Laboring For Justice: See No Stranger
In a world that’s unraveling from climate disruption and gaping inequality, another climate crisis confronts us: the climate of hate and othering. Award-winning scholar and educator Valarie Kaur says to overcome racism and nationalism, we must not succumb to rage and grief. As someone who has spent much of her life challenging horrific injustices and intolerance, Kaur learned the lesson that historical nonviolent change-makers understood: social movements must be grounded in an ethic of love. She founded the Revolutionary Love Project, and has emerged as one of the most important voices of the American Sikh community, and a highly influential faith leader on the national stage.
- Valarie Kaur, born into a family of Sikh farmers who settled in California in 1913, is a seasoned civil rights activist, award-winning filmmaker, lawyer, faith leader, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which seeks to champion love as a public ethic and wellspring for social action.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Monica Lopez and Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
Our theme music is co-written by the Baka Forest People of Cameroon and Baka Beyond, from the album East to West. Find out more at globalmusicexchange.org.
Additional music was made available by:
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: Valerie Kaur was born and raised in Clovis, California, where her family had settled as farmers in 1913 and practiced Sikhism, a religion that originated in India.
When a family friend – a Sikh-American father – was murdered after 9/11, her life changed forever. She began documenting hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim Americans, which resulted in her first film, the award-winning Divided We Fall.
She went on to become a lawyer, filmmaker, innovator and activist in the face of a society increasingly divided by “othering” – by the scapegoating and dehumanizing of marginalized people and communities.
She became a highly influential faith leader in the Sikh community and on the national stage. She emerged as an award-winning scholar and educator, gaining multiple degrees in international relations, media, and religious studies from schools including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.
In the course of her journey, she experienced a revelation that led her
This is “Laboring for Justice: See No Stranger.” I’m Neil Harvey. I’ll be your host. Welcome to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.
VALARIE KAUR: So my story begins in the aftermath of September 11th, in the wake of the horror of those attacks, when hate violence erupted on city streets across the country. Members of my community were killed. The first person killed in a hate crime after 9/11 was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh father who was killed in front of his store in Mesa, Arizona by a man who called himself a patriot. He was a family friend I called “Uncle”. And his murder—I mean, I was going to be an academic. His murder made me an activist.
HOST: After 9/11, Valarie Kaur joined with her community of Sikh and Muslim Americans to respond to the climate of fear and bigotry that branded them as the enemy. She soon realized that her community’s struggle was part of something much larger. She began working with other brown and black communities across the United States, sometimes while the blood was still wet on the ground.
She believed that each film and each new campaign would make the nation safer for the next generation. But then she saw that a dark wind was blowing harder and harder across the increasingly dis-United States.
Valarie Kaur spoke at a Bioneers conference.
VK: Fast forward to present day…White nationalists declare this presidency as their great awakening. Executive orders and policies rain down on us every day so that it becomes difficult to breathe. And hate crimes have skyrocketed once again.
But now, now I am a mother. Just a few weeks ago, my son was coming home with my father and my mother from a summer concert. My son was sitting on my father’s shoulders, on top of the world, and they were going to grab a ride on a ferry—across the marina to come back home. I mean, he was… Ahh, his childhood has been magical. Until they heard it. “Go back to the country you came from.” My father was hard of hearing, so my 4-year-old son had to tell my father what the mean lady said. When they came home, my parents were shaken. “Didn’t anyone say anything?” I asked them. And they said, “No. There were a crowd of people who watched, who saw, but no one said anything.” Just like last time when my father was walking on a beach with a baby carrier, with my son at his side, and someone called him a suicide bomber. There were no bystanders who spoke up then.
And I’ve had to reckon with the fact that there will be moments on the street or in the schoolyard when I will not be able to protect my son. For Sikh and Muslim Americans today are still seen as terrorists. Just as black people in American today are still seen as criminal. Just as brown people are still seen as illegal. Just as indigenous people are still seen as savage. Just as trans trans and queer people are still seen as immoral. Just as Jews are still seen as controlling. Just as women and girls are still seen as property. When they fail to see our bodies as some mother’s child, it becomes easier to ban us, to detain us, to incarcerate us, to concentrate us, to separate us from our families, to sacrifice us for the illusion of security.
