As the climate change crisis threatens the world as we know it, it becomes the new generation’s responsibility to spread awareness and foster action. Large-scale organizations like UNICEF have been handing their social media handles to youth environmental activists. Half a million teen advocates have fought climate change by requesting government grants for their communities. According to the UNEP, 73% of surveyed youth from a global population say they feel the effects of climate change. Young people everywhere are demanding action — with and without access to the voting booth. It is amid this environment that Bay Area students are promoting environmental education through a national collaborative, the Bioma Project. With more than two thousand students and 40 supporting schools, the Bioma Project aims to “change the way young people think about the environment”. To find out more about what that entails, we had a chat with Raghav and Krishna, rising seniors from Monta Vista High School and co-founders of the project’s Cupertino chapter.
What made you decide to start a chapter of the Bioma Project?
Climate change, in the past few years, has become an increasingly prevalent issue in society. And there’s a good reason for it. The average global temperature has been steadily rising for the past 100 years, which in turn has risen sea levels, and increased the frequency of natural disasters like heat waves and flooding. But what’s worse is that the problem doesn’t seem to be going away. It’s worsening. And although there have been and still are a myriad of efforts directed towards raising awareness for climate change and pushing for legitimate change in society, we believed that there was something missing in our local community. There is an abundant amount of attention paid toward various sciences in the Bay Area(CS, Mathematics, etc.), but we were convinced that a larger emphasis on the environment and climate change awareness- specifically directed towards elementary and middle school students – in the Bay Area was something missing in our community. And we saw the Bioma Project as a valiant effort in promoting a positive change in our community. The Bioma Project maintains the belief that people can only care about a certain issue if they have been educated about it, which is why we direct our efforts towards younger students who will be forced to confront climate change in the coming years. Students, who are the generation that will have to face the brunt of climate change, should learn about the current state of our Earth, and what they can do to play a part in mitigating the disastrous effects that are currently scheduled to affect us.
The Bioma Project’s website mentions how “students weren’t given the autonomy to run their own projects and enough field experience.” Could you elaborate on this concern, and how your chapter addresses the issue?
Founded in Maryland by high school student Bill Tong, the program became popular and has been incorporated into forty schools in Maryland and is in the process of getting implemented into 3 classrooms here in the Bay Area. We offer two programs: one consists of placing a fish tank in a classroom and effectively constructing a stream water ecosystem in classrooms to allow students to understand various aspects of an ecosystem and understand more about the environment that surrounds us through a set of lesson plans; the second program consists of a lecture-style program in which teachers are provided an amalgam of presentations on different areas of the environment(such as an introduction to climate change, a presentation on fossil fuels, etc.) and activities that allow students to interactively learn more about our Earth.
What kinds of activities are included in your program?
An example of an activity is a kid-friendly mining lab where students would have to “mine” chocolate chips out of a chocolate chip cookie without making a mess, which is used to simulate safe mining practices. We believe that by gradually introducing elementary and middle school students to fun activities like the one mentioned above induces learning and improves the reception of serious topics. Teachers have the option of choosing either program(or even both!), and we are willing to accommodate and customize lesson plans for teachers who prefer to incorporate the lesson plans differently. In addition, the lessons can be taught at the speed the teacher prefers to teach them at; each lesson plan spans between 15 to 45 minutes and teachers can allocate a fraction of their teaching time for the activities.
How has the coronavirus outbreak impacted your program? Will you continue your efforts virtually?
Although the coronavirus pandemic has prevented us from expanding in the way we had envisioned, the Bioma Project has not stopped putting in an effort to reach a larger audience. We recently recruited few people in the Washington D.C metro area and Dallas, Texas to introduce this program to more students, and we are currently planning to create some form of a virtual continuation of the program in case school does not reopen next school year. In the meantime, we are continuing to email teachers in school districts all around the Bay Area to work out ways in which teachers can utilize the resources we provide to educate their students about the environment.
