Middle Schoolers taking action on (Sikh) civil rights

Last Friday, I was invited by the organization Teaching Matters to participate as an “expert” community activist in their annual Civil Rights Student Summit in downtown Manhattan.  I was looking forward to the opportunity to work with such young students of diverse backgrounds on building effective campaigns for civil rights and social justice, but I had no idea how inspiring the experience would be.

The day began at the City Council Chambers at City Hall, where a few hundred students were welcomed by staff at Teaching Matters and a speech by Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who gave the Sikh Coalition a shout out for our organizing and advocacy work on bias-based bullying in NYC schools.

Then the students broke out into groups of a few dozen across the street at Pace University and made 5-7 minute presentations on a civil rights topic they had researched and developed a campaign about.  The “professional” activists in the room then had the opportunity to ask questions, give the students feedback on their campaigns, and share our on-the-ground experience.  With topics ranging from healthcare for all to women’s rights, the presentations were thoughtful and used many forms of media to build awareness campaigns.

What really blew me away was that one of the groups of five non-Sikh middle school students chose Sikh rights as their topic!  Using a great website they created, the students gave an in-depth presentation about the barriers to freedom and equality Sikhs in the U.S. face, from employment discrimination to hate crimes.  The front page of the site states:

We chose to discuss religious freedom concerning the Sikhs. It is important for people to understand that people are discriminating against other’s religion (which is completely mistreating each other as an equal) and through an internet campaign we’d like to do our part to fight against this injustice that still exists today.

What is it that would motivate five non-Sikh eighth graders (who go to a school with a very small Sikh population according to their teacher) to choose Sikh rights as their topic, out of all the hundreds of civil rights issues they could have focused on?  I asked them, and their response was they read an article about the discrimination against Sikhs in the U.S. Army.  They thought that it was really unfair and started doing more research and realized that discrimination against Sikhs is a big issue in this country that they need to do something about.

I found this deeply moving and inspiring.  On the one hand, it was a good reminder that the obstacles and struggles we as Sikhs face because of racism and discrimination are universal issues that non-Sikhs who care about fairness and justice may be passionate about.  On the other hand, it showed me that we can all learn so much from young people, who sometimes have a better sense of fairness and unfairness, right and wrong, than mainstream adult society.  These youth truly embodied the Sikh spirit of sarbat da bhala, working for the welfare of ALL.

You can check out their “Sikh People’s Rights Association” website and campaign at www.spra.webs.com and learn more about Teaching Matter’s fabulous Voices and Choices program here.

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