HOST: But make no mistake – she says – it’s a long hard road. It’s a labor – a labor of love.
VK: I realize that I am being inaugurated into the pain that black and brown mothers have long known on this soil, that we cannot protect our children from white supremacist violence, we can only make them resilient enough to face it. And to insist until our dying breath that there be no more bystanders. [APPLAUSE]
I realized that the last time my body has been in this much pain was when I was on the birthing table. Some women are nodding. [LAUGHTER] You see, in birthing labor there is a stage that is the most painful stage. It is the final stage in labor. The body expands to 10 centimeters, the contractions come so fast there is barely time to breathe, it feels like dying. It is called transition. [LAUGHTER] I would not have given it this name. [LAUGHTER] During my transition, I remember the first time the midwife said that she could see the baby’s head, but all I could feel was a ring of fire. And I turned to my mother and I said, “I can’t!” My mother had her hand on my forehead. She was whispering in my ear, “You are brave. You are brave.”
You see, the stage called transition, it feels like dying, but it is the stage that precedes the birth of new life. And so birthing as a metaphor has begun to fill my imagination.
And it has filled my mind and formed a question in me, a question that I have been asking every single day the last two years: What if? What if the darkness in our country right now, in the world right now, is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? [APPLAUSE] What if all of our ancestors who pushed through the fire before us, who survived genocide and colonization, slavery and sexual assault, what if they are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear, “You are brave. You are brave.” What if this is our time of great transition? [APPLAUSE]
My sisters, my brothers, my family, I believe that we are convening right here, right now on this soil at a time when our nation and our world are in transition, for as we speak, in this very moment, we are seeing the rise of far rightwing supremacist movements in this nation and around the world, propping up demagogues, mainstreaming nativism, undermining democracies and politicizing the very notion of truth.
And we know that America right now is in the midst of a massive demographic transition, that within 25 years the number of people of color will exceed the number of white people for the first time since colonization. We are at a crossroads. [APPLAUSE] Will we—Will we birth a nation that has never been? A nation that is multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-gendered, multicultural, a nation where power is shared and we strive to protect the dignity of every person.
Or will we continue to descend into a kind of civil war? A power struggle with those who want to return America to a past where a certain class of white people hold cultural, economic, and political dominion.
HOST: Valarie Kaur says the stakes of the choice we make at this crossroads could not be higher. In a world that’s unraveling from climate disruption and gaping inequality – and a global pandemic – another climate crisis confronts us: the climate of hate and othering. She believes her original premise is truer than ever: United we stand, divided we fall.
VK: The stakes become global when we think of climate change. Right? So those same supremacist ideologies that justified colonization, the conquest and rape of black and brown people around the globe, those same supremacist ideologies have given rise to industries that accumulate wealth by pillaging the Earth, poisoning the waters and darkening the skies. Global temperatures are climbing. The seas are rising. The storms are coming. The fires are raging. And our current leadership is doing nothing to stop it. Humanity itself is in transition. Will we marshal the vision and the skill and the solidarity to solve this problem together?
Is this the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb? I hear your cheers and I feel your energy, and I want to say yes. I want to say yes. We will endure. But I don’t know. I don’t know.
This brings me to you. You are the community leaders. You are the peace builders. You are the faith leaders. You are the indigenous healers. I believe that you are the midwives in this time of great transition, tasked with birthing a new future for all of us.
And so I’ve come to ask you how will you show up? How will you let bravery lead you? And how will you show up with love? Because love, the greatest social reformers in history have built and sustained entire non-violent movements to change the world that were rooted, that were grounded in love, love as a wellspring for courage, not love as a rush of feeling, but love as sweet labor, fierce and demanding and imperfect and life-giving, love as a choice that we make over and over again.
I believe the only way we will endure, the only way we will stay pushing into the fire, stay pushing into the fire is through love. Labor requires pain and love. That’s why I believe revolutionary love is the call of our times. [APPLAUSE]
HOST: For Valarie Kaur, revolutionary love is the call of our times, but she knows all too well that it’s easier said than done. As communities and societies, how can we harness our grief and rage and practice love?
