Report from July Sikh Washington Conference

  Washington D.C. - Young Sikh professionals met in the nation's capital from July 24th to July 26th at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., to engage in a dialogue with representatives from the Government, Congress, and Civil Rights, Interfaith and Community Organizations to explore the meaning of Sikhism in their own lives and in relation to the broader community. Over 120 participants from across America and Canada gathered under the title of Washington Sikh Leadership Conference, sponsored and hosted by The Sikh Council on Religion and Education, providing them the opportunity to network with their peers. The workshops and panel discussions through out the two-day conference were appropriately designed under the theme of the conference, which was "Building Community Through Personal, Professional and Social Transformation".

Various Bush Administration representatives, prominent religious leaders of various communities, and national civil rights leaders were on hand to discuss the role of the individuals and institutions in creating a more harmonious politic body. There were challenging interchanges on the role of religion in society, minority issues, the role of interfaith dialogue and security concerns versus individual rights in light of the tragedy of September 11. This conference was especially important in light of the hate violence and prejudice, which Sikhs had to face since September 11.

In addition, there were interactive workshops exploring Sikh spiritual principles and their application in everyday lives including one's business, political and social ventures. The age group this conference attracted was from 18 -35.

  One National Network
  Tejpal Singh Chawla, an attorney and a Sikh activist in the DC area moderated a session to discuss how various national organizations can collaborate their resources and efforts through partnerships to develop a peaceful society.

Mr. Henderson, the executive director of LCCR praised the efforts of the Sikh community toward these goals and offered practical advice to the attendees on how such progress could be made within the Sikh community and lauded efforts, such as the conference, to organize and mobilize young Sikh professionals.

Panelists, Jennifer Ripley and Derrick Brown of NCCJ spoke out on their efforts to reach out to local schools and grass roots organizations to combat bias and bigotry while promoting tolerance and community. They emphasized the need for Sikh Americans to continue to reach out on the local level, to fight injustice, and to work together with members of different faiths on the immediate local level. J. Ripley of NCCJ said, "As a Sikh of American decent, it was very inspiring to see so many young Sikh professionals interested in participating in this Conference. It is so very hard in this day and age for a young adult to function in the everyday "American" life and at the same time stay in the light of their religion. This conference not only encouraged these young adults to tackle the challenges in the business world, to become better leaders, but how also to take the teachings of the Guru and implement them into those everyday challenges".

Panelist Ben Newbern of the Interfaith Alliance, a national interfaith advocacy group formed to challenge the policies of right-wing Christian Coalition, echoed these comments and advocated for cross-faith participation to combat hate crimes and to work together on progressive politics. He emphasized the Interfaith Alliance's efforts to work closely with the Sikh American community and promised to continue these efforts into the future. Ben Newbern said, "Certainly America is a melting pot - of cultures, ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths - and the horrific events of 9/11 have called great attention to other faiths, including Sikhism. But 9/11 also affords us an exciting opportunity for Sikhs and other people of faith to unite and educate the general American public on Sikhism. The Washington Sikh Leadership Conference does just that - bringing together young leaders in a setting where they can talk about ideas, learn from other groups and organizations, and put those ideas into action."

Lastly, Blaine Workie, a senior attorney at the Office of General Counsel at the Department of Transportation (DOT), spoke of the effectiveness of coalition advocacy when it came to the promulgation of regulations from DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration regarding the rights of Sikh travelers from being racially profiled or harassed at airport security checkpoints. He further explained the current state of law in the field of security screening at the TSA, its policies, and how DOT further intends to prosecute and prevent improper and illegal discrimination against Sikh Americans. Recently the airport and screening has come under the federal administration. Many Sikh Individuals have reported the disrespect shown by the airport security personnel towards the turban and the religious observances of the Sikh travelers.

  Americans of All Faiths Working Together
  SCORE's Community Relations director, Sher Singh moderated a panel of interfaith religious and community leaders to discuss the steps that we must take as Americans of difference faiths for a wholesome and harmonic coexistence.

Washington based religious leaders from the Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Bahai and Muslim communities in a panel emphasized the need for interfaith dialogue and mutual respect to the members of the other faiths especially in light of the tragedy of 9/11. Some of the questions each of the panel members tried to answer were: Who is our neighbor? Who is the 'other'? And how do we emphasize our own religious identity while extending respect to the members of other faiths? The panel members shared personal stories and struggles in their own lives in trying to answer these questions. The panel included Rev. James Redington - Senior Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center, Patricia Lyons - Academic Dean of Theology and Ethics at St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School, Hashim El-Tinay - Sudanese-American Peace Advocate of international acclaim, William Aiken - Public Affairs Director of Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Association, and Dr. Carole Suebert - Representative of the Bahai Universal House of Justice. Sikh youth that traveled from all over the country, eagerly listened to the speakers of this workshop deliver a message filled with the history, significance, and techniques of interfaith dialogue.

