On May 8th-10th, 2015, the University of California, Riverside (UCR) hosted the 4th Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies Conference. This year’s theme was “Living and Making Sikhi in the Diaspora: The Millennial Generation Comes of Age.” As the largest Sikh studies conference in North America, the three-day event brought together Sikh studies scholars, young Sikh activists living in the diaspora, as well as students and community members to “explore the ways in which millennial Sikhs of the diaspora are making and living Sikhi in various settings around the globe.” The primary aim of the conference was to facilitate meaningful conversation about the lived experiences of Sikh millennials in an increasingly globalized world. Organized by Drs. Pashaura Singh, Verne A. Dusenbury, and Charles M. Townsend, this biennial conference featured discussions about local and global Sikh movements, while shedding light on the role of scriptural reinterpretation, civic engagement, and of the differences between and responses of Sikh communities in diaspora to the challenges of globalization. Approximately 30 scholars and 60 participants were in attendance. The conference was comprised of panel discussions devoted to contemporary issues facing the Sikh community, issues ranging from environmentalism, to work and marriage, to the role of activism in the lives of Sikh millennials.
Welcome and Opening Remarks
The conference was inaugurated by Dr. Paul D’Anieri, provost and executive vice chancellor of UCR, who welcomed the crowd and highlighted the importance of bringing together “people from around the world to share ideas, to enlighten one another and have friendly disputes.” Following his remarks, Dr. Pashaura Singh, professor and Dr. J.S. Saini chair in Sikh & Punjabi Studies at UCR, introduced Dr. Verne A. Dusenbery, professor of Anthropology and chair of the Global Studies Department at Hamline University, to give the opening remarks.
Dusenbery began by recalling his experience of organizing his first Sikh studies conference in December of 1986 at the University of Michigan. “Looking back at that conference from nearly three decades later, it is clear that much has changed—not only for Sikhs of the diaspora, but also for Sikhs in diaspora studies,” said Dusenbery. He noted how the present conference topic is a shift from an earlier focus on migration and questions of ethnicity and race among the first generation. Dusenbery noted that, being in global generational cohort, millennials (individuals born between 1980 and 2000) have collectively experienced neoliberal capitalism, a global economic recession and its aftermath, the global war on terror, multiculturalism, and human rights regimes.
Environmental Activism Panel
The first panel was moderated by Dr. Bruce La Brack, professor emeritus at the University of the Pacific. Panelists included Dr. Nicola Mooney, associate professor at University of the Fraser Valley, and Dr. Susan Prill, associate professor of religious studies at Juniata College. Both panelists explored Sikh efforts to develop and establish a green theology to encourage environmental action among young Sikhs.
Mooney began by exploring the relationship between society, religion and environmentalism. She outlined diaspora Sikhs’ engagements with the environment and explained that Sikhs’ sociopolitical and environmental engagement has been located within several Sikh principles such as sarbat da bhalla, which “expects Sikhs to work towards a collective good” and miri piri, which “enjoins religious and political affairs in the support of this goal.” Inspired by the principles of seva (selfless service), Sikh millennials have extended their philanthropy to the welfare of all. Mooney cited the practice of langar as a reflection of the humanitarian and egalitarian principles in Sikh communal life, which are cultivated by “states of humility, compassion, contentment and truth.”
Mooney also highlighted an organization called Karma Grove, created by two young Sikhs “to promote the Sikh principles of sarbat da bhalla and Seva.” Their voluntary labor and farming efforts enabled them to donate 300 pounds of food to local food banks. With such societal engagements, “these activities and initiatives contribute to interfaith, multicultural, and pluralist initiatives at large,” said Mooney.
Prill spoke about EcoSikh, another organization aiming to connect Sikh values with environmental action. EcoSikh was founded in 2009 and “engages in Sikh ecological issues, both in Punjab and in the transnational community.” Centered both in New York and Amritsar, EcoSikh is able to engage multiple localities in the process of incorporating environmentalism into Sikh practices. Prill cited EcoSikh’s efforts in creating “Green Gurdwaras” by encouraging gurdwaras to move away from using polystyrene plates and replacing them with metal ones for langar and by promoting tree planting, drawing inspiration from the life of Guru Har Rai’s medicinal plant garden. Prill noted that EcoSikh is also “very much trying to understand themselves as an interfaith organization and not exclusively as a Sikh organization, though the leadership is Khalsa Sikh.” With their distinct emphasis on interfaith work, EcoSikh hopes to join the broader conversation toward creating an eco-friendly world.
Work and Marriage in the United States Panel
Dr. Michael Alexander, associate professor of religious studies at UCR with a primary academic interest in Judaism, opened the next panel by drawing parallels between the conversations happening in Sikh studies and in Jewish studies with regards to population, economic patterns, as well as genocide and identity formation. Alexander introduced the panelists: Dr. Sangeeta K. Luthra, from Santa Clara University, Dr. Nirvikar Singh, professor and Sarbjit Singh Aurora chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at UC Santa Cruz, and Dr. Karen Leonard, professor emerita at UC Irvine, all of whom had conducted ethnographic research examining how Sikh millennials, individually and collectively, coalesce into mainstream American life.
