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