Sher Singh, the panel's moderator said in ending " Interfaith dialogue and understanding have been a part of Sikhism since the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Guru Nanak urged people of all faiths to realize their inner true self and not limit their spiritual growth by putting limitations on the aspects of God's revelation."

  Protecting You and Yours
  Amanprit Singh, the director of SCORE's New York Office moderated the session on prosecuting offenders of hate crimes and racial discrimination.

US Department of Justice Community Relations Service Director Sharee Freeman addressed young Sikh professionals and invited them to be in touch with the her department and governmental offices to prevent hate crimes. Sharee Freeman's department is responsible for mediation between the Government and the community. Her department has assisted various Sikh organizations post 9-11. She said "at the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice, we are hard at work helping Federal, State, and local officials across the country to assist Sikh communities and others who have felt most directly the brunt of ignorance, discrimination, and hate. Cultural training sessions, public forums, and mediation facilitated by CRS in partnership with Sikh community leaders has helped to move public attitudes and actions in a positive direction".

Also present was Juan Carlos Benitez, Special Counsel Department of Justice - Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices and Richard T. Thornton, Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation - Criminal Investigative Division. Juan Carlos Benítez was nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate in 2001 to be Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices. As Special Counsel, Mr. Benitez is now the highest-ranking Hispanic presidential appointee at the Department of Justice. He advised the Sikh youth on how it is important that they be involved in assisting the US government in fighting unfair employment practices especially towards the Sikh Community. Mr. Benitez also informed the congregation that there is a "Federal Protections Against National Origin Discriminations" booklet that has been translated to Punjabi and 12 other languages. He urged the community to disseminate this important information to the Sikh community across the country.

Rick Thornton, a senior member from the Civil Rights Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said, "it is vitally important for the FBI to establish and strengthen our relationships with leaders and members of the Sikh community. It is only through the development of these relationships and the corresponding dialogue, we can ensure that the FBI's mission is effectively communicated, and that the concerns of your community are fully understood by the FBI. I think that progress in establishing this dialogue was made at the conference. I was very interested in the concerns expressed by conference participants on matters such as the hate crime victimization of Sikh-Americans, racial profiling and the need for increased cultural sensitivity by law enforcement toward the Sikhs. These are all important and legitimate concerns for members of the Sikh community. The FBI likewise considers these to be important issues and will continue to work with the Sikh community to develop an effective strategy to address these matters of concern". He spoke on how to identify a hate crime and what steps are necessary to ensure that proper steps are taken to prosecute the criminal. Richard urged the Sikh youth to apply for agent positions that are available at the FBI.

  Are You Being Represented
  Nitasha Kaur Sawhney, an attorney and Sikh activist in the LA area moderated the session on religious accommodations and congressional legislation. Richard Foltin, the Legislative Director of the Washington office of the Prestigious American Jewish Committee and the Co Chair of the Workplace Religious Freedom Coalition spoke on the efforts by many religious organizations to lobby the U. S. Congress for the passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act and how it benefits all religious communities including the Sikhs. While speaking on religious accommodation, Richard Foltin added that, "Securing a just society is dependent on religious and ethnic groups working together in coalition." Commenting on the Conference, Mr. Foltin said, " I was afforded an exciting opportunity to observe leaders of the Sikh-American community as they learn how best to make their communal voice heard on the American political scene. As I spoke with conference participants before and after my presentation, I saw that the Sikh community is strongly motivated to become involved as a partner in that cause."

Kayle Becker from Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a prominent and influential Jewish group addressed issues of securing places of worship and community centers, repairing a community that has been subjected to a hate crime, as well as the importance of building bridges to allies in law enforcement and the civil rights community even before an incident occurs. While commenting on the conference, Ms. Becker said, "the Conference was an excellent opportunity to meet the leaders and visionaries from Sikh communities around the country who were excited to make new connections and partnerships, as well as unite against the unique challenges within their own community."

