To be thus is nothing;
But to be safely thus.
Written centuries ago and in different context, these opening lines of a soliloquy in the play have a very similar meaning today. For Sikhs in this country, one could replace the word “thus” with “American”, and therein is the definition of the Sikhs’ civil rights struggle.
For us, to be called ‘American’ is not enough, we must be safely American. We, like everyone else, are guaranteed the right to freedom of religion in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and as such, we should be allowed to safely enjoy that right as law-abiding citizens of this country.
However, it has not been easy for us to practice our faith freely despite the guarantee. From our earliest arrivals to this country at the turn of the 20th century, Sikhs have struggled with racism and discrimination due to our origin, appearance and articles of faith. One hundred years later, our American-born children suffer from disproportionately higher rates of school bullying, we face discrimination in the workplace, we are subjected to racial profiling by official agencies, and are distinct victims of the full gamut of hate crimes – crimes of which we don’t even know the magnitude, because anti-Sikh hate crimes are not adequately recognized by law enforcement agencies.
And yet, on Friday, I was privileged to be sitting in the audience during the first ever White House briefing on Sikh civil rights issues, where various representatives of government agencies discussed their activities in relation to Sikh issues, and engaged in a dialogue with Sikh community members. This briefing was a signal that the government was beginning to take our concerns seriously.
I found myself in the audience of this briefing as a part of the 2012 class of the Sikh Coalition’s Advocate Academy. The visit to the White House was the culmination of a week’s worth of workshops on how to engage various entities – from government officials, to media, to other non-government organizations – to advocate for Sikh civil rights. We, the second Advocate Academy class were joined by our colleagues from the first class of last year and together we brought to the attention of these government officials the issues that we are struggling with today. It was a significant opening of the door to dialogue with government.
How I was motivated to apply to the Advocate Academy is a story that takes root in tragedy a year before. Last year, only minutes from my home near Sacramento, California, two elderly Sikh men who were taking their routine afternoon walk together were shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. The murderer of these men is still at large and has yet to be identified, though the motive is suspected to be a hate crime. A year later, this brutal and tragic crime is still unsolved. The families of these men, children and grandchildren, mourn their loss and await justice today. The murder of these two innocent grandfathers affected me personally, and I was inspired to become more active for the Sikh community as a result.
The Sikh Coalition provided my first opportunity to become more involved when they brought the Sikh Presenters Course to the Bay Area last year. I was among about a dozen people in that group who were trained to provide Sikh-awareness presentations to different audiences – from children to adult – in an effort to dispel ignorance with the hope that it will lead to a greater acceptance of our children in schools and of our people in general. I completed several presentations over the course of the year and found myself wanting to do more. Then, earlier this year when the Sikh Coalition solicited applications for the second iteration of the Advocate Academy in Washington, DC, I did not waste a minute in submitting my application.
I feel fortunate to have been one of the twelve candidates selected for this training.
The Advocate Academy took place last week. The Sikh Coalition’s staff provided to us workshops and guest speakers to educate us on various Sikh civil rights issues and to train us in best practices for engaging with government officials, media and journalists, and community organizations (within and outside of the Sikh community) to advocate on issues important to Sikh Americans. After putting us through the paces for three full days, we spent Thursday visiting the offices of our Representatives and Senators on Capitol Hill to advocate for specific issues affecting Sikhs in the United States. Thus, within a matter of a few days, we were already putting our training into practice and making the Sikh voice heard by the nation’s lawmakers in the process.
The next day – Friday – we made our visit that I discussed above alongside Sikh Coalition staff, last year’s Advocates and other Sikh community members to the White House. As we meandered through the East Wing, I passed by a window that overlooked the North Lawn of the White House and it struck me: here I was, a Sikh who wears a turban and beard, looking out from inside the White House instead of on the outside looking in. It was a poignant moment in which I reflected on the intersection between my Sikh and American identities.
Another of the most inspiring moments of the week occurred in the opening minutes of the White House briefing. Amardeep Singh, Director of Programs at the Sikh Coalition who also serves as a Commissioner on the President’s Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, called for a jakara from the Sikh audience to commemorate the significance of the event: the highest levels of the United States government was engaging with our community to allow us to voice our concerns about our right to live as equal Americans. That we made this call at the White House was an amazing moment.
In his opening remarks to the briefing, Amardeep Singh spoke of the history of the struggle for civil rights in the United States, touching on that of the African American community who broke the bonds of slavery, battled racism and discrimination through the 1960s civil rights movement, and saw the first African American President of the United States be elected decades later. Today, we our working for our community’s right to practice our faith in this country free of discrimination, and perhaps, a generation of Sikhs down the line will see such heights as well.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the great individuals from the Sikh Coalition who worked tirelessly during the week to cater to each of our needs and provide support from the early hours of the morning until the late hours of the night. Each one of the Sikh Coalition staff are brilliant and passionate people, but who, in the true spirit of Sikhism, exhibit genuine humility and sincerity. As much as they would likely be loathe to accept such appreciation, these are the Sikh civil rights leaders of our time, and our community is fortunate to have these individuals at the helm.
I return to my thoughts as I looked out of the White House window to see the North Lawn and the Washington, DC skyline. Perhaps someday in the future, a Sikh will be looking out from that same window in an official capacity. It is this freedom that we are working for, and it is this dream that will motivate me to advocate for our Sikh American community in the year ahead.
My heart-felt appreciation goes to the Sikh Coalition for providing to me this opportunity.
**A resident of California, Winty is a 2012 graduate of the Sikh Coalition Advocate Academy. He was born in India, raised in Canada from a young age, and has called the United States home for the past several years. In the past year, Winty has volunteered with the Sikh Coalition as a Sikh Awareness Presenter. Employed in the healthcare sector, Winty spends his spare time by writing, playing ice hockey and entertaining his dog, Cosmo.