Here’s how I know this is true.
When I was 20 years old, I found myself on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, watching the Twin Towers fall, overwhelmed with shock and grief at the loss of life on September 11, 2001 — then I saw the image of Osama bin Laden in a turban and beard. I wasn’t prepared for the shock of recognition: America’s new enemy looked like my family. One hundred years ago, my father’s father, Kehar Singh, a turbaned Sikh, sailed by steamship from India to San Francisco, and I grew up on the land that he farmed in California’s Central Valley. My family had lived in America for generations, but immediately after 9/11, hate crimes broke out across America against all the people who looked like us — Sikh, Muslim and Arab Americans were chased, beaten up, gunned down.
A man I knew as an uncle, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was the first to be killed in a hate crime on September 15, 2001. His murder in Arizona barely made the evening news. I hid in my room for three days. I turned to my bookshelf for comfort. What sacred book did I pull down? The Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an and the Guru Granth Sahib? No, I started reading Harry Potter! In this world, Harry, Ron, and Hermione battled Death Eaters and Dementors, wielding their own kind of magic when no one else would. Harry wasn’t the smartest or strongest. But he was brave. I stopped reading and looked at the camera on my bed. What would it mean to be brave in this world? I had an idea: what if I started filming the chaos unfolding outside my window and the world beyond?
I was overcome with doubt. I was only 20, a girl with brown skin and no film experience. But my grandfather, my mother’s father, gave me a precious gift. Captain Gurdial Singh was the most fearless person I knew, a soldier on the front lines in World War II, who raised me to believe that the central heart of the Sikh faith was seva, sacred service. He taught me a prayer to protect me: Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. With this prayer on my lips, I wrote to my professor Linda Hess with my idea. She replied: “You’re in a position to enter this unique moment in history…and catch the life of it. It’s like entering the whirlwind.”
So I did. I was a single breath entering the whirlwind.
I left school, grabbed my camera, and crisscrossed the country, filming hundreds of remarkable stories. When I returned to campus my senior year and the battle drums grew louder and louder, I was terrified that the Iraq War would lead to more hate violence at home. So my friends and I began organizing pockets of protest in the San Francisco Bay Area through the spring of 2003. By the time I graduated, I thought we were actually making a difference.
But the years went by, the wars went on, hate crimes became part of daily life for our communities, and many of my classmates came home in coffins. My high school in Clovis, California lost more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other school in the country. There were too many stories for my camera to focus: hate crimes, deportations, detentions, surveillance, profiling and torture. And then, while I was filming an anti-war protest in Lower Manhattan as a legal observer, I found myself becoming part of the story. I was wrongfully arrested, my arm badly twisted by a New York City police officer, and detained for 16 hours in a makeshift detention center called “Guantanamo on the Hudson.”
Staring at the bars, nursing my hand, my grandfather’s prayer came to my lips once again: Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. When I was alone and scared, the prayer made me brave. When I was released, I couldn’t turn a door knob or use a pen, much less hold my camera. I felt powerless, but I did not want anyone to know that I felt that way. I just bit my lip harder and hid my pain away.
My story could have ended there: another burnt-out idealist who hit the real world and gave up. But my mentor Dean Tommy Woon reached out to me and taught me the lesson that changed my life: the way we make change is just as important as the change we make. If we drive ourselves into the ground, cover up our weaknesses and pretend we are perfect, we embody the same dysfunctions we seek to heal in the world. When we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and seek help, the love of other people makes us stronger and helps us face the whirlwinds of life. I decided that I wanted to change the world not with anger but with love and joy.
"The way we make change is just as important as the change we make."
So I started by letting in the love of my friends and family and slowly, my body got better. I teamed up with a young director, Sharat Raju, and together we made our first film DIVIDED WE FALL. That began my career as a lawyer, filmmaker, and activist. Sharat and I fell in love and became life partners. For more than a decade, we’ve made films and led campaigns to fight for justice through the art of storytelling.
