JJ comes to our home town

by Paul Katzeff, Co-founder and CEO, Thanksgiving Coffee Co.

You throw a party and wonder…will anyone come? Well Town Hall was packed and no one was disappointed . Ft. Bragg’s Town Hall is on Main Street in the center of town. It has been there for 100 years and the site of citizens fighting government and government consultants for decades. When the hippies came in the early 70’s the town devided along class lines. Old timers vs. Urban youth , loggers vs. Environmentalists, and no growthers vs. the real estate pro growth lobby. City Hall has not been a place of peace in all the years that I have been here. But on March 7th it was very different. People came to hear first hand about peace in a far away place . They came to learn how JJ Keki got Jews, Muslims and Christians together to build a better life in their shared community.

The peace movement activists came, the interfaith people came, and our friends came to the party . We did our “dog and pony show” for about 90 minutes. I sat so I could see the audience of about 85 people (2 % of the local populous). They were mesmerized by the concept which I framed as “The Greatest Coffee Story Ever Told”. I was surprised at a spontaneous applause that happenned when at the evenings close I reminded people that this beautiful story was nothing but a story until the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative sold enough coffee to become sustainable and that peace and economic justice were intimately related . “We are fund raisers for this revolution of peace and that is a noble cause…to sell coffee so peace can reign” I said. ” Hope breeds determination and we have enabled hope to exist in their community and they are determined because we are on their team and also determined to show that interfaith cooperation coupled with economic development can lead to a better life for all. JJ became living proof of this possibility and the people who came to our party felt it and loved the feeling.

And then we saw some parrots…

It’s Sunday night, after a long, and action packed weekend in San Francisco. Today, JJ and I attended morning services at Grace Cathedral, a beautiful, and welcoming Episcopal Church in the heart of San Francisco. Following services, we were introduced to the community by Reverend Alan Jones at a coffee hour and reception. Grace is one of the San Francisco Interfaith Council’s leading communities, and they’ve mobilized a strong and enthusiastic group of their members to join us, form a buying club, and make the dream of the SFIC campaign a reality. JJ and I had the honor of introducing our dear Rita Semel to the assembled congregants, and gave our shortest presentation to date—I think it was less than ten minutes between the two of us. Many thanks to the Grace Community, and in particular, Will Scott, for organizing this wonderful event. We look forward to working together in the future!

We broke for lunch, JJ and I joined by Curt and Ellen of Jem/Glo fame (see below “On the Silver Screen), David Funkhouser of TransfairUSA, my wonderful girlfriend Hayley Ross, and our art director and website designer extraordinaire Sven “long limbs” Sandberg. After a tasty meal at San Francisco’s hip and eco-conscious Ferry Building we returned to our car, only to be diverted by a flock of…you guessed it, parrots. The famed Parrots of Telegraph Hill. So there we were, an eclectic group of friends, watching a bunch of parrots in San Francisco. Thanks to Curt for the great picture!

We made our way to Congregation Emanu-El, where two days before, we had been hosted for a beautiful Friday night Shabbat service. There surrounded by hundreds of young folks, we hawked our wares at their fair trade gift fair, and Purim celebration. Thanks to Mollie Schneider, Director of Young Adult Programming at Emanu-El for organizing the great event, and for making sure that JJ had a slot in the talent show. As usual, JJ brought the house down with his words and music. I only wish that I’d been better able to explain the J-Date skit to my friend from Uganda, there are some things that just don’t make sense unless you’re an American (or maybe even if you are!).

Friday Prayers

I hadn’t been inside a mosque since Uganda, where I visited with Elias Hasalube, the cooperative’s chief agricultural extensionist, a board member, and a Muslim. I thought of that Friday afternoon as I walked down the street, downtown San Francisco, with JJ, to meet Souleiman Ghali, one of the leaders of the San Francisco Islamic Society, and a member of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Souleiman and I have spent a lot of time together in the past few months, discussing the project, and building our program of interfaith mobilization in San Francisco. He was very much looking forward to meeting JJ, and I was looking forward to introducing them to each other.

Greeted by Souleiman, Iftekhar Hai, and other leaders from the Muslim community, we sat down for coffee, juice, and sweet pastries. While we chatted Iftekhar and Souleiman compared notes on hospitality: who should serve the guests, and when. You see, Souleiman is from the Shuf mountains of Lebanon, where you first greet your guests, sit down, talk, and then sometime later, serve them food and drink. To serve them first would be to suggest that you wanted their visit to be short, that they should leave as soon as possible. Iftekhar was shocked. In his native Pakistan, it would be an offense to not serve your guests immediately, how else would they know that they are welcome, and perhaps they are tired, and in need of energy for conversation?

JJ and I laughed, and JJ said that in Uganda it is different still. You serve your guests immediately, and then leave them. If, when you return, there is still food, you join them, but you should be sure to give them all that you can.

Soon we made our way upstairs, removed our shoes, and joined the congregation. JJ and I sat in the back, and watched as the men prayed. Behind us, and on our right, the women prayed with the children. The Imam gave a sermon mixing English with Arabic. He talked of the sanctity of worship, and especially of places of worship. He talked of the obligation of everyone to protect not only their own place of worship, but every place of worship. JJ nodded approvingly, and I thought of the many people of faith who like JJ, are deeply committed to their religion, who boast proudly of it, and who respect others who do the same. As his sermon came to a close, the Imam introduced JJ, and welcomed him as a brother of the Muslim community in San Francisco. On our way out into the street, we were greeted by dozens of community members, who thanked us for our visit, and for our work to build peace. In the coming months, Inshallah, this community will become one of the dozens of communities in San Francisco who mobilize and join the Interfaith Council’s campaign of support.

Common Ground: Delicious Peace

common-ground.jpgPhoto by Curt Fissel
Mirembe Kawomera co-op members sort green coffee beans — a critical element in coffee quality, since one bad bean, when ground at home, can ruin an entire pot of coffee.

March 2007 Delicious Peace

The Ugandan coffee rooted in Muslim, Jewish and Christian cooperation, and the American who discovered it

By Gregory Dicum

Paul Katzeff remembers the call he received back in 2005 like it was yesterday. A young woman who was just back from working as an aid worker in Uganda had called Katzeff, owner of Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg, California, out of the blue. “She asked me a simple question,” he recalls, ‘Would you buy five sacks of Ugandan coffee?’ I rolled my eyes and thought, ‘Oh no, another Peace Corps worker who made some promises that she should not have made.’ I could hear the desperation in her voice.”

Katzeff had been in the business for more than 30 years and, while his company, which specializes in gourmet Fair Trade and organic coffee, prides itself on putting people first, he knew that his customers demand quality—nobody in the business just buys coffee from random callers, especially not without a sample. Indeed, 39 other coffee companies had already rejected the young woman. But something kept Katzeff from hanging up.

“I guess I was in a decent mood that morning,” he says, “so I said to her, ‘Tell me more about this coffee.’”

And this is what he learned:

In 2004, JJ Keki, a coffee farmer living in the highlands around Imbale, Uganda, had an idea. Growing coffee is tough work, and prices are chronically low for farmers. It’s not uncommon for farmers to earn less than a nickel for the coffee in a three-dollar latte. Accounting for over $80 billion a year, coffee is one of the most valuable trading commodities in the world. And competition is fierce: Some 20 million people worldwide earn their living from coffee, making it one of the most important sources of income for much of the tropics.

Keki knew that when farmers come together in cooperatives, they can often get a better deal, especially if they trade through the Fair Trade system, in which buyers adhere to an internationally established set of standards. By guaranteeing growers fair prices, working only with democratically run cooperatives, and making advance credit available, coffee companies earn the right to use the familiar black-and-white Fair Trade Certified label on their coffee.