Dr. Luthra discussed dominant themes in millennial activism. “Since the 9/11 attacks, Sikh American millennials have been at the forefront of institution-building for Sikhs,” said Luthra. She explained how they are actively adapting the American civil rights tradition of activism with Sikh values. Defining this as a “Millennial ethos,” she noted how millennials Sikhs are at the forefront of creative expression in representing Sikh traditions to the American mainstream. She cited activities such as Turban Day as a method of civic engagement which “promotes this concept of a shared humanity” between millennials and the broader society.
In his work with young Sikhs, Dr. Nirvikar Singh examined how Sikh millennials address the tension of living and thriving in a modern capitalist economy while living up to Sikh principles. “Sikh teachings emphasize hard work and individual responsibility, as well as sharing and social justice,” he said.
Dr. Leonard, in keeping with the theme of Sikh life, examined South Asian Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim weddings in diaspora. In her interviews, she found that many now marry across national, racial, and religious lines, thus blurring the boundaries between religious and secular practices. She cited a Hindu couple from New York who featured the hora (a Jewish chair dance) at their wedding, understanding it to be an American tradition. Moreover, she noted changing gender roles, citing a Hindu wedding where the priest was a woman and another wedding where the groom followed the bride as they walked around the Guru Granth Sahib. She concluded by analyzing the widening range of partner choices, seeing marriage and celebratory rituals among second generation South Asian Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims as “reflective of the America’s changing demographic profile and popular culture.”
Roundtable Panel on Sikh Activism
Dr. Charles M. Townsend, of the University of California, Riverside’s religious studies department, introduced the next panel, comprised of Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, Navdeep Singh, policy director of SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund), and Ravneet Kaur, director of development for the Jakara Movement. The panelists shared about their respective organization’s work and reflected on their own personal journey in doing such work.
“I have been involved with the Jakara movement as a participant and volunteer for the past 15 years,” said Ravneet Kaur. She explained that the Jakara movement started as a conference to address the need of creating spaces where young Sikhs could talk about the issues they faced regarding caste, gender based discrimination, and the role of Sikh institutions.
The Sikh Coalition, a large community based non-profit advocacy organization, works to safeguard the civil and human rights of all people to promote a world where Sikhs can freely practice their faith. In her work with the organization, Sapreet Kaur explained that the Sikh Coalition was born as a crisis response after 9/11 hate-crimes. Their activism is centered on advocating for “religious freedom in the workplace, in the classroom, and in the public square.”
Similarly, SALDEF aims “to create an environment in the United States which is fully embracing of the diversity of this country” said Navdeep Singh. “It’s is our job to not only be storytellers, but to also help you tell your story.” He noted that storytelling is a subtle method for empowering the Sikh community to take control of their narrative.
“What always drove me was the ability to empower someone to go beyond their own limitations” said Ravneet Kaur in explaining her inspiration to contribute to this work. Born and raised in New Jersey to parents who immigrated to North America, Kaur felt called to work in Sikh nonprofit and civil rights because of the growing need to protect the liberty of all. In referring to her collaborative activism with other minorities, she said “we’re interconnected and that’s very motivating…we’re are going to sink or swim collectively along with these groups.” Kaur explained how Sikhs are not only advocating for Sikh rights, but also for social inclusion and non-discrimination of other subordinated or disadvantaged groups:
We work a great deal with the Muslim American community, both at the grassroots level and at regional and national organizations. For us, we can’t imagine a world where we could call ourselves Sikhs and not stand up for the rights of Muslim Americans.
Navdeep Singh also recalled that he is often asked at international talks “why is it in America you guys can work together?” He answers by explaining that when defending the Sikh community, they are careful not to disregard or disown another community.
During the open dialogue portion of the panel, one audience member expressed the need for funds and mentorship for Sikh youth to build their leadership skills. The panelists and audience alike agreed on the urgency to cultivate both the Sikh and American identity of the youth. Ravneet Kaur stated: “Sikh values are so tied to American values that we each need to find what is our opportunity with our time, our talent and our treasure to serve.”
Reception Dinner and Closing Remarks
A reception dinner was held for the scholars, staff and volunteers of the conference. Special remarks were made by UCR Chancellor Dr. Kim A. Wilcox and Interim Dean of the College of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences Dr. Shaun Bowler. Dr. Bruce La Brack and Dr. Karen Leonard were honored for their contributions to the study of Sikhs and Punjabis in North America. The keynote speech was made by Dr. Pashaura Singh, who concluded by remarking on the success of the conference.
 “4th Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies Conference.” University of California, Riverside. http://www.religiousstudies.ucr.edu/SPS/events/index.html. Accessed June 2015.