A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to attend Saanjh.
Saanjh is a Bay Area based NGO, that has been running community focused events for the last 4 years. One of their main initiatives, the Saanjh Leadership Retreat, explores subjects like an individual’s personal relationship with the Divine, identity and culture issues, history, literature and present day challenges before the panth. This Memorial Day weekend, they brought Saanjh to the East Coast.
I’ll admit, I was a bit apprehensive to attend at first. It’s been a while since I’ve attended a conference or retreat. Over the last several years, I’ve mostly volunteered at gurmat camps for children and teenagers. And at such camps, the expectations are pretty standard. Let’s face it…you can only accomplish so much with one week a year. Kids are mostly influenced by their parents, their home environment and their peers. So the week in the woods is mostly a “re-charge” to be with sangat, hang out with friends with similar experiences and have a fun, spirited time…and if you learn something about gurmat or history along the way, it’s an added bonus.
Retreats attract a slightly older crowd, mostly young professionals. And with that level of education, maturity, and advanced skill sets, I wonder…shouldn’t we expect more than we do of our camps? In my opinion, the Sikh nation currently faces way too many challenges for us not to. When I attended retreats in my college years, I learned a lot about the issues facing the panth, but rarely did the experiences at the retreats carry over to any meaningful panthic work after it was over. Most of the retreats focused on gurmat, history, and social issues, but only a few hours on the last day for specific project work. And during that time, projects are quickly thrown together with a lot of spirit and enthusiasm, email addresses are exchanged, and a few weeks later…nothing. I’m sure some of you reading this have been the one sending that first post-retreat email to your project group and after no response think to yourself, where did all that spirit go? I know I have, so I wondered…was I to expect the same of Saanjh?
The theme of the retreat was ’2084’ – where we asked ourselves, where do we see the Sikh nation in the year 2084? What institutions do we hope to leave our grandchildren and great-grandchildren? From this ‘2084’ mission, we discussed goals, milestones, specific projects and the capital required (social, financial, human) to make such goals a reality. This 2084 institution-building theme led to lively discussion throughout the whole weekend while gurmat, history, and gurmat sangeet were interspersed. But does this approach really work?
Surprisingly, although Saanjh is only in its 4th year, it has already established several significant initiatives. Some projects are organic, like the Saanjh Scholarship, which aims to award $20,000 this year to students based on merit and financial need. Other projects like ‘Adopt A Family’ are strategic partnerships with established organizations like Baba Nanak Educational Society (BNES), which provides aid to families of farmer suicides in Punjab. The Saanjh community aims to spread awareness on the issue of farmer suicide and serve as a fundraising vehicle for the amazing work BNES is doing. Other projects getting off the ground are a “living history” that documents individual’s experiences around 1984, and a gurbani veechar resources initiative.
I believe much of Saanjh’s success has to do with limiting the scope and focusing on making few projects successful, rather than constantly inventing new ones. Another important factor is having a dedicated group of volunteers who help provide infrastructure and resources to the projects to ensure they keep moving in between the retreats. Sure, only time will tell which projects stick and which do not, but from what I’ve seen, the ones that stick have a good chance of becoming long-lasting institutions to benefit our community for decades to come.
At the retreat, some of the activities focused on personal development and discipline, while others focused on building institutions and moving the panth forward. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to connect the dots, Saanjh reminded me that as Sikhs we have so much to offer the world – look at our role models – Guru Sahib built cities, brought in commerce, organized communities, helped the under-served and advocated for social justice all while maintaining a connection with the Divine. And if I intend to a be vehicle of Guru Nanak‘s philosophy, if I intend to be his ‘sevak’, then I too must strengthen that bond and cultivate my relationship with the Guru.
Thanks Saanjh for the sangat, inspiration, and for reminding me of this important lesson!
The next Saanjh retreat will be held on October 18th – 21st in Santa Cruz, CA.
If you’d like to donate to any of the Saanjh initiatives, please visit http://www.saanjh.org/donate