Serve2Unite

On the morning of Sunday, August 5th, 2012, a gunman opened fire inside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, killing six worshippers, wounding three others and a police officer. The man, Wade Michael Page, was known to have links to white supremacist groups. The event shocked the world but even more so the residents of Oak Creek, the temple’s suburban Milwaukee home. Although Milwaukee has struggled with segregation and race-related violence for decades, the attack sent a clear message of hate that jolted the city—and the attack’s intended victims—into action. In the aftermath, several young members of the Sikh community, with the help of local veteran interfaith organizers, founded Serve2Unite, an organization that seeks to address the roots of hate-motivated violence.

Although the first meeting brought together Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and Christians in response to the violent hate crime, organizers agreed they wanted their mission to go beyond interfaith relationship-building; they wanted Serve2Unite to be a service-oriented organization that would act with and create compassion. With this in mind, Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis, led the charge. 

Together, Kaleka, the eldest son of the slain Sikh Temple president, and Michaelis, a former skinhead turned peace educator, brought Serve2Unite’s service-oriented mission to life. While Serve2Unite’s message of forgiveness, compassion, and service may prove baffling to some, Kaleka explains: “You know, as long as you’re giving blame to somebody else, you might as well give away your ability to do anything about it, too.”[1] Serve2Unite’s mission, rooted originally in the Sikh value of seva, or selfless service, takes on responsibility to be a greater part of the Milwaukee community to prevent this violence.

Service projects and a “Heritage Day” hosted at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin were some of the first events sponsored by Serve2Unite. “Heritage Day,” held around Thanksgiving, gave the community an opportunity to remember the shooting and featured speeches by the Mayor of Oak Creek and members of the Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist and other faith communities. Michaelis also gave remarks about the transformative nature of the Sikh tradition of forgiveness.

Just under five months after the shooting, Kaleka and Michaelis found themselves at Cudahy High School in front of about 750 students. Together, they shared their stories of transforming hate. For Kaleka, this transformation led him to a message of service; for Michaelis, to peace activism in Milwaukee’s inner city. This was the start of a new and flagship program for Serve2Unite. Spearheaded by this once unlikely pair, the educational initiative officially launched in April of 2013 with two pilot schools and sponsorship from Arts at Large, a non-profit that supports connecting arts and academics in Milwaukee Public Schools.

The initiative takes a three-fold approach: To get students to creatively address issues they care about; to involve them in community service and service-learning, and; to connect young people to “Global Mentors” who share with them different perspectives on forgiveness and compassion, based on the mentors’ own experiences. As Kaleka explains to students: “We’re not asking you to be color blind. We’re asking you to be color brave. We’re asking you to be religiously brave. You know, your way of life is not threatened, by anybody else bringing their way of life. It’s in fact enhanced.”[2]

Two very different Milwaukee schools were selected to pilot Serve2Unite’s educational programming. Michaelis describes Fernwood Montessori School as a high-achieving middle-school accustomed to hands-on, creative learning with a student body that is 80-90 percent white. Westside Academy, on the other hand, he describes as a school whose student body is predominately African American with a small number of Latino students, and located in an area where kids sometimes could not go out for recess because there was too much gunfire in the neighborhood.[3]

Michaelis and Kaleka found that students at each school responded differently to aspects of the program. Fernwood students jumped into projects where they could creatively express issues of concern to them and their communities. They used Global Mentor Phyllis Rodriguez’s story of forgiveness after her son’s death in the 9/11 attacks as a chance for reflection on the influence of forgiveness on their issue-based art projects. At Westside Academy, students responded by hosting block parties for their local community. Michaelis explained,

They actually got out in their communities, and these are communities where every other lamp-post has a pile of teddy-bears on it where somebody was murdered, and they would organize block parties, in a vacant lot, and do face-painting for little kids, and a community art project, and an open mic, and, and they would literally go into communities that were war-torn and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to spend a day celebrating together and being peaceful, and being artistic and appreciating each other.’[4]

Serve2Unite’s educational initiative expanded during the 2013-14 school year to include ten schools and grades 2-12. As part of the year’s program,  students from each of the ten schools—over five hundred students in total—came together for a summit held at Milwaukee’s historic Turner Ballroom. During the summit, students worked on and presented art projects and musical performances that responded to issues in their communities.

Kaleka and Michaelis agree that Serve2Unite is a secular organization, but they are not afraid to incorporate faith-based narratives and lessons in their discussion of forgiveness and compassion. Kaleka uses lessons from his own Sikh faith and from Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. Michaelis agrees. “We’re not a faith-based organization, but we do talk about faith issues. […] If you’re looking at violence between faith groups, it really affects everyone.” This perspective creates a platform for some interfaith influence on their public education program.

During the 2014 summit, one student and raptivist (rapper plus activist) by the name “Jene the Jene” captured the hope embedded in Serve2Unite’s goals. Perhaps his lyrics also point to the organization’s success:

“the youth are the root of our solution
Praise them raise them amazing
Product of environment I am the result
Of a generation drift off is it my fault
I ain’t getting pissed off cuz I ain’t have a choice as a child
But now I have the voice to empower
The future’s in our hands the sand in the hourglass passes
Used to skip class now I’m teaching to the masses…
Serve to unite three words that might change the world over night
yeah we gotta make it right.”[5]

 


[1] Pardeep Kaleka. Interview with author. Milwaukee, WI. 18 August 2014.

[2] Pardeep Kaleka. Interview with author. Milwaukee, WI. 18 August 2014.

[3] Arno Michaelis. Interview with author. Milwaukee, WI. August 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Be Smoov: The S2U Anthem.” Jene the Jene, with S2U and True Skool. www.serve2unite.org/s2u-anthem-smoov-jene-jene-s2u/. Accessed: November 2014.