Many years ago, I attended a demonstration where thousands of Sikhs gathered in the city. Onlookers were curious as to who we were and why we had gathered. As I was handing out information pamphlets, a passerby approached me, took one of the pamphlets, quickly looked it over and in a thick British accent said, “Ah yes…Sikhs! Wonderful religion…wonderful people…brave soldiers…” Then he leaned over to whisper something in my ear and said “…but whoever handles your public relations sucks!”
As I see patterns and trends on the way Sikhs are portrayed in the media, that incident always comes to mind. Seeing how positive acts from Sikh individuals rarely mention the word “Sikh” yet negative acts from Sikh individuals turn in to an “exposé” of our community, I started to wonder how non-Sikhs were learning about us and what can we do to proactively present a more accurate image.
Here in North America, our approach to public relations and education is largely reactionary. After a violent event at a Gurdwara, we explain to the public how Sikhs are not violent. After September 11th, we explained how we’re not terrorists. It seems we spend more time explaining who we’re not rather than who we are.
There are some positive efforts as well. Traditionally, many Sikh communities flood the interfaith networks as a means of outreach. I’ve participated in many interfaith events over the years, and although it may be beneficial for relationship building and dialogue, its impact on educating large parts of society over time is debatable.
In the past few months, somewhere in the plethora of press release emails I receive from Sikh organizations, I learned of two significant initiatives by the Sikh Coalition that seemed to pass quietly without much fanfare.
On May 21, the Texas Board of Education voted to include information on Sikhs and Sikh practices in the state-mandated curriculum for public school students. This is the first time Sikhs or Sikhi has ever before been included in a state-wide curriculum. Convincing a fairly conservative state like Texas to incorporate Sikhs in to their curriculum is an impressive feat in itself, but even more encouraging is how influential Texas is for textbook manufacturers. The Sikh Coalition press release states:
Experts estimate that the decisions made by the Texas Board of Education affect the textbooks used in 46 other states because it is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the nation.
This accomplishment shows that by being proactive and working at a grassroots level to mobilize the local community, establish strategic partnerships, take a professional and systematic approach, and patiently work through the process – people will listen and policies will change. This is a major achievement – what better way to educate people on Sikhs and Sikhi than through the school system?
Another impressive initiative is the Sikh Coalition Presenter’s Course that was launched this past February in New York City. After a rigorous application and interview process, 15 students are selected to participate in an intensive 3 day training course led by a public speaking expert and Sikh Coalition staff members. Those who complete the course and pass their evaluation become certified Sikh Coalition presenters. In addition to public speaking skills, presenters are trained to deliver a standard presentation on Sikhi that has been reviewed, discussed, and vetted at length. Certified presenters must make 2 public presentations a year to maintain their credential and are regularly provided updates as materials are revised. Rather than re-inventing the wheel every time a presentation is needed, now one community can have several resources prepared with a standard presentation and consistent message. Imagine having 15 people in your community who can respond to any incident at a school or workplace with such a presentation, or better yet, proactively seek out opportunities to educate! Check out the YouTube video to learn more about the course. Other cities have already inquired on how the presenter’s course can be brought to their community.
You might ask – why is education so important? Sikhs have settled here for over a hundred years with our identity intact, Sikhs have been elected to public office and hold senior corporate positions, why waste the resources? Or as some commenters have challenged me in previous posts, “who cares what the goray think of us?” That attitude might be okay for some people…not for me.
As long as Sikh passengers are being profiled, Sikh kids are being bullied, and Sikh taxi drivers are being attacked…then we have a job to do. And even then, I don’t want my children and grandchildren to simply “settle” here in the US and still be looked at as foreigners. I want Sikhs to have a voice and be recognized as the law-abiding citizens and the community activists we are. I’d like us to be viewed as a powerful and influential community who must have a “seat at the table” in policy decisions. Unless people know who we are, what we’re about, and what we stand for, how can we expect to be heard and have our issues addressed? All of this requires us to shift our paradigm when it comes to education and congratulations to the Sikh Coalition for taking the lead and being proactive!
Now what can you do? In addition to bringing the presenter’s course to your community, what changes can you make at your local Gurdwara? Gurdwaras are still a good place for education and outreach. What about the creating a “Welcoming Committee” that prepares materials for non-Sikh visitors, facilitates organized tours, and perhaps invites community groups and neighbors to visit the Gurdwara? What if this committee organized charity or social events for their local surrounding community to participate in? Anybody have any other tangible ideas to share?