What advice can you give to other young teenagers who want to change the public’s perception of environmental science?
To any students or parents who are reading this and are interested in this program, we strongly encourage you to ask your teachers if they would be willing to dedicate a little amount of their time to teach their students about the environment and refer them to our website, https://www.biomaproject.org/ or email us at email@example.com. To any teacher interested in this program, we would love for you to visit our website, email us, and discuss how we could help you incorporate this program into your classroom.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton.
“As many mothers know, love is sweet labor — a choice that we have to make over and over again, every single day. What would it look like to extend a fraction of that love, to ourselves, to others who don’t look like us, and even to our opponents?”
– Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur is a mother, lawyer, and progressive activist who is grounded in her culture and religion, much like Gandhi and MLK. She is the author of the upcoming book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, releasing on June 16, 2020. Here I am in conversation with Valarie Kaur, as she comments on loss, love, and the power of forgiveness.
GPJ: A lot of activists are seen as angry, yet you have talked about loving your enemy. How do you do that?
VK: I believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times. I became an activist after the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was a family friend. Since I was 20, for more than 16 years, I have gone from community to community working on a range of social justice issues. I began fighting hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, and other South Asian Americans, and soon realized that our issues were bound up with other communities of color. So I’ve worked with: Latino communities fighting immigration detention; worked with black youth fighting stop and frisk; on prison reform and solitary confinement; marriage equality and trans rights.
My son was born at the end of 2015, and we began to see hate crimes skyrocket, reaching levels just as high as they were in 9/11.
I had a small existential crisis — I thought, I’ve been a lawyer for 15 years — I thought with every campaign, we were making the country safer. My family had been in the country for 100 years and I believed we were making linear progress. I looked at my son and realized that I was raising a brown boy, keeping his hair long in accordance with his Sikh faith, in a country that was even more dangerous than the world that my grandfather lived in. I sat in a torrent of tears. I left my job. I took a period of deep introspection.
After so long, what actually creates change for the communities I serve? It always came down to a critical question: is there love here? Communities that received love in the wake of atrocity were able to respond with love and sustain struggles against institutions of power. I began to think about love as a revolutionary force and began to speak publicly about it.
When the elections happened in 2016, I was flooded with messages from people saying, “now more than ever, we need this message of revolutionary love.” When myspeeches went viral, I felt I had a mandate.
We built the Revolutionary Love Project — the vision of the project is to make love a public ethic in American life, but also globally. I’m really thinking about how social norms take hold in 25-year cycles — what might it look like in education, criminal justice, politics, as well as our homes and schools. Our mission is to produce thought leadership, stories, and tools to equip people to practice love, particularly in the fight for social justice.
Activists are usually stereotyped as being angry, and there’s a reason for that. They traditionally work in the frame of resistance, and while resistance is necessary — it’s important to have a strong line of defense against the policies and executive orders that this administration is issuing — it is insufficient to produce lasting social change. When it’s all about resistance, we as advocates tend to mirror the dysfunctions that we are fighting. We tend to mirror the stress, anxiety, fear, and even hate that we are resisting.
So my call is instead to adopt a frame of revolutionary love. As many mothers know, love is sweet labor — a choice that we have to make over and over again, every single day. What would it look like to extend a fraction of that love, to ourselves, to others who don’t look like us, and even to our opponents? When love is poured in these three directions, it can become revolutionary.
GPJ: We seem to care a lot about people who look like us, but the leap to care about our oppressors seems difficult. How do we love our oppressors?
VK: To me, the ideal in the Sikh faith has always been that the warrior fights, the saint loves — hence, a revolutionary love. I see Guru Nanak’s path as one of revolutionary love. We’ve inherited a history of, not only martyrs, but also soldiers and warriors. What does it mean to adopt that religious imagination of warriors against political injustice in modern times?
