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Sriram Shamasunder: Search of a Perfect Note
Two words I never thought I would hear in the same sentence -- CharityFocus and arrested. That's right -- a CharityFocus volunteer was once (gasp!) arrested. Before you start imagining the worst, let me tell you why this person was arrested. Sriram Shamasunder was participating in a protest at the University of California at Berkeley in March 2001. He was arrested for civil disobedience, but never actually spent time in jail. Hearing the passion in his voice when he talks about the abuse and neglect of children or the impoverished countries around the world makes you want to drop whatever you're doing and start a protest yourself.
In a few minutes of interacting with Sri -- as he's commonly called by his friends -- it's obvious he isn't going to fit your typical “do-gooder” personality. But the story barely starts there. In his 24 years, Sri has taught inmates at San Quentin, has become known as el-sri-zee at poetry slams in the Berkeley coffee shops, spent six weeks at an orphanage in Guatemala, had meaningful conversations with folks on death row, become really close friends with revolutionaries like June Jordan, and has just started his second year of med school.
'The Perfect Note'
It's quickly evident that while most see a fruit to be consumed, Sri sees the seed to be nourished. He has always had the ability to look deeply into life, no matter what the circumstances.
In a sense, you could say that life to Sri is an experiment, also searching for that perfect note, that perfect connection with life. After graduating college, Sri volunteered his time at an orphanage in Guatemala. He wanted to really connect with the local people and to see how they lived. So, he spent six weeks with a local family of four -- a mother, father, and two little girls -- in the town of Quetzalatenango. Spending time at an orphanage is an experience he highly recommends to others. "The children’s cribs were dirty and they were crying a lot of the time. They were starving for love," he recalls.
While teaching English classes to inmates at San Quentin prison, Sri learned the true value of the everyday freedoms we take for granted. "The brutality of the environment makes shells of so many people in prison. From what I saw, the choices are simple. Become your own fountain source, or you will become like so many other men with glazed-over eyes feeling nothing."
A revolutionary spirit is glaringly obvious in this astute, principled person. One person Sri truly admires is his mentor, the late June Jordan, the most published African-American writer in history. As a memorial for her, Sri wrote a heartfelt poem that was read to audiences on radio station KPFA. Sri is still struggling to make sense of June's death this summer but promises to keep her candle of inspiration burning. He remembers when he met June in her very popular Poetry For The People class at UC Berkeley. "You hear about these people, but to see their conviction and resolve, face to face, is beyond inspiring," Sri recalls with a determined look.
The same could probably be said about Sri himself. "Anyone who has known Sri in any capacity is a truly lucky person. He has the most wonderful, unassuming personality that people are just automatically drawn to," notes longtime friend Dipti Barot.
'God of Small Things'
God of Small Things, Sri's favorite book, gave him a good perspective on life. "While detailing huge and ever-present suffering, Arundhati Roy draws attention to the humble, everyday god ... hidden and wrapped in the commonest of things."
Indeed, Sri exemplifies his revolutionary drive in the
Sri was introduced to CharityFocus by his college roommates. In CharityFocus, he sees the power of being the change, dedication and humility. "There seems to be almost none of the ego wars that cripple lots of nonprofits," he says with wonder. While attending Berkeley, he contributed to many grassroot CharityFocus events like Help-The-Homeless, where volunteers share their time, love and lunches with homeless on the streets. Today, Sri serves on the Tiger Team and helps envision the future of CharityFocus.
When he's not enriching the lives of inmates or making lifelong friends in Guatemala, Sri loves to write poetry, listen to jazz, and is quite the tennis champion. (He won the walk-on tournament for a guaranteed spot on the Division I Berkeley Tennis team.) He's also planning to start a Physicians for Social Responsibility lecture series to expose medical students to environments they wouldn't normally experience, like conditions in third-world countries.
Through it all, Sri continues his search for the "perfect note." Or, as Arundhati Roy puts it, "The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you're alive and die only when you're dead."
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[ sri's blog ]
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