Bree O’Keane takes her role as a family member seriously and always visits her community in Non Somboon when she comes back to Thailand. Personal relationships have been at the heart of Bree’s extensive community organizing work.
It’s a balmy Friday night in downtown Khon Kaen, and Decha Premrudelert and Bamroon Bamrungsuk –two long-time community activists and mentors to ENGAGE—sit down for their weekly dinner at their regular table at 89 Pad Thai, a restaurant at the lively intersection of a small market and the train tracks. Bamroon pours a bottle of Chang over ice in his glass, as Decha spreads out appetizers of boiled peanuts and bananas on their table. Portraits of notable world leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Mao Zedong adorn the wall behind them. With these two old friends is Bree O’Keane, a thirty-three-year old woman from Rochester, New York. Although Bree stands out at the table in terms of appearance, her relaxed demeanor mirrors that of her elderly friends. She is at ease joining the pair in conversation, in Thai or English, on topics ranging from the evolution of education to envisioning a post-capitalistic world.
Bree has known these men and been involved in the Isaan NGO movement for a long time. She first came to Khon Kaen in 2003 as a student on the CIEE: Khon Kaen Development and Globalization program, and then immediately stayed on as a community intern for the next eight months. “I felt like my [student] experience was just the beginning of something. I wanted to dig in on a deeper level,” Bree explains. Initially, Bree planned to return to the University of Colorado to finish her degree and then come back to Thailand. “I talked to Dave [the Center Director of CIEE: Khon Kaen] and he said that people say they’ll come back all the time, but then go back into their world and don’t,” Bree recalls. “He said, ‘If you really want to stay, you should just stay,’ and that’s exactly what I did.”
"I felt like my experience was just the beginning of something."
Since then, Bree has truly made Thailand part of her world. She has built meaningful relationships, worked with communities and NGOs, and has applied her learning from Thailand to her activism in the United States. Currently, Bree is on the ENGAGE Board of Peers, looking after the logistical and behind-the-scenes aspects of the organization. Bree became involved in ENGAGE in 2003, two years after it was founded, and contributed to its mission development as well as two of its major programs – the Fair Trade Jasmine Rice Tour and the Access to Medicine Tour. While living in San Francisco, where the ENGAGE office was located at the time, Bree became particularly involved in the Access to Medicine Tour. The tour brought a professor, an NGO leader, and a villager living with HIV from Thailand to the US to educate Americans about how Thai-US trade agreements affect access to medicines for Thai people who have HIV/AIDS. The tour visited twelve different venues, including universities, hospitals, and community centers, and focused on how price inflation through trade agreements makes it impossible for villagers to purchase life-preserving HIV/AIDS medicines.
Educational tours were not a new concept to Bree – she first organized one as a Community Intern for CIEE in Non Somboon, a village fighting a potash mine. Community members organized a tour to another village that had been involved in salt mining for years. The natural environment in the salt-mining community had already undergone significant destruction, so it was valuable for villagers in Non Somboon to see what could happen to their community and exchange resistance strategies. Educational exchange has been a common thread in Bree’s work and she believes that tours are important to ENGAGE’s mission. “Exchange isn’t exchange if it only goes one way,” Bree says. “Students bringing the spirit of what they learned back to the States is a type of personal exchange, but there is really something to be said for having human cross-country exchange too.”
While Bree has done impressive organizing work in the US – including starting the first food cooperative at the University of California Berkeley and serving as the Deputy Director for the Alliance for Biking & Walking in Washington DC, her profound personal relationships keep pulling her back to Thailand. Bree considers her host family in Non Somboon to be her family, and she has been back to see them eight times over the past thirteen years. “There are expectations to being a family member,” Bree says earnestly. Three years ago Bree’s host father passed away, and on her most recent trip to Thailand she helped the family plan the merit making ceremony. She shared in the responsibility of watching grandchildren and choosing activities for the ceremony, just like biological members of the family.
Bree has continued to take her connections to heart, no matter where she finds herself living. In 2008, Bree returned to Khon Kaen to work Khon Kaen Education Initiative – an organization founded by Decha and the Khon Kaen Municipality to make local English teaching curriculums more experiential. As it turned out, the people she lived with at this time influenced her current endeavor, starting a fair-trade tea company. “I was living by the lake in downtown Khon Kaen with Ajaan (teacher) Adisack [a former CIEE field coordinator],” Bree remembers. “He and a few other people founded a teahouse that served as a meeting place for NGOs and students. There was even an activist library on site.” The teahouse fostered an exchange of ideas and knowledge, and Bree says she saw first hand how “tea can bring people together, generate conversation, and get people to slow down a bit.”
Today, Bree and a few close friends are in the early stages of founding Open Heart Tea Company, which aims to bridge Shambala Buddhist centers to communities in Thailand through direct holistic trade and one-on-one relationships. Shambala is a lineage of Tibbetian Buddhism with centers throughout the US. Tea drinking is a frequent practice at Shamabala centers, yet they mostly buy tea from mainstream big brand importers, Bree says. She and her business partners believe that they can help Shamabala centers bring mindfulness to their tea purchases. “The experience of tea sharing is in almost every culture,” she continues, “so it’s something that I care about and is important to me.”
"Living in a world where there is so much emphasis on ‘what are we going to do?’ my experience has brought me to think that it is more about ‘how are we going to do it?’ "
Tea sharing epitomizes the attention to personal relationships, exchange, and openness that Bree constantly brings to her life and work. The business world can often seem at odds with grassroots activism, but Bree is confident that she can apply her learning from community work to her business practice. She cites community organizing and cultivating personal relationships as her two greatest skills and as what motives her the most. “These can be very broad concepts,” Bree muses, “but living in a world where there is so much emphasis on ‘what are we going to do?’ my experience has brought me to think that it is more about ‘how are we going to do it?’ That is what has led me to enjoy the work I’ve done.”