The first Sikh woman warrior was Mai Bhago in 1705 — when 40 soldiers abandoned their post, she donned a turban, she took a sword in her hand, mounted a horse, and said, “We will return to the battle and I am the one who will lead you.” She became the one she was waiting for. She’s my inspiration, and I believe we need to become the Mai Bhago of our time.
That’s why I created the Mai Bhago Retreat, to bring together Sikh women justice leaders every year so we can see ourselves and reinterpret our faith in this way. This is fierce religious imagery — sword and shield — but I believe we do not need literal weapons to fight the war before us. We may have needed them years before, but not now with the institutions of democracy we have before us.
My sword is my law degree, my shield is my film camera. I look at my Sikh sisters using their pens, doctors’ scalpels, pocketbooks, as their shields. Nobody goes into battle alone, so it’s important that we come together to fight the good fight together. What does it mean to love your opponents? My core practice is to heal the wound. I have never come across anyone who I have seen as wholly evil.
Every perpetrator of violence or supporter of violence is doing it from their own sense of woundedness, fear, and insecurity. They don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to aim it at us. They are wounded. We point our swords and shields at the cultural-political institutions that allow them to hurt us. I am less interested in unseating this particular president, and more interested in the social and political conditions that led to this presidency. That’s what I’ve battled against — it changes how we fight.
Whenever we focused on putting bad actors behind bars, it never changed very much. But when we focused on transforming institutions of power, or transforming a corrupt police department, or changing federal hate crimes policy, or winning net neutrality, that’s when we began to see systemic change. I believe that loving our opponents simply consists of tending to their wounds. Changing how we see them, from monsters to people who are wounded, opens the possibility of forgiveness, and even possibly reconciliation.
Frank Roque, who murdered Balbir Singh, was about to receive the death penalty when his sentence was commuted to life in prison. On the 15 year anniversary of 9/11, Rana Balbir and I stood at his memorial, and he said, “nothing has changed.” I asked him, who is the person we have not yet tried to love?
The last thing we had heard from Frank Roque was at his trial, when he had said he was going out to shoot some towelheads and their children too. So we called him up and asked him why he agreed to speak to us, and he began to tell us how he was sorry for what happened to our family but was also sorry for the lives of the thousands of people killed in 9/11. He failed to take responsibility, and I began to get angry, but Ranaji kept listening and wondering about the wound in Frank.
He says, “Frank, this is the first time I have heard you say you’re sorry.” And Frank says, “Yes, I’m sorry for what I did to your brother. And when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother and I will hug him.”
Forgiveness is not forgetting, it is freedom from hate. Then we can begin to see and challenge the cultural forces and the institutions of power that allow violence to happen. It took us fifteen years to make that call. If you are still hurting, and you can still feel that rage and pain and loss in your body, the best and most loving thing you can do for your opponent is to tend to your own wound. Forgiveness is really about freedom for yourself, and opening yourself to the possibility of reconciliation.
I don’t believe I will ever reconcile with Donald Trump, but I do believe that thinking about what drives his insecurity and fear, what makes him feel so alienated and lash out against all of us who look different from him, helps me fight him better and helps me to talk to those who support him, to understand why they are fearful, and hold up a vision of a country that includes them too. Loving our opponents is strategic, and savvy. It’s how we are going to build a movement that’s not just about resistance but about transformation.
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is grateful to Kartik Jain for transcribing this unpublished interview with Valarie Kaur. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, Geetika can be found enjoying the great outdoors. She is currently working on a book called “50 Voices From South Asia.”
I walked into the San Francisco Immigration Court for my initial deportation hearing right before Christmas 2011. The courtroom was packed with immigrants mostly from India and Mexico, awaiting their deportation to countries they had left behind years ago. One by one, they stepped up; someone entered a plea for asylum, someone asked for more time, and many others accepted their fate: imminent separation from their family members. When they came to my name on the docket, I took a seat next to my attorney, fully prepared to hear and battle the charges against me.
