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