But in Uganda there was an added wrinkle: People in the area where Keki lives are mostly Christian and Muslim, with a sizeable Jewish minority. Keki saw a co-op as a way to bring these communities together to solve problems that all of them shared.

“I asked my fellow neighbors, the Christians and the Muslims, would they form this co-op?” Keki recalls. “And they agreed.” In 2004, several hundred Muslim, Christian and Jewish farmers founded the Mirembe Kawomera cooperative. The name means “delicious peace” in the Luganda language.

When Katzeff had absorbed this story, he was floored. “This was the most incredible thing to happen to me in a long time,” he remembers. “Thirty-nine of my peers had to turn down this young woman’s offer in order for her to get to me. And the reason that they did is that they were focused on the product, not on the people.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he told her. “If you promise not to make one more phone call, I’ll buy it all.”

Katzeff is known in the coffee industry for helping small farmers around the world improve the quality of their beans. So his decision wasn’t totally reckless: Even though he hadn’t tasted Mirembe Kawomera coffee, he was hopeful he could do something with it. A few weeks after the phone call, he went to Uganda to see what he had gotten himself into.

“When I cupped the coffee in Uganda,” he says, “wouldn’t you know it? It was fantastic!” Katzeff quickly made a deal with the co-op, buying the entire year’s crop at prices above the going rate for organic, Fair Trade beans, and committing to a profit-sharing arrangement for the next three years.

For their part, the community was ecstatic. “We are very happy,” says Keki, “because in addition to the peace, we are also enjoying the proceeds that we are getting from our coffee products. And so when everybody is happy, we can spread the gospel of peace.”

During his visits, Katzeff marvels at the tranquility of the community. “You don’t get a sense that there’s something spectacular going on,” he says. “You just get a feeling that you’re in a community that’s safe. Everybody says hello to everybody, and you cannot tell a Jew from a Christian from a Muslim by looking at them. But the people have on their homes a Star of David or a crescent or a cross. And they’re doing it with love and tolerance—it’s sweet.”

Katzeff was inspired by the work of Mirembe Kawomera and quickly dedicated himself to making sure the co-op’s efforts bear fruit. “They need to sell five containers of coffee at Fair Trade prices every year for this to become sustainable,” he says. “Our job is to build this project so they can do that. Then not only do they have a good idea, but their idea makes their community sustainable, and that’s really when this project will be successful.”

In order to reach Mirembe Kawomera’s goal of selling 375,000 pounds of coffee a year, Katzeff is turning to America’s faith communities. He says he’s been meeting with mosques, synagogues and churches to find new ways to sell coffee. In the process, he’s spreading the word of Delicious Peace: This winter, the San Francisco Interfaith Council began a program to help its members serve Mirembe Kawomera coffee at their gatherings.

“This is a coffee that should be famous for what it represents,” Katzeff says. “It represents religious tolerance and cooperation and people deciding to increase the size of the pie by collaborating with each other instead of fighting each other. It’s a wonderful story that the world needs to hear: in a tiny little spot, in deepest, darkest Africa, in Africa’s darkest moment, it is perhaps the only cooperative in the world that has Jews, Christians and Muslims working together.”

Mirembe Kawomera has now grown to 570 farmer-members, and Keki says that if his community can work together like this, anyone can. “I always tell everyone who drinks our coffee that they shouldn’t only enjoy the deliciousness of our coffee,” he says, “but they should also become ambassadors of peace to the whole world.”

Gregory Dicum is the co-author of The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop (The New Press, 2006). He lives in San Francisco, where he’s written for the New York Times, Harper’s, Mother Jones and others.


San Francisco Interfaith Council

When JJ and I first met three years ago, we spoke of the future of this project, and of our hopes. It was then that JJ shared with me his dream of spreading peace around the world, through this project. JJ asked me, and Thanksgiving, to join him in sowing the seeds of peace.