To the average desi, illegal immigration is a “Hispanic” problem. Indeed, from the rhetoric that swirls around this issue, one gets the sense that every undocumented immigrant has skulked across the Mexican border at night, desperate to milk the American welfare state and steal good old American jobs (an argument whose efficacy seems to be uncorrelated with its inconsistency!) But the undocumented have many stories to tell—of escaping persecution in their homeland, of arriving as employees and staying on past their visa expiry dates because of their ties to this country, of unscrupulous employers and terrible immigration attorneys mishandling their cases. Or, as in my case, arriving as a child and “aging out” before I could petition to change my status. And yes, Indians cross the border from Mexico too. After Latin Americans, Indians are the largest group of immigrants caught at the Southwest border. And we’ve been doing this since the late 1800s—entering the United States without inspection through Mexico and Canada.
The Notice to Appear (NTA) document read, “She entered the country around November 13, 1999 and was authorized to stay till November 10, 1999.”
The Honorable judge smiled. “Well, obviously that is wrong. Would you like to suggest a friendly amendment?”
The government lawyer shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not clear. It says in my files that she entered at or around May 2000. Is that not true?”
The attorney assigned to represent me looked sideways at me with her eyebrow raised. I returned the raised eyebrow and shook my head.
“That’s not true,” she countered.
“In that case, I don’t know what the facts are,” the government attorney declared in apparent frustration.
I don’t blame him. A lot has happened in the past 13 years that his job as a prosecutor would never allow him to consider beyond arrival and departure dates.
From what I can recall, I was around 14 when my father decided to pack our belongings and move us to the San Francisco Bay Area all the way from the islands of Fiji. He said he was running away from years of ethnic violence against Indians in Fiji. The rest of us did not have his sense of urgency but he wanted out and it didn’t matter if anyone else understood. I’ve often wondered about his reasons but no longer think the question holds any relevance.
Cold dreary weather gave me a warm welcome to the United States. We came to live with one of my uncles in Hayward, CA. I was enrolled in a public high school and expected to pick up right where I had left off, as if nothing had changed. My grandmother—a U.S. citizen—filed papers for us and I was told not to worry about immigration matters. My older sister had been studying here on an F-1 student visa and there was no reason to believe that I couldn’t do the same upon graduation from high school, and then eventually adjust my status to a green-card holder.
In hindsight, South Asians would ask me why I wasn’t smart enough to just stay on a student visa. It’s actually illegal to attend a public high school in the United States on an F-1 visa without compensating the school, and I couldn’t afford that. Besides, I was a dependent on my father’s visa and attended high school legally. I ended up graduating near the top of my class with admission to attend several reputable schools but discovered that I was unable to accept any of the offers because the newly formed United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied my application for a student visa.
Apparently, the visa petition filed by my grandmother when I was brought here was evidence of immigrant intent. In order to be an F-1 international student, I had to prove ties to my former country. USCIS emphatically declared in their denial letter that I was unable to prove any ties to Fiji and that the visa petition filed for my parents by my grandmother meant that I intended to live here. The irony in all of this is that had they allowed me to study here in legal status, I would have probably left the country after college. However, because I started to accrue “unlawful presence” due to the visa rejection, leaving the country triggered a senseless 10-year ban. I became someone who could neither live here nor leave here. I became undocumented.
That is how a lot of South Asian immigrants live in America. We make up a significant number of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States but we are also conditioned to stay silent and remain fearful about our status. For a long time, I lived in fear of my life. Afraid to go to hospital when I broke my hand, afraid to talk about the abuse I underwent at home, afraid to ask for help if I was involved in an accident, afraid to tell teachers and friends in college that I was undocumented and needed financial support, afraid to apply for jobs or seek scholarships out of fear that someone would find out and report me to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
My mother constantly told me not to worry about my immigration status. According to her, all I had to do was work hard and go to school, and things would eventually sort themselves out. With the little money she had saved up from cleaning hotel rooms and working a fast-food job, she bought a small cleaning business. She enrolled me in a local community college. The college was more than happy to take me even without the proper immigration paperwork.
