Every Election Day, I go to the polls with someone I love. It used to be my parents; now it’s my husband. I like standing in line, meeting neighbors I had no idea were neighbors. I take in the rush of yard signs, bumper stickers, whole streets decorated in varsity red and blue. I wear my i voted sticker with a touch of pride and exchange smiles with strangers on the street wearing theirs. The day has always been a favorite for me, even before I was old enough to vote. In school, we learned that voting is a civic duty, a fundamental right. But at home, my family taught me something more: Voting is an act of love.
I have been an activist for 15 years. As a lawyer and a filmmaker, I help communities combat racism, hate, and injustice through the ethic of love. I speak about this idea, which I call Revolutionary Love, around the country, and recently joined a women-led movement called Together, which works to inspire people to take social and political action, starting with casting a vote. But it all began with the stories told around my childhood kitchen table.
In 1913, my grandfather set out by steamship from India in pursuit of the American dream. He arrived in San Francisco wearing a turban and a beard as part of his Sikh faith, having left his home behind in search of a better future. Instead, he was thrown into a detention center by immigration officials who viewed his turban, brown skin, and Punjabi accent as a threat. It was months before a lawyer fought to set him free.
But this is a happy story: My grandfather didn’t give up on the American dream. He learned that it’s up to us to fight for one another and became determined to do that. His next struggle was just getting by, working as a farmer for pennies, sleeping in barns at night. But when his Japanese-American neighbors were rounded up and shipped to internment camps during World War II, he looked after their farms until they returned. That’s what it meant to be an American: to love your neighbors as yourself (even if they look nothing like you). Of course, he was not yet an American in the eyes of the law; he wasn’t granted citizenship until 1965. Three years later, at the age of 75, with a smile beaming from under his long white beard, he proudly cast his first ballot in the 1968 election.
From then on he never missed an election. Even in his 90s, my grandfather would ask my father to escort him to the polling station. Then he’d spend all day in his recliner calling neighbors, his voice booming in broken English: “You alright? You vote? Good!” It was his version of handing out i voted stickers or wearing a rock the vote tee.
In 2000, I voted for the first time. It was my second year as an undergrad at Stanford. This time I was one of the impassioned speakers, championing Al Gore on campus. Standing in line at the polls, looking at people of all colors and beliefs waiting with me, I knew that what my family had told me was right: Voting is a social act. By casting my vote, I was able to stand up for the civil rights of those around me. I felt proud, powerful.
All of that came undone on September 11, 2001. I was 20 years old and at home, in Clovis, California, about to start my junior year. I watched the terrorist attacks on TV and cried as people jumped from the Twin Towers. I had only begun to grieve when a picture of our nation’s new enemy flashed on the screen: a brown man with a turban and beard. He looked like my grandfather and many of the fathers and uncles in my community. Soon hate crimes erupted in cities across America. Sikh and Muslim Americans were chased, beaten, and stabbed. And on September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a family friend I called Uncle Ji, was murdered by a man who called himself a patriot.
Devastated, I holed up in my childhood bedroom for days. I felt grief, multiplied: Both my country and my community were under attack. I looked at my bookshelf, the shelf of a religious studies major filled with the Bible, the Koran, and the Guru Granth Sahib. Instead, I pulled down my copy of Harry Potter. I felt like a child, powerless, so looking back, I suppose I took solace in a story in which young people wielded a kind of magic against the Dementors of their world. I read in my room for hours.
But I couldn’t hide out forever. The Sikh faith inspires a life of fearless action. What would it mean to be brave now? I knew the nation needed to hear my community’s stories. I grabbed my camcorder—which I had bought for a recent trip and barely knew how to use—and with my parents’ blessing I crossed the country, filming hundreds of stories of hate crimes that weren’t making the evening news.
I drove to towns where blood was fresh on the ground and met families that had lost their sense of belonging. Sikhs, many of whom keep their hair long and wear turbans as part of their faith, had become automatically suspect, perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist in the eyes of their neighbors. Still, many of them continued to embrace their faith’s message of Chardi Kala, relentless optimism rooted in love. As people yelled at me to go home, I struggled to understand this optimism. Around me, I saw civil liberties being curtailed, communities racially profiled. I had begun to lose my faith in the America my grandfather always talked about. Until my last interview.
I traveled to India to meet Uncle Ji’s widow, who had been living there while her husband worked in Phoenix, sending money home to his wife. I asked her: “What do you want to tell the people of America?” I was expecting to hear an echo of the fury that was growing within me. But instead, she stopped crying and said: “Tell them thank you. At my husband’s memorial in the States, they showed up in the thousands to mourn his death. Tell them thank you for their love.” I was stunned. I had come to her full of sorrow, and here was this widow, offering me—and the country in which her husband was killed—gratitude. It was love from thousands of people who attended Uncle Ji’s memorial that made her so strong. And it was her love that saved me from despair.
I thought it would take a long time to heal, but everything snapped into focus all at once. I realized that love is revolutionary when we channel it into social action. I decided to become a lawyer and filmmaker, rooting social-justice work in love. With my now-husband, I made my first full-length film, Divided We Fall, a documentary chronicling the stories of Sikh and Muslim Americans overcoming hate in the shadow of 9/11. We organized screenings on campuses across the country, and in 2008, we campaigned for Barack Obama together, going door-to-door in a handful of states. I saw the passion of new voters who, like me, were cautious but hopeful. I also saw something I hadn’t seen before: the excitement of black parents and grandparents taking their families to vote for a man who looked like them, for the first time.
Now my husband and I are parents; our son is almost 2 years old. He is going to grow up in a dangerous world: mass shootings, terrorist attacks, police violence, and escalating hate crimes against minorities. When my son was only 8 weeks old, I bundled him up and took him to his first vigil, for three Muslim college students who were shot in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by a neighbor—and I knew our baby would look like those students one day. Each night, when I put him down in his crib, I worry about whether he will face the same fear and hate my grandfather faced a century ago.
Yet I’ve learned that fear is not an invitation to become embittered but a call to action. One thing gives me hope: When I travel the country, I meet people who know that our different races, genders, orientations, and beliefs make us strong. We are starting to turn our compassion for one another into a vehicle for change—at vigils, at marches, in schools, online, and in the voting booth.
On Election Day, I will vote for a country where an immigrant with a turban can build a new life and where a lawyer has the courage to set him free. I will vote for my husband and son, parents and friends, and millions of Americans I don’t know but choose to love. It’s easy in the face of adversity to throw up our hands and say we don’t count. But our vote empowers us to take action and safeguard the American dream for our neighbors, whether they are immigrants, minorities, women, or anyone else. Our vote is our voice. So here’s my challenge to you: After heading to the polls this Election Day, call up your neighbors and friends and ask them to vote, too—for all of us. Together, we can reclaim the vote as an act of love.