When I spoke to Serene Singh, I was inspired by her grace, kindness, and passion. She left me with anecdotes and words which I will carry through my own life, the most inspiring of them being: “it is more critical than ever to have the tools to respond to hate with love.” Serene is a highly accomplished individual, but more than her accomplishments, what is inspiring is the way in which she allows the foundational beliefs from Sikhism to inform her work with women empowerment.
When Singh was young, she and her sister were the only two South Asians at their school in Colorado Springs. Throughout her schooling, she “wanted to stop feeling like an outsider among peers” and was “tired of explaining what a kara and turban were.” Instead of taking her hardships to heart, she has used them to strengthen her faith.
I find her optimism inspiring and in telling her so, she explains to me a vital notion of Sikhism called Chardi Kila or constant bliss. It’s the idea of being in a constant state of gratitude and optimism. Whether it’s her own struggles, the stories of the Serenity Project, and even the narratives of the death row women she works with, Serene emphasizes that no matter what difficulty she’s dealing with, she knows that “you can’t fight darkness with more darkness. There has to be love and light with every form of fight.”
Serene most values the Sikh lesson of being able to appreciate differences and stand up for justice. She carries this through both her professional and personal life, a message we all need to be reminded of in today’s world. Serene uses love and light to fight for the hate and darkness which women have faced for so long.
As a middle schooler, Serene lost one of her dearest friends to suicide. She was young, but it was her first time realizing that resources for women are lacking. Serene tells me that women survivors are the most at risk, yet the most under-resourced demographic. Her experience prompted her to start the Serenity Project, a 501c nonprofit for female trauma survivors. The Serenity Project is one of Singh’s pride and joys, and also the organization which won her the Diana Award — the UK’s most prestigious award for social work. The Serenity Project follows Singh’s philosophy of fighting darkness with light. It aims to give women survivors the confidence and self-love tools to go back into the world and thrive.
Pageantry is another way in which Serene advocates for self-love and women empowerment. Oddly enough, her love and drive for pageantry began with a distaste for it. She assumed like many other people, that pageantry was just girls walking around in gowns for the vanity of it. She felt that gave her “ a right to make fun of pageant girls,” even though her attitude was counter to the Sikh tenet of love and acceptance for all people.
Serene decided to take part in the 2013 Miss Colorado Teen USA Pageant, sure that her preconceptions would be proven right. But when she was selected as a top 10 finalist, she felt she did not deserve it. She believed she didn’t have the type of confidence of the women around her. And yet, the opportunity opened doors for Singh. It helped her realize that society’s “definition of success and worth through solely academic success is crippling for young Indian American women.” As she continued to flourish, she realized that she was not only capable but also had the tools to uplift other women. She gained confidence in herself and used that to show other women that they too are beautiful and are capable of pageantry.
Serene was named a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where she is working towards her Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice. In particular, Serene is focusing on better understanding and highlighting the experiences of women in the justice system.
Singh has used her Sikh values to create the foundation of her work. Everything Serene does is an attempt to empower women and reduce the hate which surrounds our society.
Serene’s elder scholars at Oxford describe her as “1,000 hummingbirds wrapped into one human being.” And though I only spoke with her for thirty minutes over the phone, I believe that there is no better way to describe her presence.
Ayanna Gandhi is a rising senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds.