Valarie Kaur: Breathe! Push! The Labor of Revolutionary Love
This keynote talk was given at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.
“Is this the darkness of the tomb – or the darkness of the womb?” asks Valarie Kaur. Although we’ve mounted a powerful resistance to tyranny, injustice and violence during the Trump era, with 2020 in sight, we need more than resistance. We need to birth a new America. The extraordinarily passionate and effective civil rights attorney, faith leader and activist Valarie Kaur shares why she’s convinced that what our times demand is Revolutionary Love. It’s an orientation to life and our movements that harnesses all of the body’s emotions—grief, rage, and joy—and calls us to our highest bravery. We need to reclaim love as a form of sweet labor—fierce, demanding, and life-giving —and draw from the wisdom of the midwife: when in labor, breathe and push!
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.
To learn more about Valarie Kaur, visit her website.
Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.
Introduction by Nina Simons, Bioneers co-founder and Chief Relationship Strategist.
I find our next speaker to be an astonishing woman. I have sought to bring her here for two years, and I am wowed by her for three reasons. The first is that for someone still relatively young, she has just about the most varied and extraordinary activist résumé I’ve ever seen. An attorney who, in her youth, clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and served as a legal observer at Guantanamo Bay, she has worked as both a lawyer and an activist on complex civil rights cases, hate crimes, racial profiling, immigration detention, gun violence, solitary confinement, marriage equality, and Internet freedom. An award-winning scholar and educator with multiple degrees from such schools as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, including in law, international relations, media, and religious studies, she has become one of the most important voices to emerge from the American Sikh community, and a highly influential faith leader on the national stage, including as the founder of the Groundswell movement, which is considered America’s largest multi-faith online organizing network.
A film and media maker with deep expertise in building story-based campaigns to advance human rights movements, she founded the Yale Visual Law Project, where she taught students how to make films for social change, and co-founded Faithful Internet to build the movement for net neutrality. Her many films include Divided We Fall; Stigma, about the impact of police stop-and-frisk policies; Alien Nation, about immigration raids; The Worst of the Worst, about solitary confinement in prison; and Oak Creek: In Memoriam, about an infamous mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Valarie’s personal story helps explain her drive to remedy wrongs. Born and raised in Clovis, California, where her family settled as Sikh farmers in 1913, she is someone with literally deep roots in the American earth, but when a close friend of hers was the first person killed in a hate crime after September 11th, 2001, she began to document hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim Americans, which resulted in her first film, the award-winning Divided We Fall, and helped launch her life of civic engagement.
The second thing that dazzles me about Valarie is that after spending much of her life combatting horrific injustice and intolerance, having been inside supermax prisons, at Guantanamo and at sites of hate crimes and mass shootings, she emerged not as an embittered cynic, but as an apostle of love as the ultimate source of social action. She founded the Revolution Love Project, a national initiative which uses a wide range of communication and mobilization tools to equip and inspire people to practice the ethic of love. I encourage you, if you are as moved by Valarie as I am, go visit RevolutionaryLove.net and sign up, because there’s a book coming.
Valarie had a revelation: to combat racism, nationalism and hate, we cannot succumb to rage ourselves or we have already lost. The greatest social reformers in history grounded entire movements in the ethic of love, and if we reclaim love through a feminist lens, she says, then love can be seen as a sort of birth labor – fierce, bloody, imperfect, but life giving.
The third thing that wows me about Valarie is as a woman I know how hard it is, and as a woman with all that education, to take a stand on behalf of love, which has been trivialized, feminized and sidelined in our—in conversations and strategy movements, strategic movements, for a long time. So the courage that Valarie embodies is incredibly inspiring to me.
Revolutionary Love is the choice to labor for others, for our opponents, for the Earth, and for ourselves. It’s a difficult path to walk in our highly polarized world, teetering on the edge of multiple existential tipping points, but if anyone can teach us how to make love the basis of our action in the world, it will be through the truly extraordinary dignity, eloquence, and strategic savvy of Valarie Kaur. Please join me in welcoming her. [APPLAUSE]
So I want to begin by honoring the ancestors of this land, the Miwok people. And their descendants, and the indigenous elders, and the youth representing 99 different nations here today. I want to invoke your ancestors’ bravery and resilience. I want to imagine them filling up this room right now. In fact, I want to invite each of you to imagine an ancestor whose life makes you brave. Can you think of one? Yes. You can say them out loud. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Oh…I imagine all of these ancestors standing behind each of you. Imagine this room filling with our ancestors. I want to invite you to imagine my grandfather standing behind me, a tall man who wore a turban as part of his Sikh faith. He taught me how to be brave.
