Pardeep Kaleka-Singh: the role of healing in activism
By David McGraw
Pardeep Singh is a therapist, activist, and a former police officer and teacher. He works to eliminate hate in our community by fostering healing and understanding. Pardeep’s parents came to the U.S. from India, but he was born and raised in Milwaukee. He lost his father in the Sikh shooting temple in 2012 and has since dedicated his life to fostering healing in our community in a variety of ways. In 2012, Pardeep founded an organization called Serve 2 Unite that engages young people in service learning, art, and global engagement to build positive school environments and communal identity addressing conflict and radicalization. As a therapist, he focuses on holistic, trauma-informed treatment.
David: Can you introduce yourself?
PardeeP: I am a first generation immigrant. I was raised in Milwaukee. I love Milwaukee. I have seen Milwaukee from the times that it was in its golden period to what Milwaukee is now. I’ve seen the ups and downs in Milwaukee. I’m very invested in this city. I believe in this city. I believe in the youth in this city. I believe in the community, so that’s important for me to give back and make a home here.
D: I’m guessing you made some big moves in Milwaukee, right?
P: I’ve made some big moves in the past couple years, but where I came from, I think a lot of people who make big moves come from humble beginnings, and that was the case for me. I remember my mom working nearby and was just scraping by. She made $5 an hour. So coming from that to where we are now, it really instilled a sense of appreciation in me.
D: So what was your biggest move?
P: I would say my biggest move was obviously my awakening, and the understanding coming from the shooting that I needed to do more than I was doing. Before the shooting happened, I was a police officer in the city for a long time. Then I was an educator in the city for a long time. The shooting basically woke us up as a community saying that we can’t just sit back and let things happen, because they’re not going to happen unless we take action. So a lot of the big moves that we made, a lot of it was driven by a reaction to do something.
D: Can you tell me your views about this shooting that happened?
P: Sure, sure. The shooting was on August 5, 2012. A white supremacist by the name of Wade Michael Page came into the Sikh temple of Wisconsin on a sunny summer Sunday morning and shot and killed six people. One of those people happened to be my father, who was the temple president. At that time, in 2012, that particular incident was one of the worst race-based hate crimes that had happened in this country for 50 years, since four little girls endured the impact of a bomb intended for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also coming out of a church on a similar Sunday morning.
Just drawing those parallels of then and now and understanding the respect that we’re paying to the housing acts and the civil rights leaders such as Fr. Groppi and Vel Phillips and the Commandos who marched and protected when people felt like they didn’t have any protection at all gave us the inspiration to say, ‘We also have to transcend. We can’t let the initial action be the memorable action. We have to respond, and honestly we have a choice. We can respond by just saying something bad happened to us, or we can respond by saying, so what are we going to do about it.’ And I think that’s where we are right now as a society. Fifty years before until now, I think 2017 and where we are politically with Donald Trump and the recent election is just a continuation of where we started, and we have a lot of work to do.
D: How do you think social justice issues have changed in Milwaukee over the past 50 years?
P: We understand that in Milwaukee, because those open housing laws were passed, there wasn’t a lot of change. We still are a hyper-segregated city. We still suffer from a lot of those same ills that we suffered in those times. The illusion of progress was there, but now with Trump in office, it gives us the opportunity, and I say that in all genuineness, it gives us the opportunity to really address some of the underlying causes and some of the underlying mindsets to why we have a hyper-segregated city, why we still continue to have the problems that we had back then, in 2017. I hope he stays in office for a long enough time for us to look at the ignorant mindset that exists.
D: What motivates you to become who you are today?
P: My experience with people. What motivates me all the time is just the experience that I have. For us, coming back to Sikhism, we believe that there’s no explaining God, there’s only experiencing God. We believe that there’s this omnipresent spirit that exists in everybody. So essentially everybody has a soul, and to me, it’s important for me to understand that soul, and in a way I think I’ve always understood that soul that people have.
D: What are the roles that you’ve played in this city?
P: Growing up in this city, I played the role of a first generation immigrant who was trying to find and navigate his way around here. Coming from a country where you don’t speak the language, when you look completely different, when you have your parents both working and you’re an older brother, your role at about seven years old is only to look out for your brother, to step in where your parents can’t because they’re working. When you get a little bit older, you start to discover who you are, not in relationship with somebody else, but you play the role of a student in the city. Now, years later, I see my role as much more of a healer.