Bob Sakaniwa, Legislative assistant to Congressman Mike Honda, informed the participants about the work his office did for the Sikh community after the tragedy of September 11. Congressman Honda had introduced a resolution condemning the hate crimes against the Sikhs and it also lauded the contributions made by the Sikh-Americans. This resolution was passed unanimously in the both chambers of U. S. Congress. Commenting on the conference, Mr. Sakaniwa said, "It was very exciting to be a part of the Sikh Leadership Conference, one of the first efforts of the Sikh community to begin looking at issues of national concern from the community's perspective. It is important that every group take part in the political process so that their voices are heard by elected officials and other policy makers".

As a participant in the Congressional panel, Mr. Prabhjot Singh Kohli, an engineer, spoke to the conference attendees about his personal difficulties that he had to face as a new immigrant. He said, "Having a turban and beard, as per the tenets of Sikhism denied me the opportunity of a respectable sales job in the pharmaceutical industry in the US, although in India I had been a Zone Sales Manager for a large pharmaceutical company and had a very attractive track record in sales and management. I did not relent and kept on the pursuit in the hope of a good break. At last I got an interview for a job as an Area Manager with Domino's Pizza and was selected as the most suitable candidate. Domino's Pizza, because of their unnecessary dress code asked me to shave off my beard to conform to their grooming standard. I refused on religious grounds but they did not relent. I lodged a complaint against them with the Maryland Human Relations Commission and the rest is history. It took eleven years of struggle in Maryland's Judicial System, but I ultimately prevailed and Domino's were forced to settle out of court and change their grooming standards, which now permits bearded persons to work in Domino. By going through my experience I protected the rights of bearded Sikhs and other communities to seek and get employment in corporate America".

Based on his experiences, he shared his trials and tribulations with the audience. He told them to stand against any discrimination on religious, racial or gender grounds. Speaking about his utmost faith in the judicial system of the United States he added, "While most Americans appreciated me for standing for my rights and condemned Domino's, only a minority told me to pack up and go back to India. All this made me more resolute and strong and ultimately I won. This was not a fight for money, as some had suggested, this was an affirmative action case, where I enforced the law of the land on an errant company".

  Personal and Professional Transformations
  In addition, there were workshops offered on 'Effective Leadership and Team Building' and 'Designing and Building a Business to Last' by Dr. Ratanjit Singh Sondhe, President of U.S. Laboratories and Highest Entrepreneurial Leadership Program and Raymond Somich, President of Spirit Broadcasting Corp. Both are based in Cleveland and offer these workshops to corporations and organizations throughout the world. There was also a live radio broadcast from the conference conducted by Mr. Sondhe and Somich at the beginning in which many participants took part.

Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, Granthi of Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, and Dr. Rajwant Singh offered workshops on spiritual development, titled 'Inner Journey' and 'Balance of Life According to Gurbani'.

  The Keynote Talk
  Dr. Chirinjeev Singh Kathuria, Chairman of the Agatal Inc. and Xstream Inc., was the keynote speaker at the dinner on Saturday at the Rosslyn Hyatt. He shared his experiences of launching a successful business and his continuous struggle to survive in rough economic times. "Most people ask one question: what drives you to create these companies? I think its passion. You have got to have passion with what you are doing. If you don't have passion, you will never get to that end result. And the most important thing is - don't let anyone ever say that you can't do it - just stick to your instincts and passion - and you will see the light at the end of the tunnel. With the present economy I faced the same problems that I did when I was starting my companies 10 years ago. The economy was in a downturn and the two hardest hit sectors were the Internet and telecom. It was more severe to entrepreneurs like me that had the misfortunate of being in both those spaces" said Dr. Kathuria.

Jaspreet Singh, the Director of the Leadership Conference and the Strategic Planner of SCORE said, "Sikhs in America have a great educational task. We need to inform and educate the great American public as to our beliefs in religious tolerance. That way we can eradicate the false impression held by too many, and prevent the kinds of attacks we suffered in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. This conference was to prepare the future Sikh leadership to these challenging tasks. It is heartening to see the future of Sikhism being very secure in America because these young aspiring individuals feel proud of being who they were".

Dr Rajwant Singh, the Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, said, "This conference was historical because it provided the opportunity to many Sikhs to engage in the issues affecting them. It is critically important, especially for young Sikhs, to continue the dialogue with administration representatives and the members of other faiths. This way we can keep the government informed of our concerns and help protect our civil rights, and reach out to other communities of faith and build the coalitions that are essential to advancing our interests. We Sikhs have been in America for over a 100 years and have made positive contributions to American society, so we must not fear for being assertive to defend our rights".

  Founded in 1998, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE)'s mission is to present the Sikh perspective in public forums, interfaith discussions and governmental organizations to promote community understanding and a just society for all.

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