Oak Creek: Personal reflections 6 months later

August 5, 2012 will always stand out as a day that shaped my work, my goals, and where I wanted to see my community in the future.  Growing up in a post-9/11 world, I saw community members suffering terrible hate crimes, witnessed my brother and father constantly getting an extra screening at TSA, and experienced a general, alienating message from American society that I was perceived as different. This sense of “otherness”had a major impact on the interests I wanted to pursue moving forward.

Caring so deeply about the Sikh community and backlash we and other Arab American, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian individuals and families experienced after 9/11 propelled me towards a career path where I could advocate and speak on behalf of not only the Sikh community but other minorities in this nation that have been the targets of bias and discrimination.  This drive brought me to South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). For me, this was a great way to finally put all that pain and frustration from 9/11 into actual work on behalf of a shared community.  But less than a month into my work at SAALT, the tragedy in Oak Creek took place.  The motivation and determination that resulted from the frustrations faced after 9/11 became even more solidified.  The continuing issues and needs further highlighted by Oak Creek—hate crimes, discrimination, xenophobic rhetoric in public discourse–lent even more shape to my career path and gave me higher goals of where I would like to see my community 10 years from now.

As a Sikh woman working at SAALT and a volunteer Advocate for The Sikh Coalition, I was very involved with the response efforts to the tragedy on August 5, 2012.  On February 26, 2013 at DC’s SAALT Circle a group of young professionals and leaders in the community came together for a discussion titled “Revisiting Oak Creek: Where Are We Now?”  This dialogue explored many thoughts on how we as a South Asian community responded to the attack; how SAALT, The Sikh Coalition, and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) responded in the wake of the attack, including community crisis support, policy advocacy with key officials and government agencies, and media messaging; and next steps we can all take to prevent another tragedy.  Many participants voiced their pain and initial reaction to the attack.  But one thing that seemed to resonate with everyone in the room was concern.  There was concern on how to prevent this from happening again, concern about the response the government had to the attack, and concern about how, as a community, we are moving forward.  That concern that everyone was feeling in the room last night was the same concern I felt 11 years ago after 9/11 and 6 months ago on August 5th.

This concern is not only felt by the select few who work at these organizations or who came to the SAALT Circle last night, it is felt by everyone who was affected by this horrific tragedy.  However , I believe, the most important thing to do with a concern is to act on it.  My concerns led me to a place where I can advocate and elevate the voices of South Asians.  Everyone can lend a hand in this battle and take action.  We should all voice our concern, but, as a community we are all responsible to act as well. We can all be agents of change whether it is sending a message to your congressman asking that hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs are added to the tracking form, being an effective spokesperson in the media on behalf of your community, or joining hands with our communities as supportive allies.  Post-9/11 discrimination and the Oak Creek tragedy brought our community together in pain and concern.  Let’s make sure we still stay together by voicing and acting on our concerns for each other, across race and ethnicity, across religion, and across all walks of life.

Manpreet Kaur Teji
Program Associate, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
Volunteer Advocate, The Sikh Coalition

Stand Together, Serve Together

Stand Together, Serve Together: Over 3,000 volunteers celebrate service and Gandhi’s challenge at Be The Change events nationwide | PDF

For immediate release:
October 6, 2012

Washington, DC – The spirit of volunteerism and community service should be taken beyond a single day of service – that was the message at the annual Be The Change national day of service hosted by the DC area-based non-profit organization, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), on Saturday, October 6, 2012, in coordination with over 46 campus and city planning teams around the country.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s message, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” over 3,000 volunteers including students, professionals, and retirees contributed their time and energy to service activities around the country, including Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, New Brunswick, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. In addition, college campuses from Hawaii to Oklahoma to New York coordinated Be The Change activities.

“For the past 11 years, Be the Change has encouraged community members, young professionals and students to take an active role to build community through service. With each year, we are increasingly inspired by the growth in numbers and initiative taken by individuals around the country to live the words of Gandhi as they get involved on this day and truly be the change,” said Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of SAALT.