When we return, Valarie Kaur shares her own difficult but necessary descent through the underworld of her own trauma in her quest to reach the light – to birth a labor of love.
This is “Laboring for Justice: See No Stranger.” I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.
As Mohandas Gandhi observed, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Valarie Kaur began to see that anger is a candle that burns from both ends. Yet she also knew she couldn’t simply suppress or deny these deeply ancient, instinctual drives of the human psyche.
Could she turn the wound into the gift?
VK: Joy is the gift of love. Grief, grief is the price of love. Anger, anger is the force that protects that which is loved.
Growing up in a Punjabi household, I learned how to suppress my rage. Right? To be good, to be loving meant not to be angry, not to show rage. My mother was very sad for many years, but it was just rage turned inward. And oftentimes it would come out in a flash of rage over things that don’t matter. We know we have rage about things that matter, if we have flashes of a rage over things that don’t matter, like spilt milk, the door left open. And so my mother, watching her on her journey, actually gave me permission to start to explore and unleash the rage inside of me. Because when rage is turned inward, you know that it wreaks havoc on the body.
And so I experience a moment of—just an encounter, like many women of sexual assault when I was a kid, and for many, many years, I had a lot of dysfunctions in my body, in my pelvic floor, and I didn’t know how to solve them. I went to every kind of doctor until I met a mentor who worked with bodies, trauma lodged in the body as much as in the mind, and he helped me imagine that moment when the assault took place, becoming a tiger. I was like, okay, I can imagine becoming a tiger. Sure. It’s like the most ferocious animal I can imagine. It’s like, okay now, it’s about to happen, the boundary’s about to be trespassed, what do you want to do? And I said, “Growl.” He’s like, “Fine. Growl.” [LAUGHTER] So I started growling. He’s like, “Okay, what else do you want to do?” I was like, “I want to roar!” “Okay, roar. What else do you want to do?” “I want to show my fangs.” “Okay, show your fangs. “ “What else do you want to do?” “I want to tear into him!” “Okay, tear into him.” And before I knew it, in my mind, I’m like ripping into this boy’s body, like just tearing, shredding the clothes, and it’s like, “No, but I’ve reached the skin.” “Go deeper.” I am just letting myself experience violent even murderous rage inside of myself. And I was resisting. “No, keep going, let it run its course.” And afterwards, I was like, “Tommy what happened.” He’s like, “Well, where is your assailant?” And I’m the tiger, and I’m sniffing the floor, and there are just bloody clothes on the ground, and I look up, and there he is. But he’s not this monster who has power over me. He’s a frail, wounded kid whose parents were dysfunctional, whose father was an alcoholic who beat his mother. I mean, he himself was so wounded, but he didn’t know how to love. I could see his wound, only after going through my rage, letting it run its course. I could reclaim the fight impulse in my own body.
What Tommy did is he gave me a safe container for my rage- violent vicious rage. And once we have safe containers for our rage, then maybe what’s left over is the kind of outrage that allows us to wonder again about the people who hurt us, that allows us to ask ourselves: What are the cultures and institutions that authorize them to hurt me? Maybe that’s how I fight. I don’t try to tear apart my opponents or unseat bad actors from power, as if that’s enough. Maybe that’s how we fight.
HOST: Valarie Kaur transformed her rage into outrage. Her outrage guided her to deconstruct the culture and institutions that sanction othering, scapegoating, and dehumanization.
Her outrage led her on a quest for healing and reconciliation, and a set of practices to live by. Her journey resonated with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
VK: Revolutionary love is the choice to enter into labor, for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves. The first practice – See no stranger. All the great wisdom traditions of the world carry a vision of oneness, the idea that we are interconnected and interdependent, that we can look upon the face of anyone and say as a spiritual declaration and a biological fact, “You are a part of me I do not yet know.”
