by Valarie Kaur, ’03
On June 15th, 2013, alumna Valarie Kaur, gave the Baccalaureate Address to the Stanford Class of 2013. Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate and interfaith organizer, and this is what she had to say:
President Hennessy, Dean McLennan, professors and staff, family and friends, and the Class of 2013, it is a profound gift for me to return to Stanford to address you. Ten years ago, when I stood in this spot to deliver the student address, I believed what they always tell us on graduation day – that your Stanford education empowers to change the world, that we are the ones we have been waiting for. But what they don’t tell us in college is just how dangerous the journey might be and what that courage might cost.
So I could tell you the story of how I found my passion in a classroom in the Main Quad right over there, or how I snuck a raft onto Lake Lag in the middle of the night, or how I survived SLE [Stanford’s Structured Liberal Education program].
But the story I must tell you today begins in crisis. It was my junior year, and I was crumpled on the floor, watching the Towers fall, grieving at the overwhelming loss of life on Sept. 11, 2001 – then I saw the image of Osama bin Laden in a turban and beard, and I wasn’t prepared for the shock of recognition: America’s new enemy looked like my family. One hundred years ago, my father’s father, Kehar Singh, a turbaned Sikh, sailed by steamship from India to San Francisco, and I grew up on the land that he farmed in California’s Central Valley. My family had lived in America for generations, but immediately after 9/11, hate crimes broke out across America against all the people who looked like us – Sikh, Muslim and Arab Americans were chased, beaten up, gunned down.
A man I knew as an uncle, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was the first to be killed in a hate crime on Sept. 15, 2001. His murder in Arizona barely made the evening news. So what brave thing did I do? I hid in my room for three days. I turned to my bookshelf for comfort: the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an and the Guru Granth Sahib. What sacred book did I pull down? Harry Potter! At least it was a world where kids battled Death Eaters and took risks when no one else would. I stopped reading and looked at the camera on my bed. I began to imagine filming the chaos unfolding outside my window and the world beyond.
I was overcome with doubt. I was only 20, a woman of color, with no film experience. But my grandfather, my mother’s father, urged me to act. Capt. Gurdial Singh was the most fearless person I knew, a soldier on the front lines in World War II, who raised me to believe that the central heart of the Sikh faith was seva, sacred service. He taught me a prayer to protect me: Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. With this prayer on my lips, I wrote to my professor of religion, Linda Hess. She replied: “You’re in a position to enter this unique moment in history … and catch the life of it. It’s like entering the whirlwind.”
So I did. I was a single breath entering the whirlwind.
I left Stanford, grabbed my camera, and crisscrossed the country, capturing hundreds of stories of violence. When I returned to campus my senior year and the battle drums grew louder and louder, I was terrified that the Iraq War would lead to more post-9/11 violence at home. So my friends and I began organizing pockets of protest in the San Francisco Bay Area through the spring of 2003. We called ourselves the Pocket. By the time I graduated, I thought we were actually making a difference.
And yet, the years went by, the wars went on and my classmates came home in coffins. My high school in Clovis, Calif., lost more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other school in the country. There were too many stories for my camera to focus: hate crimes, deportations, detentions, surveillance, profiling and torture. And then, while I was filming an anti-war protest in Lower Manhattan as a legal observer, I found myself becoming part of the story. I was wrongfully arrested, my arm badly twisted by a New York City police officer, and detained for 16 hours in a makeshift detention center called “Guantanamo on the Hudson.”
Staring at the bars, nursing my hand, my grandfather’s prayer came to my lips: Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. I knew that if I was going to be as fearless as he was, I needed to have my own sword and shield. So I decided to go to law school. But my injury never healed after my release. The pain became so bad that I wanted to cut my arm. I couldn’t turn a door knob or use a pen, much less hold my camera. I just bit my lip harder and hid my pain away.