“This was Austin’s third year participating in Be the Change as a core city. It was extremely exciting and gratifying for the Austin BTC coordinating team to watch the day unfold as volunteers from all walks of life stood together in service,” said Sonia Kotecha, the head of BTC Austin’s planning team. “To think that just a small group of us could inspire, motivate and mobilize an entire community to ‘be the change’ was humbling. It reminds me each year how ordinary people can do extraordinary things through serving each other.”

This year’s service activities focused on food and hunger, seniors, children and youth, civic engagement, and the environment. Partners and sponsors also affirmed the values of Be the Change. Partners ranged from South Asian sororities and fraternities to national Asian and Pacific Islander organizations and South Asian professional networks. Be the Change 2012 was supported by National Sponsors Sodexo, Development & Training Services, Inc., North American South Asian Bar Association, and Iota Nu Delta.

“Sodexo is once again thrilled to be a part of the nationwide Be The Change events which align with our corporate values and reflect our Business Resource Groups’ commitment to community engagement,” said Cassandra Chin Muh Loh, Sodexo Senior Training Manager and National Co-Chair of Community Engagement/Cultural Awareness of Sodexo’s Pan Asian Group.

This event was tweeted under #BTC2012. For more information and additional photographs, please contact info@saalt.org or 301-270-1855.

Diverse Organization Hold Press Conference After Senate Hate Crimes Hearing

Diverse Organizations Hold Press Conference After Senate Hate Crimes Hearing | PDF

For Immediate Release:
September 19, 2012

Today, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, chaired by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), will hold a hearing on “Hate Crimes and The Threat Domestic Extremism” in the Hart Senate Office Building Room 216 at 2:30 p.m. Following the hearing today, representatives from civil rights and interfaith organizations will hold a brief press conference. Over 200 community members are expected to attend the hearing, which comes in the wake of the tragic, hate-motivated shootings at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that killed six people. Sadly, since September 11, 2001, South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims have endured profiling, discrimination, and hate violence at unprecedented levels. “As history has proven, the highest levels of government can be very effective in setting a framework to prevent hate crimes and the threats posed by violent extremists,” says Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. “The leadership of our government was crucial to counter the crisis that emerged during the attacks on African American churches in the 1990s. We are at a similar moment in history now and we, as a society, need the government to assist us in moving forward towards a safer America.” Read more about SAALT’s policy asks on our Statement for the Record, submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Please join us for this timely and important hearing, as well as the press conference that follows so that we can begin a dialogue on these issues.

For more information, please contact Nasreen Hosein at nasreen@saalt.org, (301) 270-1855, or Deepa Iyer at deepa@saalt.org, (301) 270-1855. This event will be tweeted from @SAALTweets using #antihate.

Diverse Community Organization Applaud Senate Hearing on Hate Violence Next Week

Diverse Community Organizations Applaud Senate Hearing on Hate Violence Next Week | PDF

For immediate release:
September 13, 2012

(New York, New York) September 12, 2012 – In the wake of the tragic, hate-motivated shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a United States Senate Subcommittee announced that it will hold a hearing on the threat posed by hate and extremist groups in the United States.

The hearing, entitled “Hate Crimes & the Threat of Domestic Extremism,” will be held before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, chaired by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 in Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 226 starting at 2:30 p.m.  Following the briefing, leading civil rights and interfaith organizations that have spent the past decade working on community and policy challenges pertaining to hate crimes, will hold a brief press conference highlighting reactions to the hearing and outlining next steps.

On August 21, a diverse group of more than 150 organizations, led by the Sikh Coalition, requested a Senate hearing on hate crimes and domestic extremism. The immediate response by the Senate to this request indicates the severity of this problem and the importance of political leadership partnering with communities of all faiths and races to identify policy solutions that will make our country safer.

“We commend Senator Durbin’s leadership in calling for this unprecedented hearing,” said Amardeep Singh, Co-founder and Program Director for the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization. “As the tragedy in Oak Creek reminded us, the threat of domestic extremist hate violence is real, ever-present, and growing.  The topic of domestic extremist hate violence certainly needs a Senate platform. We expect that the hearing will bring this problem to light and explore the solutions needed to prevent another Oak Creek from happening.” Reach Mr. Singh at amar@sikhcoalition.org.