More than 100 years ago, he arrived from India to America sailing by steamship in the year 1913. He arrived in a port in San Francisco, not just a few miles away from here. His generation, his generation fought for the right to become citizens to earn equal protection under the law. It was my grandfather’s spirit, his ancestry behind me when I was growing up on the land that he farmed. And so I invite you to imagine him behind me now as I tell you my story, and share with you why I believe Revolutionary Love is the call of our times.
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. I joined a generation of Sikh and Muslim Americans fighting for our communities, fighting hate violence on the street, fighting policies by the state. And soon I realized that our liberation is bound up with one another, and so I found myself working with brown and black communities across the United States, sometimes when the blood was still fresh on the ground. And with every film, with every loss, with every campaign I thought we were making the nation safer for the next generation.
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 carry—they were going to grab a ride on a ferry to—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 the 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 realized that I have been reckoning with the fact that my son is growing up in a nation more dangerous for him, a little boy with long hair, who may someday wear his hair in a turban as part of his faith, more dangerous for him than it was for me, more dangerous even than it was for my grandfather, that a generation of advocacy, that generations of advocacy have not made the nation safer for our children, for my son.
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 and moral—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. [APPLAUSE]
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]
But does it have to be so painful. [LAUGHS] You know, 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.” My grandfather’s prayer “Tati Vao Na Lagi, Par Brahm Sarnai”, “the hot winds cannot touch you. You are brave”. And just then I saw my grandmother standing behind my mother, and her mother behind her, and her mother behind her. A long line of women who had pushed through the fire before me. I took a breath. I pushed. My son was born.
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. You know how we say warrior on or soldier on. Only a subset of men for most of human history have had the experience of going to war, yet we all know what it means to be brave enough to fight the good fight. Right? So too only a subset of women have had the experience of birthing or birthing that way. It is not special. It is very specific. It is distinct. It requires a certain kind of courage to create something new. And so the metaphor of birthing, I began to wonder if it may have something to offer all of us.
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? [APPLAUSE] 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. [APPLAUSE]
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.
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—Will we marshal the vision and the skill and the solidarity to solve this problem together? [CHEERS]
Is this—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. All I know is that the only way we will survive as a people is if we show up, is if we show up to the labor the way that you are showing up right now with your ancestors behind you, because 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. You have at your hands thousands of years of scriptures and stories, and songs, inspiring us to show up to the labor of justice with love. I believe that you are the midwives in this time of great transition, tasked with birthing a new future for all of us. [APPLAUSE]
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—I’m a lawyer. For so long I couldn’t even use the word love. I was afraid that I’d be eaten alive until I finally came to the terms with the truth, that the only way we will survive, the only way that 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]
And so, okay, so this is the offering that I have come to make for all of you today, because if love is labor, then love can be practiced, love can be modeled, love can be taught. So what does it mean to practice love when we are tired, when we grow numb? How do we keep showing up to the labor? I lead something called the Revolutionary Love Project. We produce tools that equip and inspire and mobilize people in the labor for love. And so I’ve come to give you an offering of three practices that have guided us today, three practices that I want to offer you right now. Are you ready? [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Alright.
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 on any—on [INAUDIBLE] thing 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. How can you use your pen, your voice, your art to show up in places you haven’t yet been to fight in solidarity? Each of us has an offering.
And that brings me to the second practice: tend the wound. Now how do we fight even our opponents with love? It’s tempting, 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 being 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.
Now it took 15 years for me to make that call, and so this is what I say to you. You may not be ready to reach out to some of your opponents. In fact, if you are in harm’s way right now, your job is to tend to your own wounds to survive, to endure. Let others do the labor of understanding our opponents. That’s why we are a community, that’s why we are a movement. We all have different roles. [APPLAUSE]
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. The midwife tells us to breathe and then to push. Not to breathe once and then push the rest of the way. No. She says breathe and push and then breathe again. 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? [APPLAUSE]
Loving only ourselves is escapism. Loving only our opponents is self-loathing. Loving only others and forgetting to love our opponents or ourselves, that’s ineffective. 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. We are curating dialogues, hundreds across America. We are hosting convenings, we are building tools and curricula in a book that will come out next year. We are mobilizing the vote.
I ask you to join us. Are you in? [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] [APPLAUSE] So I ask you to go take out your phones. Take out your phones. Go to RevolutionaryLove.net, sign the declaration, be with us, stay with us as we build together, for here’s the truth. 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. “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.” (Sikh prayer) Thank you. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
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