My Top 10 Moments of 2013

Today, families are gathering together around great bonfires in Northern India and around the world to celebrate Lohri, the harvest festival of Punjab. As a girl, I would blink at the growing flames, listen to the pounding of the dhol (drum), and hold my breath as family members stepped forward to announce good news of the last year: The birth of a daughter! A son’s first day at school! A new job! A wedding! We would then jump up and dance around the fire, singing folk songs, throwing popcorn into the flames, and celebrating the news all together. It’s one of my favorite festivals!

And so today, I want to invite you to join me in a virtual Lohri. Here are my top 10 moments of 2013 to shout out! It’s a list of sparkling stories that make me grateful, in no particular order. It’s best to read these with some Indian sweets — gachak, reorree, popcorn popped on hot sand. Or just a piece of chocolate will do. I invite you to write in the comments your own good news to celebrate on this Lohri Day.

1. THE SPIRIT OF CHARDI KALA. Sons and daughters of Oak Creek show us the spirit of resilience. You may remember the mass shooting that rocked Oak Creek, Wisconsin and the Sikh community worldwide in August 2012. On a Sunday morning, a gunman walked into a Sikh gurdwara and opened fire, resulting in the greatest act of violence on a faith community since the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls. But what you may not know is the extraordinary response of the sons and daughters of Oak Creek, who showed us the Sikh spirit of Chardi Kala, everlasting optimism even in suffering, ever-rising high spirits even in darkness. Watch our short film on Oak Creek (which went viral last year) to witness this spirit yourself. For more, you can read about faith in Oak Creek on the Washington Post, the candlelight vigil on CNN, the legacy of Oak Creek on the Huffington Post, as well as these remarks at the vigil. Here’s a reflection on PBS on the one year anniversary.

2. THE CALL TO COURAGE – A new generation listens for the call to courage. Traveling around the country, working with college students from Ohio State to Stanford University to Middle Tennessee, one question rises over and over: is it possible to pursue your calling in an increasingly uncertain world? I had the honor of addressing this question at Stanford University’s graduation, as the first Sikh to deliver Stanford’s Baccalaureate Address. I shared: “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 friends you made here – then there will be only one thing left to do when the whirlwind comes calling: Enter it with your whole heart.” Watch the full address here.

3. THE CELEBRATION OF FAITH – President Obama honors the Sikh faith at the White House, one of many celebrations honoring America’s diversity. In 2013, President Obama and the White House hosted a special gathering to honor the Sikh faith with a celebration of Gurpurab, the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion. It was a sparkling celebration of music, prayer, and remarks by modern-day Sikh warriors, including Nitasha Sawhney and Major Kamaljit Singh Kalsi. In my address, I said: “Here in the people’s house, let this celebration be a resolution to fulfill the promise of Guru Nanak’s vision for us: to live so that we see no stranger, to love God here and now on this earth, through serving others as ourselves.” I was deeply honored to deliver this speech as my family celebrated our Centennial, 100 years since my grandfather sailed by steamship from India to America in 1913 as an early Sikh pioneer. Read the full address honoring the 500+ year journey of a faith community.


4. THE POWER OF OUR VOICES – A groundswell asks the US government to respond to hate with policy change – and wins. Shortly after the tragic mass shooting in Oak Creek, Harpreet Saini who lost his mother in the massacre took his story to the halls of power. In a historic senate hearing, he became the first Sikh in U.S. history to testify before Congress. He asked the government to give his mother at least the dignity of being counted.  Thousands of you stood with Harpreet and asked the government to track hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu, Arab and other Americans. Thanks to the Sikh Coalition and with help from Groundswell and others, we were heard. On August 5, 2013, President Obama announced the policy change. We have a long way to go to build a nation of dignity for all — already we are organizing with the Sikh Coalition to end the ban on Sikhs and other people of faith from serving in the military — but let us pause today to celebrate this important step. It’s a testament to the power of grassroots voices to create concrete change. Read my article for MSNBC on a young man’s historic senate testimony and why the policy change is a civil rights victory.

5. LIGHTING UP THE MOVEMENT – Groundswell connects 100,000 as the largest multifaith online organizing community for social justice. Three years ago, Groundswell started with a circle of friends in New Haven, then found a home at Auburn Seminary — and has now expanded to 100,000 members and growing! Here is the full story. When the Center for American Progress named me in the Top 13 Faith Leaders to Watch, they recognized Groundswell as “dynamically strengthening faith-based organizing in the 21st century.” I believe the core strength of Groundswell likes in our commitment to solidarity. As I wrote for MSNBC in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s historic 2013 decision striking down DOMA, “Millennials who understand that our struggles are tied up with one another are changing the face of movement building. The old way of fighting for separate communities and causes no longer makes sense, especially in a world where multiple identities often intersect in our own bodies.” In this spirit, Groundswell is now equipping thousands of trailblazing faith leaders, activists, and organizers across the country, thanks to the leadership of Isaac Luria, Michelle Reyf, and the rest of the team at Auburn Seminary. Check out our latest campaigns on hate crimes, climate change, marriage equality, gun safety and more – or start your own!