“SAALT welcomes next week’s hearing and commends Senator Durbin’s leadership in addressing hate violence and bias against all Americans.  We join our partner organizations in bringing light to the issue of hate violence which is on the rise, and in providing policy solutions that can make our country a safer place,” said Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).  Reach Ms. Iyer at info@saalt.org.

“The Anti-Defamation League welcomes Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on response to hate crimes and the implementation of the Matthew Shepard James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA),” said Michael Lieberman, ADL Washington Counsel. The ADL was the leading organization that fought for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  “The horrible bias-motivated murders of Sikhs in their house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin last month demonstrate, once again, the tragic impact of hate violence – and the critical importance of partnerships between government and community groups to prevent these crimes and respond effectively.” Reach Mr. Lieberman at MLieberman@adl.org.

“No one should live in fear of worshiping freely, expressing affection with one’s partner or spouse, or simply leading their day-to-day lives,” said Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the largest civil and human rights coalition in the United States. “Passing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was a historic step toward ending bias crimes, and this hearing marks an important opportunity to revisit the law’s impact on protecting diverse communities, ensure its full and effective enforcement, and refine our techniques for preventing these crimes from occurring in the first place.” Reach Mr. Henderson at Simpson@civilrights.org.

“The National Urban League commends Sen. Dick Durbin for holding hearings to shine a light on the threat of domestic extremism and hate crimes,” said Marc Morial, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban League.  “Radical, violent rhetoric and behavior in the pursuit of any ideology, political philosophy or social agenda cannot be tolerated in a free and civil society.    Indeed, a hate crime against even one citizen is a threat to all Americans, and we stand in solidarity with SAALT and the Oak Creek Community as they look for answers and a peaceful path forward.” Reach Mr. Morial at pruckersprings@nul.org.

“We join with people from all backgrounds who stand united against hate crimes and domestic extremism. No one should live in fear while going about their daily business, whether it be attending a worship service, holding the hand of the person they love, or simply being who they are. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, especially those of color, understand all too well what it’s like to be targeted for being who they are,” says Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  The Task Force has led national advocacy on gay civil rights issues. “The Senate is doing the right thing by shining a light on the continuing scourge of hate violence. One of America’s greatest assets is its rich diversity, and intimidation and violence against anyone should not be tolerated.” Reach Ms. Carey at rcarey@theTaskForce.org.

“We commend the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights & Human Rights for its timely hearing to examine hate crimes,” said Jose Perez, LatinoJustice Associate General Counsel and Legal Director.  LatinoJustice has led advocacy on behalf of Latino hate crime victims. “We join with our fellow civil rights colleagues and hope the hearing will identify the causes for such extremist behavior, and develop potential solutions to again make the U.S.A. the welcoming haven it has historically been for all immigrants.” Reach Mr. Perez at jperez@latinojustice.org.

“The attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin marked a deeply disturbing escalation of hate violence against Sikh, Muslim, South Asian and Arab Americans,” said Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates, a leading Muslim civil rights organization.  “Hate violence has now reached a crisis point in our nation requiring the attention and leadership of the President and congressional leaders, and we commend Senator Durbin for holding a hearing that sheds light on the hate and discrimination that is fueling the violence against innocent Americans.”  Reach Ms. Khera at Fatima@muslimadvocates.org.

“The tragedy in Oak Creek calls upon us to have a national conversation about how to combat hate in America,” said Valarie Kaur, Director of Groundswell at Auburn Seminary. Ms. Kaur has spent considerable time with victims of the Oak Creek massacre. “As people from many faith traditions – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu and Humanist – we believe that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us   We welcome this congressional hearing as an opportunity to catalyze introspection and action not only in our halls of power but also in our schools, workplaces, houses of worship, and communities. ” Reach Ms. Kaur at vkaur@auburnseminary.org.

