Harleen Kaur, a writer for the forthcoming print collection Her Name Is Kaur: Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage, and Faith (publishing this summer by She Writes Press), is a rising senior at the University of Michigan, studying English and minoring in Community Action and Social Change. Besides doing community work, Harleen also has a deep passion for singing — whether it is keertan, classical music, or singing along to the radio. She hopes to travel abroad after graduation, spending a few years learning about the stories and lives of others before continuing her own journey by pursuing a dual graduate degree in law and public policy.
Below, Harleen shares with us her influences and her perspectives on being a Sikh activist.
Where did you grow up and what did you love about it?
I spent the majority of my childhood in the great state of Wisconsin. Besides living in a beautiful town on the coast of Lake Michigan, I loved the tight-knit atmosphere of my school, neighborhood, and Sikh community. Although I was one of two Sikhs in my college-prep school, my younger brother being the other, I never felt that I wasn’t accepted or loved. Sticking out only forced me to truly question and understand my identity. I knew that my friends would always ask me about different facets of my faith or identity, and so I came prepared. Their curiosity pushed me to be a better Sikh, always ensuring that I understood my Guru’s message and carried it with love and attention. I also loved being in such a small, tight-knit community. It created a family for me that I can always rely on. I enjoy going back to Wisconsin twice a year for Camp Sikh Virsa, my childhood Sikh youth camp, where I am now a counselor, teacher, and organizer. I mostly love that I know I would be a completely different person without my sangat in Wisconsin, and the Chicago area, and I am forever indebted to them because of it.
What are you up to right now?
Right now, I am finishing up my last month of junior year at the University of Michigan, and I will be starting my final year in the fall. I’m so thankful for the amazing experiences U of M has given me, sad to leave it all, but also excited for the opportunities and doors it will open for me after graduation. I spend most of my time at school reading books and writing papers, as I am an English major, and the rest of my time is devoted to various jobs and projects. I am a Resident Advisor for the Honors Program, President of Sikh Student Association, and volunteer with a local street paper called Groundcover News. Ann Arbor has been a wonderful place for me to live and grow, and I can’t wait for all the great things I will experience in my last year here.
Favorite book and why?
As an English major, this is a pretty tough question for me. I probably read at least one to two novels a week! Right now, I’d have to say my favorite book is Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I don’t want to spoil too much about it, but it’s basically a story of two teenagers in Nigeria who fall in love, and then it proceeds to follow them throughout time and space as they face challenges regarding identity, citizenship, and the idea of “home.” As a child of immigrants, it really spoke to me because I feel like most Sikh Americans struggle with identity and finding a “home” that is accepting and loves them for who they are.
Your plans after graduation?
After graduation, I plan to take a few years off to volunteer and work. I know I eventually want to go to graduate school for a J.D. and Masters in Public Policy, but first I want to spend some time with communities that I would like to work with in the future. I’m mostly hoping I can spend a few years abroad, since I didn’t have time to travel in undergrad and I will have even less time once I start grad school, I’m sure.
Your favorite shabad and what meaning are you deriving from it for your everyday life?
I really can’t pick a favorite, but I know a line I turn to often is one by Guru Amar Das Ji:
Those who belong to the All-Powerful Lord and Master, no one can destroy them.
This is just such a reassuring line for me. It’s a reminder that, really, everything is out of my hands because Waheguru is so much more powerful than I am. Knowing that I’m being looked after and taken care of by a much higher being and power is so soothing and it’s often been a line that is a comfort to me in times of need, fear, or helplessness. It’s also helpful on a daily basis, especially in college when you can get lost in the day-to-day nature of everything, it’s nice to remember that there is a path and journey that I’m following and one day it will all come together because Waheguru has it all planned out.
Please state what social justice issues you have been working on, for how long, and why it/they hold a special place in your heart. What is the connection between you and this work?
Pretty much everyone at the University of Michigan kind of considers herself or himself an activist, so I’d say I’ve been working on most of these since I started undergrad. Some of the issues I’m most passionate about are education reform, minority civil rights, and community work in general. The first comes from my brief stint in the School of Education here. I realized that I was one of the fortunate ones to receive a wonderful education, but there are horrible institutional inequalities, which I saw while teaching in schools in Ann Arbor and Detroit during my freshman and sophomore year. A lot of my social justice work has come through the Sikh Coalition and working as a volunteer advocate for them as well as a summer intern. That opportunity has allowed me to see the way that the oppression and discrimination against so many communities is very connected. It has led me to pursue more opportunities to connect communities surrounding issues that drive us, which I’ve done recently through interfaith work through the 2030 Faith in America Challenge and by working on an initiative to start a community interfaith garden in Detroit.
How do you reconcile all the human suffering in the world and stay in a state of Chardi Kala?