Yet brain imaging studies tell us that the mind see the world in terms of us and them. In an instant who we see as one of us determines who we feel empathy and compassion for, who we stand up for in the streets and at the polls. Authoritarians win when the rest of us let them dehumanize entire groups of people. But we can change how we see. We can expand the circle of who we see as one of us. Love begins with a conscious act of wonder, and wonder can be practiced. Drawing close to another person’s stories, listening to their stories turns them into us. And so I ask you whose stories have we not yet heard? Whose stories we hear determine whose grief we will let into our hearts. Who have you not yet grieved with? Because who you grieve with, who you sit with and weep with determines who you organize with and who you will fight for.
HOST: The practice of wonder is the first step. Then, she found, truly hearing someone else’s story and letting their wounds into your heart opens the way to a second practice.
VK: Tend the wound. Now how do we fight even our opponents with love? It’s tempting to see our opponents as evil, but I have learned that there are no such things as monsters in this world, only human beings who are wounded, people whose insecurities or anxieties or greed or blindness cause them to hurt us. Our opponents – the terrorist, the fanatic, the demagogue in office – are people who don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to hurt us, to pull the trigger, or cast the vote, or pass the policy aimed at us. But if some of us begin to listen to even their stories, we begin to hear beneath the slogans and sound bites. We begin to understand how to defeat the cultural norms and institutions that radicalize them. Loving our opponents is not just moral, it is pragmatic. It is strategic. It focuses us not just on removing bad actors, but birthing a new world for all of us.
So the first act in loving one’s opponents is to tend to our own wounds, to find safe containers to work through our own grief and rage so that our pain doesn’t turn into more violence directed outward or inward. Then in our healing, at some point, if and when we are ready, we may be ready to wonder about our opponents.
Now, I know this is hard. It took me 15 years to process my own grief and rage. When I was ready, I reached out to Balbir uncle’s murderer and listened to his story. It was painful, but I learned that forgiveness is not forgetting, forgiveness is freedom from hate. And white supremacists, they carry unresolved grief and rage themselves, radicalized by cultures and institutions that we together can change.
HOST: Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiveness is expanding our circle of concern to encompass Dr. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
VK: This brings me to the third practice: breathe and push. [LAUGHTER] Our social justice leaders – Gandhi, King, Mandela – they tell us a lot about how to love others and our opponents, but not so much about how to love ourselves. This is a feminist intervention. [CHEERS] For too long have women and women of color specifically been told to suppress our rage and grief in the name of love and forgiveness. No more. The movement can no longer happen on our backs or over our dead bodies. In all of our labors, the labor of raising a family, or making a movement, or birthing a new nation, we need people to help us breathe and push into the fires of our bodies and the fires in the world.
And so I ask you, How are you breathing right now? Who are you breathing with? Breathe with the earth and the sea and the sky. Breathe with music and movement and meditation every day. Breathe to summon the ancestors at our backs, for when we breathe we let joy in. These days, even on the darkest days, I come home and my son says, “Dance time, Mommy?” [LAUGHTER] I’m like, “Ohh…” We turn on the music, and I kind of sway like this, but pretty soon the music rises and my son says, “Pick me up, Mommy,” and I throw him in the air, and my little girl, now 11 months old, we twirl her up in the air and suddenly I’m smiling and suddenly I’m laughing, and suddenly joy is rushing through my body. When we breathe we let joy in. And joy, joy reminds us of everything that is good and beautiful and worth fighting for. How are you protecting your joy every day?
Love must be practiced in all three forms to be revolutionary, and revolutionary love can only be practiced in community. And so this is my invitation to you all. The Revolutionary Love Project has built a powerful, formidable community in the last few years, a coalition of artists and activists, educators and faith leaders committed to showing up in our lives and in our movements, in 2020 and beyond, with revolutionary love.
I ask you to join us. Are you in? [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] [APPLAUSE]
Here’s the truth: The labor for justice lasts a lifetime. There is no end to the labor. That’s what I’ve learned. But I’ve learned that if we labor in love – love for others, love for our opponents, and love for ourselves – then we will last. I want to last. Let us last.
For some day, we will be somebody’s ancestors. They will gather here in this room, and if we get this right, they will inherit not our fear but our bravery. [words from her language] Thank you. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
HOST: Valarie Kaur… Laboring for Justice: See No Stranger.