ferent faiths through Groundswell at Auburn Seminary.
Valarie, who is in her early 30s, speaks about many people, including Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther
King, who have inspired her. But among her biggest inspirations is someone who did not go to an Ivy League school
or caught on to liberal politics.
It is her paternal grandfather who befriended many
Japanese-American families in California, and traveled
many dozens of miles to see them when they were interned
when Japan and America went to war in the 1940s. She has
also been deeply influenced by her mother’s father who
instilled in her the need to stand for one’s legitimate rights
The following interview was conducted in person, over
the telephone and through e-mail.
What was the most difficult moment of your childhood?
On Judgment Day, a golden staircase spiraled from the
heavens down to the grey sea. Families hurried into boats,
scrambling to get to the stair. I was so close I could almost
touch it, but then where was my family? I turned back
across the bank into the wood, found them in underground
caverns, and urged them to hurry. My grandfather, Papaji,
was missing. By the time I took his hand, the staircase was
gone, and I looked at my family before the world went black.
This is one of many dreams I had as a little girl — hellfire
swallowing up the world with me in it.
By all outward appearances, I had a safe and peaceful
childhood. I was born and raised in Clovis, a small town
near Fresno in the Central Valley of California. My father’s
father, Kehar Singh, sailed by steamship from Punjab to the
Pacific Coast of California exactly 100 years ago. He settled
in Clovis in 1913 and farmed for decades.
My parents raised me with great love on the land that he
had farmed, and I felt a strong sense of rootedness in
I was also raised with a fierce connection to my Punjabi
heritage. My mother’s father, Captain
Gurdial Singh, who we called Papaji
helped my parents raise my brother
Sanjeev and me and connected us to our
Sikh faith. But my world crumbled when
friends and teachers at school divided the
world into ‘saved and unsaved,’ and told
me that I was on the wrong side of the line.
How did a girl who dreamt of hellfire
become the most prominent Sikh interfaith
leader in America?
Papaji helped me find my way. When I
came home crying one day after my best
friend told me I was going to hell and urged
me to convert, my grandfather did not say a
word. He simply handed me books on the
history and philosophy of the Sikh religion.
I began to fall in love with the pluralism
and equality at the heart of the faith: Ik
Onkar. God is One, Humanity is One.
COUR TESY: GROUNDS WELL-MOVEMENT. ORG
Valarie Kaur at a protest in New York City as director, Groundswell, Auburn Seminary. She founded
Groundswell to equip people of faith to lead campaigns of social change. The Center for American
Progress named her one of 13 national faith leaders to watch in 2013.
“Papaji, how do I find Truth?” I would ask.
“Truth is higher than all else,” Papaji quoted scripture.
“But higher than truth is truthful living.”
“But do you see God, Papaji?”
“Yes, my dear, even you can see God. God is everywhere,
God is inside you.”
“And what about good people who don’t believe in God?”
“To be good is to be godly.”
“How am I supposed to be good?” I asked.
“We are saint-soldiers,” Papaji would say solemnly. “We
fight for ourselves, and we fight for others. A Sikh never
How did you begin to walk this path as a young woman?
As I grew older, I realized that the stories of faith, history
and culture passed down to me were nearly absent from my history books at school.
Few people knew the stories of early
Punjabi immigrants settling on the western shore at the turn of the century. Or the
history of the Partition of India, where my
great-uncle was burned alive in the mass
riots that pitted Hindus, Muslims and
Sikhs against one another. Or the tragedy of
the anti-Sikh pogroms that consumed New
Delhi in 1984.
I believed that telling these stories could
deepen understanding and reconciliation
across lines of difference. This is where my
passion for storytelling as a tool for social
In high school, I took college courses on
philosophy and religion at the local university. I loved learning the teachings of the
great faith traditions, especially stories of
Navin Shah (2007)
Dave Kumar, Dino
the Buddha, Jesus, Guru Nanak, Mohammad, Kabir, and
Rumi. I also studied liberation movements in history –
from Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march to Nelson Mandela’s
campaign against apartheid to the Revered Dr Martin
Luther King’s marches from Selma to Montgomery.
Through films, plays, and papers, I spent much of high
school experimenting with telling stories of resistance and
moral courage from Indian and Sikh history to American
My childhood passion — to find meaning in life and ways
to help change the world — drove my majors at Stanford
University, Religious Studies and International Relations,
and led me to graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School
and Yale Law School.
Along the way, I learned how to use multiple tools — filmmaking, lawyering, and interfaith organizing — to advocate
My journey led me to found Groundswell at Auburn
Seminary, where we equip people of faith to lead campaigns for social change.
Today, working at the intersection of politics and religion,
spirituality and social justice, I find meaning in life through
Your father’s father was one of the first Indian pioneers to
settle in America at the turn of the century. Can you tell us
about the legacy your grandparents left you?
My father’s father was born in 1893 in the village of
Chand Nama in Punjab, India. We call him Babaji.
At the age of 17, he left the village to follow his older
Sudha Acharya (2010)
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