Many Americans are wondering how our nation became so divided. We’re wondering what can be done to ease the racial tension and political polarization that became front and center in our daily lives. Events like those in Charlottesville make it easy to become pessimistic and to question whether or not anything can be done to stop this senseless division.
Sikh Americans in the Valley are no stranger to tragedies that result from the polarization in our communities. The community still hasn’t fully recovered from the hate-fueled murder of Gurcharan Singh Gill in 2016 and the nearly fatal assault of Amrik Singh Bal in 2015.
These tragedies highlight the fact that Sikhism is one of the least understood faiths in the United States. This lack of understanding is heightened by the fact that many Sikhs wear turbans and long beards, which are often mistakenly associated with religious extremism.
Sadly, most Americans do not know that Sikhs wear turbans as a symbol of our commitment to equality and justice for all and that the core values of Sikhism are equality, peace and love. In fact, Sikh and American values are closely aligned.
In the summer, the National Sikh Campaign launched We Are Sikhs Fresno, a local effort modeled after a national campaign to help inform Fresno residents about their Sikh American neighbors and to proactively share our common ideals with our neighbors.
The campaign’s goal was simple. We wanted to end the discrimination, intimidation and harassment Sikhs often face by ending misconceptions and informing our neighbors.
The We Are Sikhs campaign also took an inclusive approach that brings Americans from all walks of life together instead of admonishing people for their lack of knowledge.
The initial phase of the Fresno effort included numerous events that brought community members together, including a July 4 fireworks show, a cultural exchange with more than 400 attendees, an invitation to all Fresno residents to visit a Sikh gurdwara, and the sponsorship of a Fresno Grizzlies game.
Additionally, we aired numerous ads on local television stations that highlighted Sikhs’ commitment to equality and American values.
To measure our success in Fresno, we conducted a poll that gauged residents’ feelings and knowledge about Sikhs before and after our efforts.
The results were tremendous. We now have concrete, measurable data that shows our proactive approach moved the dial in a meaningful way. More importantly, the poll demonstrated that the Valley was able to overcome the tensions and polarization that have plagued most of the country and to progress and unify around our nation’s ideals of diversity and equality.
Specifically, the poll found that prior to the campaign, fewer than half of Fresno residents said they knew something about Sikhs, while now, after the campaign launch, 59 percent say they know something about Sikhism.
Additionally, the data showed that our television ads resonated with Fresno residents. Seventy-eight percent of residents who saw the ads say that they know at least something about Sikhs who live in America; only 40 percent of those who did not see the ads say the same.
Prior to the campaign launch, fewer than half of Fresno residents believed that Sikhs believe in equality and that Sikhs have American values. Now, 67 percent of Fresno residents who saw the ads believe that Sikhs believe in equality, and 60 percent believe Sikhs have American values.
Additionally, the poll showed that We Are Sikhs Fresno helped clear misconceptions surrounding our turbans – a majority of respondents who saw the ads are also more likely to associate a bearded man wearing a turban with Sikhism (57 percent), compared with just 26 percent of respondents who did not see the ads.
Our initial results in Fresno are a beacon of hope for unity in a world in which it seems as if we have nothing in common. Our effort showed that progress can be made if we simply take the time to reach out to others regardless of their outward appearance.
Most encouragingly, it is now clear that there is much more that unites than divides us; the Sikh values of equality, love, and freedom are ideals that all Americans share.
While there is no denying that our community – and our country – face significant issues, I hope that we can look at what we are accomplishing through We Are Sikhs Fresno as a reminder of everything we have in common. There is always hope. If we just reach out to our neighbors and focus on what we have in common, we can defeat hate with love, awareness and understanding.
Bill Singh Nijjer is a former City Council Member from Kerman and a Sikh community organizer. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.