Together, we’ve seen the human spirit shine in the darkest places. In the eyes of children who have survived mass shootings, families torn apart by immigration raids, inmates who have endured years of solitary confinement and even soldiers on the military base in the real Guantanamo, we witnessed bravery in the face of death and despair. I saw that courage is most possible in community. So I created Groundswell, a movement of more than 200,000 where young people of all faiths and beliefs are working together online to fight for social change.
Harry Potter taught me that you don’t need to be superhuman or super-smart to stand for what you believe in. You just have to keep alive the desire to do good — and be brave enough to answer when the calling comes.
This is not an easy task. Whether it’s in the face of gunfire in a school, rising sea waters, or the widening gap between rich and poor, your idealism will be tested over and over again. But we have the tools, like never before, to wield our magic together.
I learned this in 2012, when a white supremacist walked into a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire, killing six people who looked like my family members. I was there to see the blood on the ground of the prayer hall and felt the same despair I had felt after 9/11. I thought that perhaps nothing had changed, that our work made no difference. But then my friends called — they were ready to organize. Together on the open Internet, a groundswell of thousands of people sent prayers and messages of love, signed petitions, and posted on Facebook and Twitter to ask the U.S. government to respond — and it worked. One year later, President Obama changed the way hate crimes are measured and responded to in America. The government now tracks hate crimes against Sikh Americans and other at-risk communities in order to prevent such violence in the future.
When we are brave together, we can change the world.
A few years ago, I watched my grandfather’s body swallowed up by Parkinson’s disease. He still managed to smile at each of us around his deathbed. I was so sad after he died. He left me without passing on the secret to his bravery! The night before his funeral, I recited the prayer he taught me. Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. I realized I didn’t know exactly what it meant — so I googled it. It means: “The hot winds cannot touch me; I am sheltered by the Divine.”
“The hot winds cannot touch me.”
It’s hard to stand up for what you believe, whether in the classroom, on the school yard, or in a nation in crisis. But the hot winds of the world cannot touch you if you protect that space in your heart that is filled with love — love of God or the universe, your parents or teachers, your grandparents or ancestors, your sisters and brothers or your best friends. Have faith in their love. Have faith in the faith they have in you — and you will be able to be brave even within the hottest winds of life.
Young people of the world: if you think of your life as a great journey, filled with splendors and dangers and chances to make the world a better place — and you hold fast to the people who believe in your magic — then there will be only one thing left to do when the whirlwind comes calling:
Enter it with your whole heart.
This article was adapted for KidSpirit from Valarie Kaur’s Baccalaureate Address to Stanford University’s Class of 2013.
Valarie Kaur is an American interfaith leader. As a lawyer, filmmaker, and Sikh activist, she helps communities channel their stories into movements for social change. She has made award-winning films and led multimedia campaigns on a wide range of issues: hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim Americans, racial profiling, gun violence, marriage equality, immigration detention, and solitary confinement. Valarie is a regular television commentator on MSNBC and opinion contributor to CNN, NPR, PBS, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Hill and The New York Times. She has reported on the military commissions at Guantanamo and clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Valarie founded Groundswell Movement of 200,000+ members, America’s largest multifaith online organizing community known for “dynamically strengthening faith-based organizing in the 21st century.” A Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, she regularly teaches “storytelling for social change” to students, organizers, and interfaith groups. She also works with the U.S. State Department to bring these tools abroad, recently traveling and teaching throughout Myanmar. She earned degrees at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project to train future lawyers to make films for social and policy change. Valarie is currently the Media and Strategy Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, where she co-founded Faithful Internet and advocates for Internet freedom and access. The Center for American Progress calls Valarie “a standout figure in the world of interfaith organizing and activism” and among 13 progressive faith leaders to watch. In 2013, she was named “Person of the Year” by India Abroad and one of eight Asian American “Women of Influence.” A prolific public speaker, Valarie has addressed audiences at the White House, Pentagon, and on more than 200 U.S. college campuses, including Stanford University, where she was the youngest to deliver the Stanford Baccalaureate Commencement Address. She was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader in 2015. She spoke at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Valarie is a member of the State Bar of California.
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