Nov 28, 2007

Supporting Sikh Civil Rights Groups: The New Faith-Based Giving?

Between the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), UNITED SIKHS, and I'm sure other, local groups who are planning to hire lawyers too, I think the Sikh community may have more staffed groups that claim to represent their civil rights than any other American community of similar size.   I don't begrudge the community that it needs this support, especially given what's gone down since Sept. 11, but the one-up-manship of the groups is bordering on ridiculous when you get emails from them all in succession, proclaiming that they are the "first", the "largest" or the most important and urging us all to pay attention.  Let's look at mission statements first:

1) SALDEF. Founded in 1996, SALDEF is the largest and oldest Sikh American civil rights and educational organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the civil rights of Sikh Americans through legal aid, advocacy and educational outreach. SALDEF's mission is to create a fostering environment in the United States for future generations of Sikh Americans.

2) The Sikh Coalition. The Sikh Coalition is a community-based organization that works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people. The Coalition serves as a resource on Sikhs and Sikh concerns for governments, organizations and individuals.

3) United Sikhs. UNITED SIKHS is an international non-profit, non-governmental, humanitarian relief, human development and advocacy organization, aimed at empowering those in need, especially disadvantaged and minority communities across the world.

Then, some choice statements that they've made about themselves in recent press releases, which almost speak for themselves:

1) "With a full-time staff of five, the Sikh Coalition is now the most staffed Sikh organization in the history of the United States." Sikh Coalition press release, November 20, 2007.

2) "The Sikh Coalition is the only Sikh organization that employs attorneys full-time. The Coalition currently has three attorneys on staff." [website]

3)"The Sikh Coalition is the first Sikh organization to qualify for and receive an Americorps VISTA volunteer from the federal government." [website]

4) "The Sikh Coalition successfully encouraged the first Sikhs to successfully run for political office in New York City on a non-partisan basis." (hmmm -- this is kind of a risky statement to put out there) [website]

Wow - can't actually find equivalent proclamations from the other groups on their websites, though I know I've seen stuff. As a passing thought, I wonder how much of this is a gendered thing - given that all of the groups are led and predominantly directed by men, unlike most other South Asian groups. Then again, there's similar tension between other groups, so I may just be reaching.

Anyway, beyond the way that there seems to be at least a little shoving going on between these groups, it's interesting to see how many resources are going into this work. More than most ethnic or racial minority-based organizations, there seems to be support from the community for civil rights advocacy for Sikhs. A lot of the funding for these groups comes from donors - which is pretty impressive. But I know I would get confused to see that there are a bunch of groups claiming the same kind of work.

I often speak about how our communities actually have a deep history of philanthropic giving (unlike what the mainstream conventional wisdom about tight-fisted Asians may say), but it's usually within the family or to faith-based organizations. Are all of these groups still enjoying donations from the community because -- at least in this community -- civil rights groups are the new temples/faith-based institutions for specific groups who feel beleaguered by hate/bias/misunderstanding? It's hard to tell from the outside - because I can't think if there any other examples of faith-based identities that give in this way, save for Jewish communities with the ADL and other civil rights orgs that recognized the need for Jewish communities to defend themselves.

While the Indian/Jewish analogies have been getting a lot of play in the media (and this is problematic for a lot of reasons - from the model immigrant stories in the U.S. to the meta narrative about the nuclear power leanings of India and the BJP's desire to create an axis against Islamic States between the U.S., Israel, and India (they want the military aid and to finally be recognized as a world power -- i.e. take us seriously, damn it) -- it's interesting to look at the civil rights/community institutions model of the first successful Jewish communities in the U.S. and whether any of our communities here are modeling that now.

I think an argument can be made that Sikhs are sorta there or getting there. And it's really interesting to see that some of the mission statements claim an interest to represent/help many different groups, beyond just Sikhs. Again, I don't think it's necessarily bad to have "competition" between non-profits, in the interest that the best model eventually wins out, but it can be duplicative, confusing, and unproductive if there is a bigger strategy in mind for any of these groups.

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