Ever since its inception, I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Sikh Coalition’s work. Early on, as each press release and victory announcement came through my inbox, I was amazed at how quickly the Coalition managed to influence and change policy. Years ago, I also had the opportunity to volunteer on their behalf while making Sikh awareness presentations at high schools in the Midwest. But in all my interaction with the Coalition, I never expected to find myself in need of their services.
In late 2007 on my way home from a business trip, I was stopped by TSA agents at the Kansas City airport who asked me to remove my dastaar. I explained to the agents that I knew my rights and opted for the turban “pat down” in an enclosed area (before the self-pat-down was an option). Although the policy was technically followed that night, I felt uneasy my whole flight home. Maybe it was how I was purposely singled out because of my dastaar, or the embarrassment of being escorted through the airport surrounded by TSA agents, or the degrading pat-down itself…whatever it was, I felt I had to do something. I immediately crafted an email to the Sikh Coalition about my experience.
To my surprise, I received a response from a staff attorney within 24 hours asking for further details. Over the next few weeks, the Sikh Coalition filed a formal complaint with the TSA on my behalf and followed it through to the end, which included an interview to be reviewed by the DHS’s Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties. Somewhere in all the correspondence that went back and forth between the Coalition and the TSA, it dawned on me…I’ve been experiencing discrimination, profiling, and hate incidents for most of my life – never did I have anyone “representing me”, never did I feel I had anyone in my corner looking after my rights, never did I feel that anyone “had my back.” I felt empowered.
And I’m not alone in this feeling…a staff member recently shared with me how a Sikh student did not feel his principal was doing enough to stop his bully. He said to the principal, “I can have the Sikh Coalition here tomorrow!” And although it took some re-arranging of schedules, the Sikh Coalition was there…and the school responded.
As my relationship grew with the Coalition, I had the honor of joining their Board of Directors last year. I was hesitant at first. I consider myself a freelancer and like to help any project with any organization doing positive work, but after attending a fundraiser shortly before the launch of the ‘Right To Serve’ campaign, I knew there was something different about this organization. The Coalition was about to take on the United States Army, an organization deeply rooted in tradition and history, with a monumental task of making a religious accommodation to the Army’s uniform policy. But even under such daunting circumstances, the atmosphere that night was different…there were inspiring speeches, people smiling and laughing – there was an air of optimism and confidence in the room that you don’t typically find in these events. That’s when I knew the Coalition was trying to build something. They were not going to limit themselves to “putting out fires”, they were here to establish the Sikh image and identity in the fabric of America…permanently.
My experience on the board has made me view the Sikh Coalition and its work through a different lens. As I’ve witnessed behind the scenes – on the road to securing civil rights, it can get a little bumpy. The Sikh community, although relatively small, is a dynamic one with varying perspectives. Even a simple press release or advertisement for an event can receive praise from one segment of the community, yet harsh criticism from another.
I’m often questioned by critics, “Why did the Sikh Coalition invest so many resources on the ‘Right To Serve’ campaign? All this for two or three people? Do we really expect that many Sikhs to join the military?” I would wonder similar things in the past, but what I’ve since discovered is the precedent such cases set. The Coalition invests so much time on individual workplace discrimination cases due to the Sikh uniform. If a well-respected organization like the Army with its strict guidelines on uniforms accommodates Sikhs, how could any local police department or security company not? The debate itself could end. I’m also asked why the Coalition rejects certain cases, “aren’t we here to serve the community”? Well just as easily as precedent can help us, it can hurt us too. If we take on a case without the right circumstances, a loss can set a devastating precedent that could affect our work for years – a balance must be struck.
A large part of my job is listening to our community – supporters and critics alike, as there is very valid and constructive criticism to our work. The Coalition is often pegged as being “out of touch” with the community it serves because of its lack of an institutional presence at gurdwaras. Although I don’t believe our civil rights organizations need to fit within a Gurdwara’s management structure, I do feel there’s room for improvement in communicating programs and opportunities to the communities we serve and also communicating back the sangat’s needs more regularly to the staff and board, especially the needs of our sangats in under-served communities. These are all things I hope to focus on during my tenure.
But the most difficult conversations are around budgeting and fundraising. As lucky as we are to have majority of our donations come from individual donors, as a whole – we still fall short. As a recent Pew Forum on Religious Advocacy Groups (where 3 Sikh organizations were studied) showed, Sikhs are sorely under-investing in advocacy efforts– we’re not even competitive with other communities- even though our needs are significant. Interestingly, many of the leading philanthropic foundations in the world i.e. NY Foundation, Atlantic, Soros and others have thoroughly evaluated the work of the Coalition, recognized its leadership amongst all non-profits, and as a result repeatedly rewarded the organization funds for more programming. And when we don’t meet our fundraising goals, tough questions arise…where do we cut back? Education? Legal? Community Organizing? We have long ways to go to establish the Sikh identity in this country and in my opinion – we cannot afford to compromise on anything.
In all the challenges and criticism, there have been some inspiring moments too, like how the Coalition recently took the lead in demanding an independent audit of the TSA and potential racial profiling, a letter that received signatures from 37 other Civil Rights organizations. Or when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surrounded by Sikhs) signed into law a bill -initiated by the Sikh Coalition- that will significantly enhance religion-based protections for employees working in New York City. A law that will not only benefit Sikhs, but also Jews, Muslims, and any others who wear articles of faith. Seeing Sikhs take the lead is proof that we will no longer remain quiet as victims, no longer will we have our backs against the wall. Now Sikhs will have a seat at the table, influencing policy for the benefit of our community and other communities who share our struggle.
Beyond the accomplishments, I especially cherish the stories I’ve heard from staff and other board members…like after the dinner celebrating Simranpreet Lamba’s (first enlisted Sikh in US Army) graduation from basic training, he stood to salute his superior, Captain Kalsi before parting ways…none of this would have happened a few years ago. And most recently, the story about a recent large donation from a Non-Sikh we received shortly after launching the Unheard Voices of 9/11 website. When inquiring how she learned about our work, she stated “I’ve been reading on facebook and the thing is the Sikh Coalition is doing great work…we need to stick together and make this country a better place.” She didn’t mention any Sikh friends, acquaintances or anyone actively soliciting the donation. But she believes supporting the Sikh Coalition will make this country better…how beautiful. This leadership role in the civil rights arena and ideal of service to all of humanity brings out the fragrance of Guru Nanak, and reminds me of why this work is so important.
I am very grateful to be part of this work, grateful to be part of this movement, and grateful to finally be able to stand before my Sikh brothers and sisters – whether at a children’s camp or my local Gurdwara – and tell them that no Sikh should be discriminated or denied anything for embracing the Guru’s bana – and if you are ever told otherwise, call us…we got your back.