful that my day-world was not so disparate from my night-world. One evening after work, my friends from Peace Coffee joined me at the gallery for a staff viewing of The Art of Tragedy. After viewing the art, we worked on plans for the coffee fundraiser and discussed our next steps as a company. The night ended with songs and drums, the likes of which only happen in feel-good movies, cheesy sitcoms, and the magic that is Minneapolis.

This post is adapted from It’s Never Going To Work: A Tale of Art and Nonprofits in the Minneapolis Community with illustrations by Athena Currier. Post graphics by Jamie Schumacher. ©2018 Jamie Schumacher.

It’s Never Going To Work is a light-hearted, illustrated book that offers real-life insights on founding a community space and nonprofit. It provides tools, tips, resources, and camaraderie to community organizers and anybody attempting something new.