When Valarie Kaur, MTS ’07, visited the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, after a white supremacist shot six people there in August of 2012, she found none of the recriminations and finger-pointing that characterized the politics of gun violence in the United States.
Instead, she joined the community in responding to the hate crime with love, solidarity, and resolve.
"I witnessed courage that astounded me," she says. "The Sikh community gathered to pray for every person who was killed, including the gunman. We launched a year-long campaign grounded in a message of love and optimism that persuaded the U.S. government to change federal hate crime policy—and won."
Valarie Kaur has spent the last 15 years working with communities touched by violence and injustice. She puts storytelling at the center of her work as a lawyer, an organizer, and a filmmaker to inspire action among those who are the targets of hate. In 2013, Kaur's work earned her recognition as one of the Center for American Progress’s 13 progressive faith leaders to watch. This year, it’s earned her a place next to three of her fellow HDS alumni as a Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.
"Harvard Divinity School gave me the theological foundation for my life's work," she says. "I'm deeply honored to receive this award in Rev. Peter Gomes' memory."
Kaur grew up in a farming town called Clovis near Fresno in California's Central Valley, raised on land her Sikh family had farmed for more than a century. She always felt that she belonged in the community until she entered junior high school, and friends and teachers began attempts to convert her to Christianity.
"Some did it through letters, others took me to church," she says. "Still others prayed over me speaking in tongues to banish the devil within me. I often had nightmares of Judgement Day, my whole family left behind in the hellfire."
Desperate to figure out how to respond, Kaur threw herself into the study of philosophy and religion at an early age. As an undergraduate at Stanford, Kaur explored the ways that storytelling and dialogue could bridge divides caused by religion and violence. She was about to travel to India to do an oral history of the partition with Pakistan when the attacks of September 11 occurred. Days later, a gunman shot the Sikh owner of a gas station in Arizona—a hate crime. She asked her religious studies professor, Linda Hess, for guidance. Hess encouraged Kaur to "enter this field of tremendous forces and catch words, images that will be precious to this immediate time."
"I grabbed my camera and began a trip across the U.S. to chronicle stories of hate crimes against Sikhs, Muslim, and other Americans," Kaur said. "I traveled from city to city, sometimes arriving in places where blood was still fresh on the ground. I captured more than 100 hours documenting hate crimes, discrimination, bullying, profiling, and violence."
The work demonstrated to Kaur the ways in which religious extremism and nationalism could divide the world into "us and them" with devastating consequences. She applied to Harvard Divinity School in order to find better ways to make sense of the violence.
"At HDS, I found the theoretical and spiritual foundation for my life as an activist," she says. "Professor Michael Jackson's course ‘The Politics of Storytelling' taught me how stories that enable us to see the world through another person's eyes can cultivate empathy and lead to social action."
While at HDS, Kaur made her first film, Divided We Fall, with director and now husband Sharat Raju. The documentary explored what it means to be American in times of crisis. The film won awards and acclaim, and was screened around the country. She then went on to study at Yale Law School where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project, training law students how to make films as part of advocacy. Since then, Kaur has used storytelling as the lens for all of her work as an activist.
"As a filmmaker, I aim to tell stories on the screen that cultivate empathy and inspire action," she says. "As a lawyer, I tell stories in the form of legal complaints and policy reports in order to make injustices legible in the courtroom and halls of power. And as an organizer, I help take people on a journey from the beginning to end of a social action campaign, making them part of the story."
Since graduating from HDS, Kaur's activism has led her to many different kinds of communities—Sikh, and Muslim, but also African American, Latino, LGBTQI, and others. She works at the sites of mass shootings, supermax prisons, and the impoverished corners of America to inspire people on the underside of society to tell their own stories and to respond to hate with "revolutionary love."
"The Sikh faith teaches us to serve others, not out of obligation but devotion," she says. "In my work as an activist, I have seen this kind of love alive in the world today in people from many different faiths and communities. It is a revolutionary force—a force that changes us even as it changes the world around us. So I have started to speak to audiences around America about revolutionary love as the call of our times."
Kaur says that online tools and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter enable communities to "make our love public like never before." That's why she founded Groundswell Movement, the largest multifaith online organizing network in the U.S. credited for "dynamically strengthening faith-based organizing in the 21st century."
Kaur is now based at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, fighting to keep the Internet a free and open platform. There, she founded Faithful Internet to organize faith leaders and communities to fight for net neutrality. She says that it’s more important than ever that people of faith and moral conscience exercise their voices, especially in an election season where political candidates stoke the fear of the "other" in ways that were previously unthinkable.
"Now like never before everyday people who have access to the Internet have the power to make a public stand for their neighbors and express their solidarity," she says. "There are no bystanders anymore: we are all now participants who have the power to change culture and politics, online, on the street and in the voting booth. The antidote to a climate of fear and hate is our love—revolutionary love."
—by Paul Massari