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Brewing a "Coffeehouse Resistance": Hopeful activism that's organized and energized

Salon talks to Buunni's Sarina Prabasi about Ethiopian coffee culture in NYC and being an immigrant in Trump's U.S.


David Masciotra
June 18, 2019 10:00PM (UTC)
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The Coffeehouse Resistance: Brewing Hope in Desperate Times” is a book that acts as exactly what the urgency of America’s contemporary political crisis requires: A brave and beautiful affirmation of humanity.

Sarina Prabasi, the memoir’s author, is the founder and owner, along with her husband, of the Buunni coffeehouses in New York, an executive with WaterAid — the NGO that provides potable water to at risk populations in developing countries — and the mother of two daughters. After spending her childhood in Nepal, Prabasi immigrated to the United States to attend Smith College. She then spent the early years of her career in Ethiopia, where she met and fell in love with a cabdriver who eventually became her husband.
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“The Coffeehouse Resistance: Brewing Hope in Desperate Times” is Prabasi’s poignant reflection on the diversity of her experiences, ranging from the herculean challenge and vindicating joy of moving to New York, and becoming a successful entrepreneur, to the violent internal crash of comfort as she reckoned with a country not fully hospitable to her family in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

Writing with lyrical and rhythmic prose that would make even the toughest critic skeptical that “The Coffeehouse Resistance” is her literary debut, Prabasi also manages to create an inspiring invitation to activism, explaining how political involvement provided her with a spiritual salve, and enabled her to assimilate her own business into the sterling history of coffeehouse politics dating back to the French Enlightenment.

I spoke with Prabasi over the phone recently about the book, Ethiopian coffee culture and the immigrant experience in the U.S.

One of the enjoyable aspects of your book is how you capture the immigrant experience in the United States, and many elements that are often lost in the conversation about immigration. You manage to provide a balanced depiction of the difficulties with the victories. Why do you think the immigration conversation is so narrow, and how did you set out to make a more valuable contribution?

First of all, there are so many different immigrant experiences. So, I wanted to tell our story, because as a result of the current administration and trends, I feel that our story is becoming less and less likely.

Often as an immigrant I felt such pressure to tell the good story — to say all the things that are positive, to be grateful to this country, to be thankful to America, and to just say it over and over again. No other country where I lived expected me to be so grateful. I just was. So, that was a motivation too.

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But also there are so many different immigrants who come here for different reasons that I wanted to tell a specific one of ours, and to express my worry over how powerful people are talking about immigrants. We know, theoretically, that people leave so much behind to move to another country, but we rarely capture the personal, emotional aspects with the politics.

You manage to weave together the personal with the political quite deftly. It was interesting that when you first moved to the United States to attend courses at Smith College, you took immense pleasure in how you could study different cultures, different ideas, and now we see how that principle is in contention — the principle of multiculturalism. Why did you place multiculturalism at the center of your burgeoning American patriotism?

One of the greatest strengths of America is its diversity. When I compare it with the other countries where I’ve lived and visited, the fact that so many people choose to come here, everyone from scientists to artists to people escaping oppression or atrocity and trying to build a better life — the whole range of experience and ambition — has made America much more competitive economically and intellectually. That so many people are attracted to come here is quite an asset, but in the current climate, it is often described as a danger to this country, or a burden, whereas I think it is one of the best things. It brings opportunity to America. We often talk about what immigrants and refugees gain from coming here, but the country has gained just as much from people who choose to come here. Not everyone chooses to come here. My story is one of privilege, but I wanted to ask why this perspective is not as valued? Why in popular political discourse is this turned upside down?

You’re right. The horrifying hatred and hostility from the Trump administration is obvious, but often even the liberal response is anemic, because it focuses exclusively on the charitable aspect of the less privileged stories of immigrants and refugees, and that America has a duty to help, and while that is true and laudable, it misses the truth you describe. The relationship is mutually beneficial.

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Yes, it is in the country’s own interests to remain competitive. There are multiple studies showing that the economic impact of immigration is positive. The cultural impact is positive. Unfortunately, that’s not within the dominant narrative across the political spectrum.

Well, one of the most powerful and profound moments in your book is when you are reacting to Trump’s election, and you write that you felt that the Americans who voted for Trump, chose him over you.

It felt very personal. It felt not only like a theoretical rejection of my political values, but it felt personal because throughout the campaign the rhetoric Trump used was so directly targeted against immigrants, against brown people. For me, as someone who chose to move here not under duress, I also felt flabbergasted, like, “This isn’t what we signed up for.” There were people who were intellectually opposed to Trump, but they could have their position from a distance. I felt implicated by it, and that my family was implicated by it. So, that moment made me confront, also, that maybe I was wrong in my beliefs about America. I remember a colleague telling me that women will never vote for Trump. That wasn’t true. Everything we said will never happen, happened. It was confusing, because it challenged my view of America, but also my view of myself. I was unable to adapt to the new reality. So, I had to challenge it.