6. A NEW FILM  – Our latest film The Worst of the Worst  goes on tour and fuels movements to challenge solitary confinement in Connecticut and around the country. In a year when 30,000 prisoners in California went on a historic hunger strike to date to protest solitary confinement, our latest film goes on national tour. The Worst of the Worst shows how solitary confinement breaks down spirits – on both sides of the bars. Pete struggles with PTSD after years as a correctional officer. Ros is determined to protect her son incarcerated in a supermax prison. Misael can’t stop hearing the voices he heard in solitary. The documentary is the latest from the Yale Visual Law Project, a program my husband and partner Sharat Raju and I founded at Yale Law School. We produced the film with an amazing student team: Eric Parrie, Ivy Wang, Jane Cooper, Ally Lamb, and Aseem Mehta. Watch the trailer and the spot on MSNBC!

7. BURMA EMERGES A new generation steps up as leaders to shape Burma’s future and combat escalating religious violence against Muslims. After decades of military dictatorship, Burma (Myanmar) opens to the world — one of the most important political, cultural, and economic stories of 2013. As the Buddhist majority country struggles to find its national identity, violence against the Muslim minority has rocked the country. Hundreds have been killed, homes razed, mosques burned to the ground. After recent visits by Secretary Clinton, Desmond Tutu, and Jimmy Carter, the US Embassy Rangoon wanted to bring a faith leader to Burma to teach tools to fight violence. I was honored to be invited on a speaking tour across the country. Under the theme “Building a Groundswell for Peace,” I shared how thousands of you have stood with Sikh and Muslim Americans after tragedies like Oak Creek – and invited the Myanmar people to share their own remarkable stories. Then we rolled up our sleeves and got to work, mapping out concrete organizing solutions. Everywhere I went – Mandalay, Yangon, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Mawlamyine – I witnessed a new generation shaking off decades of oppression to step up as leaders. Watch for Burma in 2014. (October 2013)

Burma Workshop

8. HOW TO MAKE LOVE, NOT BIGOTRYUsing new media, our generation is discovering how to “make love” in response to hate and racism. When my friend Prabhjot Singh was brutally beaten in New York City as people shouted “Get Osama!,” it seemed like another headline about a hate crime. But hours after surgery on his jaw, Prabhjot appeared before media cameras and called for understanding, education, and compassion. “If I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions about me, the Sikh faith,” he said. On MSNBC, I wrote how his response inspired a groundswell of thousands to send messages of support and solidarity online. Prabhjot was then recognized on MSNBC as a “Footsoldier.” A few months later, when Gap’s “Make Love” ad featuring Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia was found vandalized with hate graffiti, the photo went viral on Twitter thanks to people of all different faiths. Gap made the picture its background on social media. Once again, a story of hate turned into a story of solidarity. As I wrote for CNN, “We as individuals can no longer claim helplessness in the face of racism. In the digital era, the power to “make love,” not bigotry, lies in the palm of our hands.” I predict we will only see this power grow in 2014.

9. WOMEN CHOOSE BRAVERYWomen “come out” with stories of battling illness and caring for our bodies, inspiring others to do the same. When Angelie Jolie announced her mastectomy last year, the real story was much bigger than a celebrity’s decision about breast cancer. Her announcement opened a space for many more women to “come out” with courageous stories. For the first time, I shared my own struggle with endometriosis on television and wrote about it for MSNBC: “If we want a world where all women, including women of color, are empowered to make their own healthcare decisions as Jolie did, we must challenge the social, economic and cultural barriers to care—for all diseases.” This includes the unhealthy standard of “having it all,” as I wrote for CNN. Now that the Affordable Care Act has come into effect, I believe we must build the social and cultural support for all women, especially women and girls of color, to seek care and become to “become the heroes of their own stories.” (May 2013)

10. WE DEFINE SUCCESSLean in? Our generation asks: “What are we leaning toward?” Love it or hate it, Sheryl Sandberg’s declaration to “lean in” ignited a national conversation about what success means for women and men in America. Traveling around the country, I hear my generation hungry for success that includes not just money or power, but making a difference in the world. Joining the conversation, I talk about what success means for our generation on television and in my article for MSNBC: “We never wanted to “have it all” for ourselves. We wanted to have enough for everyone. And that is what we’re leaning toward.” In 2013, we saw more communities celebrating their artists and activists. Alongside heroes Grace Lee Bogs and Somaly Mam, I was honored in the Top 8 Asian American Women of Influence and received the American Courage Award from Asian Americans Advancing Justice. I found myself listed alongside brother Prabhjot Singh in the top ten of this dizzying array of artists, activists, and trailblazers in the “Top 50 Coolest Desis.” And when I was named a 2013 Person of the Year by India Abroad, I wasn’t the only activist. Human rights lawyer Amrit Singh whose praises I sung in “Ten Sikh Women You Should Know” was honored too. So today, I’m celebrating that more and more, our communities are broadening what counts as success and valuing their activists and rabble-rousers. May this trend grow stronger in 2014 and inspire more young people to pursue careers of service!

SHOUT OUT: None of these moments would have been possible without a dedicated team! Thank you to Tara Dominic, Jessica Jenkins, Sindhura Kodali, Hilda Mercado, Imran Siddiqi, Deeptej Singh, Ravi Singh, Jonathan Smith, and Karen Terry. And to my family and friends, and of course my superstar husband and partner Sharat Raju, who makes the journey joyful.

Now, it’s your turn! Share what you are celebrating in the comments!