“Since the events of 9/11 there has been a fixation on extremism and radicalization in the Muslim American community which has blinded us to real and imminent domestic threats of violence from other groups including white supremacists,” said Linda Sarsour, National Advocacy Director, National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC). “This hearing is an opportunity to look at hate crimes and extremism through a broader lens. We commend Senator Durbin on his leadership once again.” Ms. Sarsour has led the community response to spying by the New York City Police Department on Muslim communities in New York City.  Reach Ms. Sarsour at lsarsour@accesscommunity.org.

“The Japanese American Citizens League commends the Senate Judiciary Committee for holding this vital hearing on hate crimes and domestic extremism. Our organization has always stood steadfast against attacks and violence fueled by hatred and looks forward to the public discussion on strong measures that the government, community stakeholders, and the public can take to end bigotry in this country,” said Priscilla Ouchida, National Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League.

The Sikh Coalition has set up an RSVP link for people to indicate whether they can attend the hearing.

Sikh Coalition Contact:

Amardeep Singh, amar@sikhcoalition.org, 212-655-3095 x83
Rajdeep Singh, rajdeep@sikhcoaliton.org, (202) 747-4944
South Asian Americans Leading Together Contact:
Deepa Iyer, deepa@saalt.org, (301) 270-1855

Rights Groups Continue to Call for Dismantling of NSEERS and Criticize Department of Homeland Security’s Refusal to Repudiate This Discriminatory Program and Provide Relief to Those Unjustly Profiled

Rights Groups Continue to Call for Dismantling of NSEERS and Criticize Department of Homeland Security’s Refusal to Repudiate This Discriminatory Program and Provide Relief to Those Unjustly Profiled | PDF

For immediate release:
May 7, 2012

Washington, D.C. – South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) joins the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), Rights Working Group, and The Sikh Coalition in expressing serious disappointment regarding the Obama administration’s announcement last month that it will not fully terminate the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which, in the aftermath of September 11th, required certain nonimmigrant men from predominantly Muslim nations to register with the federal government. In addition, the administration has indicated that it will not provide redress to all people impacted by the discriminatory program.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a memorandum about individuals impacted by the notorious NSEERS program. NSEERS was a counterproductive response to September 11th requiring certain non-immigrants to register at ports of entry and local immigration offices. Those required to register were from predominantly Arab, South Asian, or Muslim countries. The specifics of NSEERS revealed it to be a clear example of discriminatory and arbitrary profiling. The Obama administration has itself found that NSEERS “does not provide any increase in security.” DHS’ own Office of Inspector General has called for the full termination of NSEERS. In April 2011, DHS modified the program by “delisting” the countries whose nationals were subject to registration requirements, yet individuals still face harsh immigration consequences resulting from the program, including deportation and denial of immigration benefits for which they are otherwise eligible.

The administration’s most recent announcement on NSEERS did not fully terminate and dismantle the program. Instead, DHS offers limited relief to some individuals negatively impacted by this discriminatory program. Favorable consideration is limited to narrow circumstances, such as individuals who could not comply with the program because they received inaccurate information from the government or those who were hospitalized. The memorandum does not address relief for the many individuals who complied with the program but were found to lack immigration status nor those who were deported through secret proceedings that took place without due process of law.

“While the initial measures outlined in this policy could potentially benefit a subset of individuals affected by NSEERS, it does not go nearly far enough. Despite the advocacy community’s years of engagement with DHS on NSEERS, the new announcement reveals the administration’s failure to grasp the widespread fear this program caused in South Asian, Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in America and how NSEERS has torn families apart,” stated Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).

“The recent issuance of the NSEERS memo by DHS misses the mark and fails to provide redress to all individuals who have been harmed by NSEERS,” stated Margaret Huang, Executive Director of Rights Working Group. “Further, the announcement leaves the program intact and states that information obtained through the discriminatory NSEERS program can continue to be used against individuals. The administration, yet again, has failed to address unconstitutional profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity and national origin,” continued Huang.

The memorandum does not directly grant relief or benefits to individuals impacted by NSEERS but rather asks DHS agencies to develop guidance to implement the memorandum. The groups call on DHS to engage with advocacy organizations in developing this guidance to ensure that it grants meaningful relief. The groups also urge DHS to dismantle NSEERS completely and discontinue using information obtained through the program.