This is a tough one, and I’m really not sure that I know the answer, yet. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past few months and years. I think a lot of it is just having love and trust in Waheguru, and knowing that it’s all in hukam. I don’t have the capacity or understanding to reconcile all of it, but I trust that Waheguru does. Keeping in chardhi kala for me just means trusting that if we keep working and pushing for the truth, we will get there one day.
How does love play into your work as an essential tool for community organizing and activism? What will be the tipping point for Sikh Americans? What needs to happen for our community and across cultural and faith communities to achieve social justice in the United States or is it an ongoing process that we have to keep at as long as we live in this country? Please share your vision.
Love is really critical, because it allows for connections across communities and within them. You really can’t argue with love, and if you have love for something, you’re willing to go to endless lengths to fight for it. As far as the tipping point for Sikh Americans and how long it’ll take to achieve justice, I do think it is somewhat of ongoing struggle. This is part of the gift that our Gurus gave us with such a unique identity – we will always look different, but because of this, we will always be forced to fight for others and ourselves. It’s part of the natural identity of a Sikh as an activist. But, my vision is that one day, every person in the States will see a person with a turban and have a positive association. I don’t even know if it’s necessary for people to know the specifics of Sikhi, although that would be wonderful, but changing the immediate associations people have when they see Sikhs will be a large enough project on its own. The turning point will likely be recognizing that we all have a personal stake in this fight, even if we don’t recognize it, yet. I would have hoped that Oak Creek would have been that, as it was for me, but I hope that it can be a positive public recognition of Sikhs rather than something tragic.
How do YOU bring a distinct perspective to social justice activism as a Sikh American woman? Are there any personal life narratives you draw from to stand steady in the world today?
I think everyone is impacted by their upbringing and various identities, even if they don’t realize how. Just by being a Sikh American woman who grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, at student at the University of Michigan, a sister, a daughter, a singer and writer, and more, I am unique. These different perspectives all come together to shape how I look at the world, and thus add a unique voice to the Sikh American story. I challenge everyone to explore their own story and see how they can amplify it and bring it forward to make change. As far as personal narratives, I am most inspired by my own parents and their struggle to raise my brother and I as immigrants and completely alone without either of their family members. Their work and struggle keeps me going every day, because I know I owe everything I do to them, and I will never be able to repay them for what they did for me. Their love and compassion inspires me, and I hope to be even remotely as amazing and inspiring as they are one day.
How is writing an extension of your activism?
Writing isn’t just an extension of activism for me; it’s a key component. I’ve really started to appreciate what a great think tank of activists the University of Michigan is, especially with all the campaigns that have occurred this past academic year. I’ve been fortunate to write for our school paper, The Michigan Daily, and by writing about salient social issues, I’ve been able to engage with my fellow students and start conversations about what we’re doing, how we’re involved, and how effective these processes are. It’s been a really great sounding board for me, and a way to connect to a larger network of activism. I’ve been contacted by complete strangers from all over to talk about some of my pieces, which is not only humbling, but it really goes to shows the universality of these issues, and the power of writing.
In what ways are Sikhi and activism linked for you personally? Is there any inspiration you can cite that continues to fuel and motivate you in this moment right now?
Sikhi is the first introduction I had to activism, even though I did not know what it was called, yet. From a young age, I heard stories of Sikh women and men fighting for oppressed groups and individuals, always challenging those in power, and ensuring that they and others always did what was right. One of my favorite stories is Mai Bhago – her ability to lead 40 men back into battle after they left Guru Ji is so inspiring, especially with all the problems of gender inequality that are rampant in Punjab, and even the US. The inspiration that this, and all of our history, gives me is demonstrating that Sikhs were able to fight back and get past it then, so we can do it now. Each day is simply a new challenge, and it is up to us to fight back like Sikhs have always done. It also reminds me that fighting for equality is in my blood. I have a choice, but it’s also something that my ancestors and my ancestors’ ancestors have done. Sikhi is my calling to this work, and I hope that through my writing, advocacy, and passion for justice, I can answer it.
What do you hope readers will take away from your story in Her Name Is Kaur: Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage, and Faith?
To be honest, I’m still processing it myself. What I talk about it in my story is something that is going to impact me every day for the rest of my life, my career, and the way I raise my children even. I hope that readers can understand that it’s a daily struggle, but also the beautiful nature of this struggle. I want younger girls to realize that someone went through what they’re going through, and that they are not alone. I want other Sikhs who are unsure about their identity or their inner strength to know that it’s there, even if they don’t feel it on certain days. Mostly, I want readers to accept and love the process, because there were plenty of days that I fought back and didn’t understand it for what it was – difficult, but necessary, and incredibly fruitful in the end.