My story could have ended there: another burnt-out idealist who hit the real world and gave up. But it didn’t. It was my friendships at Stanford that saved me. It was the Pocket. It was Dean Tommy Woon who taught me the lesson that changed my life: If we drive ourselves into the ground, cover up our pain and pretend we are perfect, we embody the same dysfunction and neglect we seek to heal in the world. The way we make change is just as important as the change we make. I decided that the only way I wanted to make change was not with anger or fear but with love and joy.
And so, leaning on my friends and teaming up with a young director, Sharat Raju, I finished the film and went to law school, fell in love with said director – then married him. For the last 10 years, we’ve made films and run campaigns using storytelling for social change. Together, we’ve seen the human spirit shine in the deadliest places. In the eyes of children who have survived mass shootings, families torn apart by immigration raids, inmates who have endured years of solitary confinement and even soldiers on the military base in the real Guantanamo, I witnessed the power of faith in the face of death and despair. The journey led me to launch Groundswell at Auburn Seminary, a movement of nearly 100,000 people of faith mobilized in campaigns for social change.
Ten years after my college graduation, I still have enormous questions about the future. I still listen for my calling. I’m still paying back my college loans. But I have learned one thing. You don’t need to be superhuman or super-smart to stand for what you believe in. You just have to keep alive the desire to do good – and refuse to lose faith when it calls.
This is not an easy task. The world can be a brutal place. Whether it’s in the face of gunfire in a school in Newtown or a bomb at the finish line of a marathon, news of rising sea waters or the widening gap between rich and poor, your idealism will be tested over and over again.
Last August, a white supremacist walked into a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wis., and opened fire in the largest hate-based mass shooting in recent history. I was there to see the blood on the ground of the prayer hall and felt the same despair I had felt after 9/11. I thought that perhaps nothing had changed, that my work made no difference. But then my friends rang – it was the Pocket. My friends were already organizing. Using Facebook and Twitter, letters and petitions, thousands of people, a groundswell, were demanding the U.S. government to respond, and it worked. One week ago, the FBI finally agreed to count hate crimes against Sikh Americans and other at-risk communities in order to prevent such crimes in the future.
Something has changed. In the 10 years since I first spoke on this stage, the world has become, in many ways, a harsher, uglier place. Yet in that same decade, it has also become home to a powerful force for good: you.
A few years ago, I watched my grandfather’s body swallowed up by Parkinson’s disease. He still managed to smile at each of us gathered around his deathbed, fearless to the end. I was so angry after he died. He left me without passing on the secret to his fearlessness! The night before his funeral, I recited the prayer he taught me. Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. I realized I didn’t know what it meant – so like a good Stanford student, I googled it. It means: “The hot winds cannot touch me; I am sheltered by the Divine.”
The hot winds cannot touch me.
Class of 2013: Wherever you go, whatever you do after today, whether it’s in public service or academia, at an NGO, on an urban farm or in a corporate office, you will find that courage is dangerous business. You may find yourself broken and bleeding. You may wake in the night with a ghost in your throat. Your arm may be twisted, your heart torn in two.
But the hot winds of the world cannot touch you if you are sheltered by faith. In whatever way it comes alive for you – faith in God or in goodness, faith in knowing that compassion outlasts destruction and death, faith in yourself, faith in one another. Just as when I stood here 10 years ago, I look out in the crowd and see my mother and father, my family who raised me up, my professors and the Pocket. I have finally learned how to have faith in their faith in me.
So, Class of 2013, I leave you with this. If you think of your life as a great journey, filled with splendors and dangers and chances to make the world a better place – and you hold fast to the friends you made here – then there will be only one thing left to do when the whirlwind comes calling:
Enter it with your whole heart.
Thank you and congratulations!
Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader who centers her work around the power of storytelling. She is the founder of Groundswell at Auburn Seminary, a non-profit initiative with 80,000+ members that equips people of faith to mobilize for social change. For the last decade, she has led national campaigns responding to hate crimes, racial profiling, immigration detention, and solitary confinement. Visit her website at http://valariekaur.com/.