Statement About Oak Creek Tragedy from South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)

Statement about Oak Creek tragedy from South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) | PDF

For immediate release:
August 5, 2012

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) is deeply saddened by the tragedy that occurred today at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. SAALT condemns the shooting that occurred Sunday morning that has left, according to news reports, 6 people and the gunman dead, at least 3 others in critical condition, and many others injured. We extend our deepest sympathy to the victims, who included priests, congregants, and law enforcement personnel, and their loved ones.

Details regarding the motivation of the perpetrator are currently unknown. Law enforcement, including local police and the FBI, is investigating the incident as an act of domestic terrorism.

While the facts are still emerging, this event serves as a tragic reminder of violence in the form of hate crimes that Sikhs and many members of the South Asian community have frequently endured since September 11th, 2001.

SAALT is in touch with the White House and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as with Sikh organizations and community groups within and outside the South Asian community. We will continue to monitor this situation and send out alerts. Please contact us at info@saalt.org to provide or obtain information.

Resources and Information

  • For a list of media spokespersons, please contact SAALT at info@saalt.org, or (301) 270-1855.
  • See: Statement by the President on the Shooting in Wisconsin
  • See: Statements from Sikh American organizations that are part of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations

Sikh Coalition          
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund 

  • Resources on community safety at places of worship:

Community safety resources from the Anti-Defamation League
Muslim Community Safety Kit from Council on American-Islamic Relations

Everything is Bigger in Texas: Sonia Kotecha

SAALT Executive Director, Deepa Iyer, traveled to Austin, Texas in January to engage with the local Asian American community. She participated in events such as a Brown Bag discussion at the University of Texas at Austin, a Republic Day event sponsored by the Indian American Coalition of Texas, and a community roundtable discussion.

Below is a blog post by Sonia Kotecha, SAALT member and Austin-based community leader, reflecting on the community roundtable.

We like to say everything is bigger in Texas including the growing Asian American population. In Austin, the capital of Texas, the Asian American community makes up around 6% of the general population with South Asians making up one the largest Asian subgroups. City of Austin demographer, Ryan Robinson, predicts that by 2015, the Asian population in Austin will surpass the African American population becoming the second largest minority group after Hispanics. In the spring of 2013, the City of Austin will open the first ever Asian American Resource Center. As our community grows and diversifies so does our need to mobilize, unite and build solidarity. So last weekend we called upon SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) to facilitate an initial conversation through a community roundtable on how best to utilize our existing resources and the resources of SAALT to elevate our voices and empower us to more effectively engage in our local community.

Although many of us in the community see each other on a regular basis and collaborate on programming from time to time, the roundtable was an opportunity for us to step back and reflect on the strengths and needs of our community. It was helpful to have SAALT’s Executive Director, Deepa Iyer, serve as our facilitator – as an outsider looking in. Over 25 people representing various segments and sectors of the Austin community attended the roundtable.

Through the process of identifying our community assets, issues and gaps, I was impressed at how far advanced we were in having established networks and an infrastructure of strong cultural, social and political organizations. The list of community assets in the room far exceeded the list of issues and gaps that were addressed. Needless to say, we all agreed that there are many in our community who are disenfranchised and their voices often go unheard.

We identified several opportunities to improve our outreach and engage those we defined as ‘invisible’ segments of our Asian community (i.e. seniors, refugees, low-income gas station/convenient store clerks). Several strategies included conducting a workshop using existing SAALT material on “Knowing Your Rights & Responsibilities” for new immigrants and refugees in places of worship, hosting “Asian Community 101” information sessions for city/county government agencies including law enforcement, and developing a political leadership education program to encourage more civic participation of Asian Americans in city/county government.

The ideas that came out of our roundtable were concrete and attainable. SAALT has the resources and training materials and the individuals and organizations represented at the roundtable have the connections and capacity to execute. It is my hope that we continue to build on the synergy from the roundtable and continue to meet quarterly. My biggest take away from the event was pride in Austin’s Asian American community. Given our existing foundation, we can only go bigger – Texas size – in our pursuit to cultivate a more inclusive and just society.