Friday, 19 June 2015

Leaving Community To Find Myself | Harleen Kaur

The notion of community is one that I have always seen as inextricably linked up with faith. As a
young Sikh girl, I attended religious camps across the nation, but mostly in my home state of
Wisconsin. I recall that our counselors and teachers would come up with fun phrases to help us
remember  tenets  of  Sikhi  to  take  home  and  practice  after  camp  was  over.  One  catchphrase,
which  is  beautifully  illustrated  on  our  camp  sweatshirt,  teaches  the  “three  S’s”  of  Sikhi: Seva (selfless service), Simran (meditating on God), and Sangat (community).

Although many camps focused on these three concepts as a whole, sangat is an idea that was
very delicately explained. As we were told, there is a difference between your sangat and your
saadh sangat,  in  that  the  latter  meant  good,  or  pure,  company.  We  were  meant  to  strive  for
attaining a saadh sangat, or a group of people who would inspire us to be the best versions of
our selves. This could be our family, camp friends, school friends, teammates, and more. It was
simply those who pushed us past our limits towards the stars. Guru Granth Sahib, our Sikh holy
book, often speaks of the importance of finding and maintaining a saadh sangat:

As one of the two Sikhs in my school, the other being my younger brother, and my family being
one of two Sikh families in our town, I learned to cherish my Sikh community. It was one whose
company  I  enjoyed  on  Sundays  and  at  the  occasional  religious  camp.  When  I  grew  older,  I
slowly started to have sleepovers at my Sikh “sister’s” houses. My camp counselors became my
older  siblings  and  the  adults  in  the  community  became  my  “aunts”  and  “uncles.”  Community
turned into an extended family and I learned to rely on them for support in all aspects of life.
Most of all, I looked to them for religious inspiration and their lessons guided me on my own
journey of faith, spirituality, and identity.

Seva, or selfless service, is another one of the three S’s that I have attempted to practice in my
daily  life.  At  camp,  we  always  finished  out  the  week  with  a  “seva  project,”  which  would
essentially consist of a creative and engaging way to serve a local community in need. Some of
the projects were writing letters to orphaned children while others were making dog and cat toys
for the local humane society. We were taught to share what we were fortunate enough to have
because it all belonged to God and we are all equal children of God.

This notion of seva has started to come into my life in ways I did not expect. Over the years,
perhaps unsurprisingly, I became more and more interested in the notion of advocacy. It was a
concept that I had been taught from a young age, although I learned about it in different terms. I
heard of Sikh martyrs throughout Sikh history, as young as 4 and 5 years old. I learned stories
of defending communities of faiths beyond our own and standing up to tyrant rulers. For my own
daily life, I was taught how to explain my faith to the very white and Christian society around me
and advocate for my right to live as a minority.

When I started college at the University of Michigan, I started to use these skills as a way to
organize.  I  immediately  became  involved  with  the  Sikh  Student  Association  and  created
partnerships  with  other  faith  organizations,  starting  the  Interfaith Alliance.  I  also  became  the
Michigan representative for the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh advocacy organization.
As  the  Sikh  community  fought  hate  crimes,  shootings,  and  inaccuracies  about  our  faith  in
national textbooks, I raised my voice with others to educate as many individuals as possible in
my home of Ann Arbor.

However,  as  eventually  happens,  my  horizons  expanded  when  I  received  an  internship  on
Capitol Hill. I was absolutely thrilled when I found out I had been selected for the office that I
had been praying to be placed in for weeks. This Congressman was a very vocal supporter of
the  Sikh American  community,  and  I  knew  that  I  would  have  an  incredible  experience  while
learning about how to do advocacy “from the inside.”

During  my  time  on  the  Hill,  I  did  learn  an  immense  amount about  how  policy  change  truly
occurs,  make  meaningful  relationships  with  the  staff  in  my  office,  and  meet  fellow  interns.
However,  what  was  most  noticeable  to  me  was  something  that  should  not  have  come  as  a
surprise: there were very few people that looked like me.