Truly, it has been an honor to join JJ in this work for peace, in the work of making dreams come true. But how would we do it? I thought long and hard about this challenge, and about how to integrate the goals of a fair trade coffee company with the realities of doing business in a competitive market with the work of building peace in the world. I realized that the strategy was simple: create a network of faith communities in the US who buy the coffee, thereby echoing JJ’s work to bring together the diverse farmers of Peace Kawomera. We would find common ground, affirm our shared values, begin to work together, and from there, begin to learn more about each other, what binds us, and also how we are different, and can respect, even celebrate our difference. And we, this collective, would connect through Thanksgiving Coffee to the farmers of Peace Kawomera, buy their coffee, sustain their families, and support their building of peace.

I first called Rita Semel, Executive Vice Chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council in late April, 2006. I had to talk fast, because I know how people get skeptical when a businessman calls out of the blue. Somehow, in twenty seconds, I’d got the story I across: a cooperative of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim farmers produces a beautiful coffee. My company is a fair trade company. We’ve supported the co-op from the very beginning. We need to build a market for the coffee so we can go back next year to buy more. We want to spread the story of peace. Will you work with us?

“Let me think about it, this sounds interesting,” said Rita. Little did I know I was speaking with one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Rita is well into her 80s, and is brimming with enthusiasm and energy. She works tirelessly to bring the various religious communities of San Francisco together. She is a peacemaker. She is an inspiration.

Seven months later Rita introduced the project to the membership of the San Francisco Interfaith Council at their annual prayer breakfast Thanksgiving week. The moment is captured in the documentary (see On the Silver Screen below). Then yesterday, the leadership of over a dozen of San Francisco’s most prominent churches, mosques, and synagogues gathered at a luncheon at the SFIC’s interfaith chapel. Together, they welcomed JJ, and affirmed their support for his work. In the coming weeks they will each launch their own buying clubs, and through that, enlist the support of their membership. Together, thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in San Francisco will work together to support thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Uganda. We thank Rita, the San Francisco Interfaith Council, and United Religions Initiative for joinining us in this work to make the world more just, more peaceful, and more beautiful place.


JJ shares his story with our friends at United Religions Initiative.

Back home

Just a quick note to let you all know that 1) Ben went surfing for the first time since the trip began two weeks ago, and scored some sweet waves. For those of you who dont know, Ben (me) is a serious surf addict; you can expect musings on surfing and the world sometime in the near future on this very blog. 2) JJ didn’t go surfing, though he agrees that it looks like a lot of fun. My 5 mm wetsuit, boots, and gloves still couldn’t convince my dear friend from Uganda to brave the unseasonally warm waters of the north Pacific (47 degrees, plus or minus a few when you’re at the rivermouth). We’ve got two days off before hitting the road again for our west coast stint. More soon…

Going back to Cali

We’re stuck in Midway, waiting for our flight back to Oakland, land (hopefully) of sunshine, warmth, and NO MORE SNOW! But, before we get to that, what a wonderful day JJ and I just spent with the Jewish Reconstructionist Community of Evanston

Our dear friend Elaine Waxman met JJ and I at the airport Saturday night, amidst snow flurries and freezing wind. Snuggled into the back of Elaine’s van were two of our favorite supporters; her daughters Kelsey and Katia, already wearing their PJs, and greeting us happily. The Jewish Reconstructionist Community of Evanston is one of our strongest supporters, and have made their participation in the Mirembe Kawomera coffee project an integral part of their community life. It was a joy to spend a short day with our old friends, and to share the news of how the last year has changed life in Uganda, and supported the families of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative. Special thanks to Elaine, Brant, Terry, and everyone who made our visit so wonderful…we look forward to seeing you again next year!

(The intrepid Kelsey talks the talk and walks the walk as part of her Bat Mitzvah project)kelsey.jpg

On the Silver Screen

(Watch the trailer on YouTube!)

