Ibecame aware of Valarie Kaur’s work when she was a student at Stanford. She was a senior writing her the- sis on the experience of Sikhs post 9/11, and she had taken a year out and done the preliminary film work that eventually became incorporated into her film (Divide We Fall).
As director of the pluralism project, we have, over the past
20 years, tried to document and interpret the changing religious landscape in the United States, and especially with this
new Islamic and Hindu and Sikh and Buddhist communities.
This was a time obviously when Sikhs were under a certain
amount of pressure, and Valarie was a young person who had
addressed herself to this as a student. So, we had invited her
to join us that year at the annual meeting of the American
Academy of Religion.
Valarie presented some of her work and a pluralist project
session there. That was sort of the beginning of it.
She went on to finish her undergraduate degree at Stanford, and then came to the Harvard Divinity School as a student.
During that time, she continued to work; she did independent studies with me on her ongoing work on the Sikh
experience after 9/11, and she decided then to turn that into
a film that she would have to go back on the road and do
some more work on.
During the time she was producing the film, Divided We
Fall, the Pluralism Project sponsored several screenings of
that from a much longer form to a more edited form, with
response from many of our colleagues here in the Boston
So, we watched that film emerge, and, of course, it’s become
an enormously important resource for thinking about the
experience of the Sikh community in the US.
The film is very personal. It begins with 9/11 and then has
a bit of a storyline of her own family and her cousin who goes
on the road with her when she decides as a Stanford student
that she needs to find out what’s happening to Sikh communities across the country.
So, we have a bit of that journey of these two Sikh cousins
from one place to another, all the way to New York. And then
we have some very powerful interviews along the way that
give us the insight into what people experienced those days
(post 9/11), and subsequently, the months and years after.
And eventually she is able to go onto Punjab, where she
meets the widow of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned man who
was simply planting flowers around his gas station in Arizona
when he was killed by someone who mistook him for a cousin
of Osama Bin Landen simply because of the turban.
His widow, shattered by all of this, went home to India and
So, it has a kind of circle to it that begins with her own alarm that people in the Sikh community were being harassed
and killed after 9/11. But it’s a film that tells stories in the
voices of the people who experienced them, and that’s a very
important thing to hear.
Storytelling is how we communicate most effectively really.
And to be able to do this on film, a film that aired on television, has an impact that we can scarcely judge.
I think that storytelling, whether through print or through
film, is a very effective form of communication; it’s what educates people about other people far more than theory or history that doesn’t have flesh and blood people in it.
I also worked directly with Valarie; she did a number of
‘Her strength is the vibrancy
with which she’s able to
convey her own experience’
Professor Diana Eck on what makes Valarie Kaur an effective leader.
independent studies with me.
I went on to write letters of recommendation for her interest in going to law school because I think that combination of
legal expertise with real concern for the religious communities of the United States is a very vital one in this phase of our
Her strength really is the vibrancy with which she’s able to
convey her own experience and the experience of her family.
One of the most powerful things about the film (DWF) is
that it begins in California with her own father and grandfather and her extended family in the Central Valley, where
Sikhs had been settled in the US for a very long time — nearly 100 years — it’s a very strong and old Sikh community. She
is able to draw on that strength.
She just has a wonderful communicative vibrancy and sympathy that enables her not only to elicit some of the most
important stories from the Sikh community and some of its
own interlocutors — the women, the men, the mother of
Balbir Singh Sodhi, but also communicates them to a wider
public — to students, to people who know almost nothing
about the Sikhs.
Valarie is really a very effective young Sikh leader. This is
extremely important in the US because, you know, the
stereotype of a Sikh is usually a man, a turbaned man, who
has an Indian accent of some sort, and she is born in
America, a woman, with a very broad education, and yet very
deep religious roots and very strong sense of the importance
of interfaith understanding.
Just days after the Wisconsin gurdwara shootout Valarie Kaur speaks with Kamal
Singh, left, and Harpreet Singh, the sons of Paramjit Kaur, the only woman killed in
the tragedy. Valarie became a leading voice on the airwaves and on the ground to
advocate for the Sikh community, bringing calm and wisdom in the wake of tragedy.
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