I would go to school in the day and work for the cleaning business till the crack of dawn. I didn’t have work authorization. I was paying out of state tuition for school with no access to student loans. I could not drive so I would bike and take public transportation up to six hours daily to get to college. I had no identification besides a passport with a photo that no longer resembled me, so I could not travel. For a long time, I dealt with these barriers by compartmentalizing them and throwing myself into my studies.
I worked hard and somehow graduated from college and graduate school before I was 22.
By then, I had spent my entire adult life looking over my shoulder, waiting for the axe to come down on the life we were leading in this country. Fortunately, my parents finally became eligible for a green card and we went to a lawyer’s office to file for adjustment of status.
Then a new wrinkle appeared.
“What do you mean, she aged out?” my mom asked the lawyer, perplexed.
“She is too old now to qualify for a green card with you. You would need to file for her again separately, after getting your green card. She will have to wait in line again. Alternatively, there’s always the DREAM Act (a piece of proposed legislation that would give certain undocumented youth brought to the United States before the age of 16 a pathway to legal residency).”
“How many more years does she have to wait? She has already waited 8 years for her green card.”
“7-8 more years. There is no way to tell. Maybe she should consider getting married.”
“I keep telling her to find a boy,” my mother said, agreeing with the lawyer.
“She has plenty of time. Just make sure he is a U.S. citizen.”
It hurt. Up to that point in time, I had kept quiet about the fact that I was gay. I’m sure my parents knew but they refused to acknowledge it. Depressed, lonely, and frustrated with living multiple lies, I tried to kill myself on several occasions. When my mother and sister started to look for prospective husbands for me, I decided that the only way to put an end to it was to be as out as possible. The best way to protect myself was to break through the barrier of invisibility. And that was the first step to breaking my chains.
The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is a proposal that was first introduced in the U.S. Senate on August 1, 2001. This bill would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented youth of good moral character who graduated from U.S. high schools or gain a GED, arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment. If they were to complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning, they would obtain temporary residency for a six year period.
The legislation went nowhere for several years and was later tied to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S. 1348) as low-hanging fruit. With the failure of “comprehensive reform” legislation, Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.), the chief proponent of the DREAM Act in the Senate, made its passage a priority for his office.
In October 2007, after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act once yet again, I met other undocumented youth like me on an online portal, who were willing to do more than just sit around in fear and live in the shadows. There was Mohammad Abdollahi, brought here from Iran at the age of three, whose attorney had filed the wrong fee for his dad’s work visa and then failed to appeal the adverse decision, which made the entire family undocumented; Kemi Bello, brought here at the age of six from Nigeria by her mom because her severely handicapped sister could only get medical treatment in this country. I found and created family in these students. Little did I know that the family I was created through email, GChat, Facebook, and phone conversations would evolve into an entire network of fierce and envied immigrant rights activists in just a few short months.
With the little cash I had from doing odd jobs, I bought a web domain—DreamActivist.org—and started working on building a website to act as both a resource and action center for undocumented youth. The Internet allows users to be anonymous, so it was a safe way to gather and share our stories while protecting our identities, meet other undocumented youth in the same state and forge friendships as well as alliances. I traveled to dozens of states, teaching undocumented youth across the country how to use the web and social media to share their stories. Immigrant rights organizations started noticing our growing network and reached out to us to speak at events and conferences across the country. After all, we were building the very base that they purport to fight for and support with their money. Currently, we have more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, 80,000 on Facebook, and over 100,000 members on the mailing list and growing—a network that even multi-million dollar immigration reform campaigns have been unable to match.