Harleen Kaur

In fact, there was only one South Asian Member of Congress at that time and very few religious
minorities. The  number  of  times  I  have  seen  immigrants,  religious  and  ethnic  minorities,  and
other marginalized voices discriminated by our countries’ policies all made sense once I walked
the marble halls of our Capitol. In order for these laws to best serve our entire nation, they had
to be written by our entire nation. And, as of now, that is simply not the case. It made me think
deeply  about  my  desire  to  pursue  a  career  in  policy  and  what  that  would  mean  for  my
community and many others.

I came back to campus for my senior year, but I had reflected upon my career path, realizing
that this journey would be less about me and more about seva, or the people that I would be
able  to  serve.  I  knew  that  if  I  truly  wanted  to  serve  these  unheard  communities,  I  had  to  be
ready  to  listen. These  voices  had  been  silenced  for  decades,  and  so  my  first  step  would  be
finding a way to bring light to them, rather than simply finding ways to further my own career.

In part due to conversations with many internship supervisors and professors, and also due to
my own desire to travel, I started to look into ways I could go abroad. I had very little experience
traveling internationally, and many policymakers had told me that I needed to broaden my mind
beyond the United States if I wanted a true understanding of how policy should be written.
One particular fellowship caught my eye. It was only in its second year at the University, but it
offered $20,000 to graduating seniors to travel the world for 8 months. The catch? The recipient
would travel alone.

At the time, I did not consider details of each fellowship I applied to. I recall late nights in coffee
shops and libraries, writing essay after essay for multitudes of programs. I knew I just needed
one acceptance so I could finally answer that horrid question that every college senior hates:
“So, do you know what you’re doing after graduation?”

I still remember reading the email that gave me this answer:
"Dear  Harleen,  Congratulations!!  I  am  delighted  to  inform  you  that  you  have  been
selected  as  one  of  the  four  LSA  Bonderman  Fellows  for  2015-2016!  Your  $20,000
Bonderman  Travel  Fellowship  is  intended  to  provide  you  a  unique  educational
opportunity  to  travel  for  an  extended  period  and  to  experience  a  variety  of  different
cultures  and  different  ways  of  life,  challenging  yourself  and  broadening  your
understanding of the world."

I froze. I didn’t breathe for a few seconds at least and my hands were shaking. When I finally
reminded my body how to normally function, I started to process what this truly meant. I would
finally  get  the  opportunity  to  satisfy  my  wanderlust—although  part  of  me  thinks  it  is
unquenchable—but it would mean doing what I most feared: spending time alone.

As  an  extreme  extrovert  (personality  tests  put  me  at  98%),  I  have  often  kept  myself  busy  to
avoid  spending  time  alone.  This  meant  sports  practices,  full  course  loads,  and  musical
rehearsals. Any time not in a meeting would be group study time, when I got together a group of
friends to work on school work, usually in a loud coffee shop. Yet, Sikh scripture also discusses
the importance of spending time alone, as it is within ourselves that we will find Divine Light:

My desire to challenge myself and broaden my understanding of the world, in order to better
serve others, is certainly still present, but I wonder if I can do it without the support of my saadh
sangat by my side. It is fascinating that, in order to obtain my mission of seva, I will have to
leave behind another important “s.” Yet, I believe that this is just God’s way of teaching me that
recognizing my own Divine Light is just as important as seeing it in others.

Although  I  have  spent  extended  periods  of  time  away  from  home,  I  have  always  been
connected to my community in some way, and this will be the longest period of time I have been
completely on my own. On the other hand, I hope that this will be a time of personal growth and
self-reflection upon my faith and identity. I trust that all my sangat has taught me thus far will
keep me going until my return, at which point I hope to start giving back to them, and others, at
least a small portion of what they have all given me. For that is the true spirit of Sikhi.

Harleen Kaur is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in Community Action and Social Change. This fall, she will be embarking on an 8-month solo travel around the world as a Bonderman Fellow. Upon her return, Harleen would like to pursue a career serving marginalized communities, particularly immigrant, and minority racial and religious, communities. You can follow Harleen on her travels on her website and on twitter at @HarleenKaurUM.

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