We were both amazed the first time we saw the documentary trailer. There is something about seeing your work captured on film that is surprising; somehow the story seems real in a new way, the complex threads weave together, the dialogue overlaps with the visuals, and condenses a whole world into a powerful distillation.

It’s thanks to Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, a dynamic husband-and-wife production team, that we have the opportunity to experience our story on film. Curt and Ellen, through their non-profit Jem/Glo, have worked on this film for the past year. Still in mi-production, the films should be complete sometime next year and there is hope for national distribution. Stay tuned for updates.

We arrived on Thursday, after a three hour drive from Ithaca, a few hours before the premiere screening at Temple B’nai Keshet. In addition to being home for Curt and Ellen, B’nai Keshet has for a long time been a supporter of Peace Kawomera, even passing a resolution to only buy this coffee for all synagogue events and functions. That evening, surrounded by the B’nai Keshet community and other supporters, we watched the trailer, and then listened as JJ, joined by his friends Noam Katz and Laura Wetzler, and others from the audience, played an impromptu concert of traditional music from Uganda.

Many thanks to Curt and Ellen for their wonderful hospitality, and for their incredible work. We know that the story of Peace Kawomera is a story of peace, a story that our world needs to know. Their film is helping to share this beautiful story, and through that, we hope, peace.


(Above, Noam, JJ, and Laura make beautiful music)

“I want this music!”

That’s what JJ said as we sat around our room in the Carl L. Becker residence hall here at Cornell University. Country music, again. And I’m wondering how it can be that we fall in love with each other’s music—me and others with JJ’s, he with ours—and country music no less! We’ve decided that when we return to California, we’ll make some tapes from the country stations in Mendocino (they’re plentiful!).

We’ve just finished up with our last event here at Cornell, a wonderful lecture, followed by a delicious dinner in JJ’s honor. As JJ chats with his family, thanks to his recently purchased long-distance phone card, I sit reflecting back on the past three days…

Arriving to the warm reception of Dean Cindy Hazan…

Graciously ferried from place to place by our friend Marielle Macher, who organized our schedule perfectly…

Curt Bayer and the kind folks at Ten Thousand Villages

Rabbi Glass, Phyliss and our other new friends at Temple Beth El…

The students who met with us, and especially Jeff, who shadowed us with a bag of instruments that inevitably turned a meeting into a jam session…

The wonderful interfaith reception last night…

Eileen, head chef downstairs, who fed us the most delicious and wholesome food…


JJ and I will leave tomorrow morning to continue our outreach, to continue spreading the word of delicious peace. We will leave knowing that we’ve made new friends, and that the circle of support continues to grow in wonderful ways. Check out the pictures below: JJ outside of Collegtown Bagels before his performance; the Carl L. Becker House crew; and JJ playing fair trade pan pipes from Ecuadar at Ten Thousand Villages.

Thank you to everyone who made these last three days possible!


Democracy Now!

JJ and I have our first free time in a few days. Kind of a relief. JJ’s discovered Democracy Now, and is commending Amy Goodman for her courageous reporting. Indeed. And though I’m from the country, I greatly prefer her show to the country station that he decided we should fall asleep to last night!

We’re in Ithaca, hosted very graciously by Cornell University, and a coalition of campus-based student groups.The funny thing here is that the posters, which we see everywhere, and which give both JJ and I a huge laugh every time, introduce “Grammy nominee JJ Keki and Ben Corey-Moran”, as if I had anything to do with JJ’s incredible music, or can even hold a melody! Still, JJ has told me that I’m now required to sing with him at all of our performances, because the people will expect it, so we’ll see what we can do.

Big ups to our friends at Ithaca College for a wonderful gathering last night. Julie, Jeff, Dara, Rabbi Glass, and everyone else who came out to meet JJ and share their support with us. Here are a couple of pictures…ithaca1.jpgithaca21.jpg

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