With the support of an entire community behind me, I was no longer afraid to take on the system. So when the largest newspaper in the country, USA Today, decided to brand us as “illegal students,” I wasn’t going to allow them to get away with it. The label “illegal” has a way of dehumanizing the person involved, and from there it is a quick step to creating an unknown and amorphous bogey man who is responsible for all the ills befalling citizens. I directed thousands of emails and calls to the newspaper asking them to change their discourse. A retraction was printed within days and the reporter quit her job a little later.
Inspired by the small campaign, Colorlines, a news site focusing on issues of racial justice, launched their “Drop the I-word” campaign, asking media professionals to stop using the word.
Through my work, I found other undocumented South Asian students in various parts of the country. One such student was Taha, who was brought here at the age of two and lived in New Jersey for 16 years. He was being deported back to Bangladesh in less than a week. But due to the shame and stigma of being undocumented, his family wanted no media exposure. We had to launch a behind-the-scenes campaign, urging his Senators to stop his impending deportation and directing a few thousand faxes to the Department of Homeland Security.
Senator Robert Menendez wrote to the Department of Homeland Security on Taha’s behalf, requesting that they defer action on Taha’s deportation because “our nation benefits more by his presence than by his absence.” Indeed, one recent UCLA study estimates that between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion in taxable income would be generated for the economy over a 40-year period by DREAM Act beneficiaries successfully obtaining resident status through the legislation.
A week later, at a June 2009 United We Dream governance convening, I learned that Taha and his family had been granted deferred action—a stay of removal that authorizes a person to live and work in the United States. That amazing realization that we could now stop any deportation holds mostly true to this day.
Since then, immigrant rights organizers and attorneys across the country have banded together to halt deportations in similar cases. Every week, friends, families and organizers gather to fax, email, call, and arrange meetings with officials in the Obama Administration.
Some of this momentum has led to the formation of new organizations with numerous local alliances, such as the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) in Chicago. Undocumented students have started to realize that their growing numbers and visibility actually help their cause. Undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic is the new mantra of the movement.
As part of this movement we attend City Council hearings, organize educational workshops for community members, hold rallies, and lobby legislators to support the DREAM Act.
The more courageous ones partake in civil disobedience actions—from hunger strikes to shutting down streets to occupying Congressional offices to placing themselves in detention to gather evidence of ICE abuses against detainees.
Out in the open, nothing seems to be impossible. We have stopped hundreds of deportations. We have found ways to get undocumented youth employed by creating limited liability companies. We have created Undocuhealth.org to battle the shame, stigma, and stress of being an undocumented youth. And I have embarked in my own form of civil disobedience—placing myself in deportation proceedings while attending law school in the nation’s capital.
Given the current immigration court backlogs in San Francisco and the pending litigation with regards to my case, I probably won’t be scheduled for an individual deportation hearing till 2015. By that time, I should actually be able to get a green card through my mother. Till then, I am “an alien authorized to work” in the United States.
I did pay a heavy price. My mother was hospitalized upon hearing about my impending deportation and she is now suffering from depression. My father does not speak to me because I am openly gay. As a poster child for the DREAM Act, I have a tougher time gaining and keeping employment because people assume that my undocumented status means that I don’t have work authorization or clearance, which is a classic case of job discrimination.
I’m not writing this to garner widespread sympathy or empathy regarding my deportation. I am writing this story to ask everyone to live their lives as honestly and openly as possible because living in the shadows and hiding our problems doesn’t do anything for us as a community. My experience has clearly shown me that finding people in the same situation as me and working together to fight the system has been tremendously successful.
Some would deride my personal journey and battle as a sense of entitlement. Some would extoll the courage and conviction I have displayed in the face of adversity. I’d peg it down spending half my life figuring out how to keep my family together by making a broken immigration system work for us. I sometimes question whether the struggle has been worth it but my dream is to sit on the beaches of Fiji sipping coconut water with a green-card in my wallet.
Prerna Lal is a law student at The George Washington University Law School and the co-founder of DreamActivist.org. She can be reached at Prerna@dreamactivist.org