On August 5th, 2012, my life changed. I was 10 then and am 20 now. 10 years ago, I wrote a letter reflecting on the tragedy. Today, I am fighting every day for the sentiment my 10-year-old self articulated: “We need to stop hurting each other and create a world of peace and tolerance.”
On that day, like every other Sunday, my day began at gurdwara. I went to Punjabi school, took a nap in the car, and was treated to my favorite Red Robin’s chocolate milkshake for the car ride home. While driving, my parents were quiet – disorientingly so.
When we got there, they walked into the house with a seriousness that confused me, holding each other’s hands and mine with resolute strength. Immediately, they took me into their room and put me on their laps. I looked up to see my mom’s watery eyes and my dad’s expression of solemn sadness. They looked fearful in a way I had never seen.
Confused as I was, I sat with my parents and watched the news – staring at the faces of men and women who looked like the aunties and uncles I saw every weekend at gurdwara. Their faces were stroked with storied creases and knowing smiles.
Trying to light up the already tense energy in the room, I exclaimed to my parents “Look at the Sikhs on TV! I’ve never seen anyone who looks like us on TV.” They exchanged looks of defeated sadness, about to begin an explanation, when the image floating on the screen changed.
These aunties and uncles disappeared, in their place was a bald man with a skinny brown mustache – his eyes were staring into mine. I glanced down towards the headline that read “Sikhs Killed in Temple Shooting.”
I was overwhelmed with emotion, trying to grapple with the gravity of what had just happened. Suddenly, I no longer felt safe in the place that I thought was the safest in the world.
As I reflect on the events of Oak Creek, I think about how it was a manifestation of hate in its most evil form. At the same time, what came after was a manifestation of empathy in its most pure form.
People from different walks of life, who prayed to different Gods, and who held vastly different identities, all came together to stand in solidarity. That same empathy existed this past weekend, when communities from all across the country gathered together to commemorate the lives lost and share in the continuing healing process.
August 5, 2012 was the day that called me to action.
As the letter I wrote got published in the Huffington Post, I was invited to the Hill to sit in on a hearing about hate crimes. I sat there in awe of this hallowed seat of power but I noticed that none of the committee members staring back at me looked like me or our community. I yearned for that representation and realized that I would seek to be that one day.
I also came to understand that building collective power is something that takes every one of us. At that moment, I knew my life would be one dedicated to pushing forward the ideals of equity, justice, and empathy at every level of society. From empowering young women of color to take on leadership roles across the country, to mentoring students in writing policy, and promoting public protests, I began my journey in community organizing as a tribute to Oak Creek.
When I look around, I see the progress we have made. I also see the progress yet to be made. With Asian Americans being beaten in the streets of their neighborhoods, gun violence running rampant, rising levels of xenophobia, and structural racial injustice, it is clear that none of our jobs are anywhere close to being done.
Yet, what grounds me is the Sikh value of Chardi Kala which translates to relentless optimism. Chardi Kala is infused in the oxygen that runs through the Oak Creek community.
My knowledge has grown and my capabilities have been bolstered, but still I want the same thing I did younger self did a decade ago … peace, tolerance, and sometimes, the Red Robin’s chocolate milkshake.
As 10-yer-old Tarina so wisely said, “We are the only people who can change this world.” Let us go forth, relentlessly optimistic, and build the world that currently exists in the most beautiful expanses of our imaginations.