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Because of your cosmopolitan experience you bring a certain credibility to the political awakening you depict. For example, a popular right wing rebuttal to progressive criticism of American politics and culture is to argue that because America has a high degree of freedom, and a relatively high standard of living, Americans should not complain about civil liberty violations and poverty. You write quite stirringly about your experiences in Ethiopia and other countries living under autocracy. So, why doesn’t that comparative analysis resonate with you?

I’ve seen the world, I’ve traveled the world, and I know that’s not true. Yes, every country has its challenges. Wherever we live, regardless of the country’s wealth or form of government, we should try to make that place better. Yes, we can certainly say there is worse poverty in other countries, and we could say the health conditions are worse. In the end, though, all eyes are on America, because it is the wealthiest country in the world, but it has failed to solve its most basic problems — extreme inequality, racial injustice.

Even when it comes to issues like health care, there are other countries with fewer resources that do a better job of taking care of their people. I work in developing countries where resources and technology are quite limited, but everyone shares the goal of universal health care for all people.

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In America, we have the resources and technology, but not the goal. Things are actually moving backwards — health statistics are moving in the wrong direction. There are many Americans who don’t feel like they live in the wealthiest nation of the world. I also have to think about my own responsibility. I am a U.S. citizen now. So, if I’m a citizen, I’m going to get involved in what makes my country better.

There is a fascinating dichotomy in America. It has the most multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious populace, and yet so many Americans are provincial. They are unaware of what you just said.

Most of the places where I’ve lived in the U.S. is with people who have exposure to other cultures, but there is an underlying assumption that America is the leader. The American president is called “the leader of the free world.” People, right and left, have internalized all of that, and when you come at it from an outsider perspective, it is confusing. In many other countries, people are extremely critical of the way things are done in their own countries. Recently it has started to change, but in my earlier years I found that people in America spoke about politics much less than people in other countries.

Let’s move on to some of the practices that give you hope, and offer a hopeful alternative throughout the story of the book. First, I loved reading about coffee in your book — the Ethiopian origin of coffee, the care you take for coffee, and your belief that coffee should attach itself to a communal ritual. You’ve had such success in your application of the Ethiopian approach to coffee with you own shops, Buunni. Why did you offer so much detail about coffee in your book?

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As I was writing the book, I realized there is a coffee theme in my life. I recognized coffee culture in a new way in Ethiopia, and loved how it permeated people’s lives with a social meaning and spiritual aspect. It wasn’t only a commodity. It is the opposite of the idea of the quick, New York, need a coffee in the morning for a jolt of energy to get to work.

When we started Buuni in New York, I knew we could not just cut and paste the coffee culture of Ethiopia, but we could practice it in a way that would work in New York. In our neighborhood, we found that the tiny shop we opened fulfilled a need for human connection, for people to find a place to have conversation, for people to come together to do what they love. We had knitting groups and writing groups. Later when it became a place for activists and organizers, with our encouragement, I noticed that there is a real desire for people to connect in real life. We spend so much time online that we need human, face to face connection. Coffeehouses are interesting places that serve that social function.

Yes, bars and coffeehouses, even going back to the French Enlightenment, have operated as headquarters for social organization and political revolt. Your book becomes almost a tribute to face-to-face activism, because you describe how you used your coffeehouse as a home for activist campaigns. Was that a difficult decision? Were you concerned about mixing business and politics? What did you learn in the process?

At a very personal level, the interaction and conversations that started happening in our coffeehouses was what brought back hope and inspiration. At first, I was unsure how overtly to mix business and politics, but it felt right, and it felt mutual. The neighborhood, and the community around us, showed that this was on their minds. So, in a way, we were responding to the people around us as much as they responded to us. When I started learning about the political history of coffeehouses, it all made sense, and I felt honored to have a connection to that history.

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Anyone who reads your book, I predict, is going to feel as inspired as I was to get more involved in critical sociopolitical issues. So, what lessons can you offer, drawing on your experience, into what you just said — people leaving their homes, and uniting to work to achieve a more free, fair, and just society?

What has been most inspiring to me over the past few years is people taking back their own power, and feeling that they do have power to change things. Whether that’s the underdog candidates who won even if they were not traditionally viable candidates, or activists fighting on issues in New York. Housing has become a big issue here. So, you don’t always see the fruits of your labor on the national level, but you see it at state and local levels. That is where changes begin — in the local cultural and social institutions, where diverse people gather to interact.

The beauty of activism is that it is not only exhausting, it is energizing. You form friendships. You are disappointed, but then you share a laugh about something. You have to take in the totality of the activist experience. When you contemplate all the injustice, it begins to feel overwhelming, and it is easy to get burned out. So, in order to rebuild your resilience, you need stories, you need performance, you need art, you need friendship. You need everything that will sustain you for the long haul. This is a long haul.

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David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of four books, including "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and "Barack Obama: Invisible Man" (Eyewear Publishing, 2017). Contribute through LaterPay to support David's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.

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