Empowering Sikh youth to reimagine and improve their communities
Growing up as a Punjabi Sikh in the Central Valley, Naindeep Singh lacked opportunities to engage with his peers and the broader Sikh community about issues that were important to him. So, in 2000, he became a founding member of Jakara Movement, a youth leadership development organization focused on the Punjabi Sikh population and anchored in California’s Central Valley. Led by volunteers for its first 10 years, the organization educates Sikh youth about their heritage, explores challenges facing them like gender equality and caste, and prepares them to be leaders in their communities. Now with 70 registered high school clubs and 25 college chapters spanning 15 California counties, Jakara Movement has a paid staff of 41, including Singh who has served as Executive Director since 2009. Representing roughly 400,000 to 500,000 Californians, Jakara Movement has accomplished several goals, including expanding language access to voting materials, contributing to high vaccination rates among underserved communities, and securing protections for renters and agricultural workers. Jakara Movement has also helped build confidence, leadership skills, and civic engagement among thousands of youth participants, many of whom have encountered bigotry and harassment.
Jakara Movement was meant to be a central place where the Sikh community could always turn and make sure that we no longer had to be silent.
— Naindeep Singh
- Roughly half of the nation’s 800,000 Sikhs reside in California — concentrated in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys — and the majority are Punjabi Sikh. The U.S. Census Bureau did not collect data about Sikhs until 2020, creating a barrier to equitable representation and services.
- Punjabi is the third most spoken language in the Central Valley and tenth in the state, yet in-language materials are rarely available for this population.
- Some Sikhs — particularly young men wearing turbans — are targeted with racially motivated violence and bullying, including harassment about perceived connections to terrorism. In 2014 the Sikh Coalition found that 67 percent of Sikh students surveyed in Fresno reported being bullied and 21 percent were bullied or harassed at least once a week.
- In addition to building self-esteem and training youth in leadership skills, Jakara Movement mobilizes youth members and their parents as volunteers and paid contractors to engage in advocacy and civic engagement campaigns and connect community members to vital resources.
- Regularly monitoring community needs through conversations with members, Jakara Movement surfaces community challenges and then employs youth participants to address them. For example, Jakara Movement recently launched culture and age-specific programs supporting Sikh adults and youth dealing with substance abuse issues.
- Representing a relatively small population, Jakara Movement cultivates strong multi-ethnic coalitions, and helps guide them to achieve notable scale, particularly for the Central Valley.
- In 2020, the Census Bureau collected data on the Sikh community for the first time as a “write-in” ethnicity. Under Singh’s leadership, Jakara Movement led an extensive effort to boost Sikh Census participation, raising awareness about the potential benefits to Sikh communities and training Sikhs in how to designate their ethnicity. Through door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, and the nation’s only Punjabi language Census hotline, Jakara Movement reached more than 550,000 Californians with its Census outreach.
- Based largely on advocacy work driven by Jakara Movement, former California Secretary of State Alex Padilla changed the state’s method for classifying the language preferences of many California residents. The change revealed more Punjabi speakers than previously recognized and resulted in Padilla mandating in 2018 that voters in precincts where more than 3 percent of voters speak Punjabi may request a facsimile ballot in Punjabi. The change also resulted the Secretary of State requiring similar provisions for five other languages.
- In 2021, Jakara Movement led a multi-ethnic community coalition to promote COVID vaccines, helping vaccinate 16,000 Central Valley residents, including 4,800 served at Sikh community events and gurdwaras. Though the capacity Fresno County’s health systems ranks near the bottom of California counties, the county ranked surprisingly high for vaccine distribution (32nd of 58 counties). County health officials credit Jakara Movement with strong coalition-building, effective partnerships with state agencies, and strategic data analysis that identified opportunities to local vaccination clinics.
- In the near future, Singh aspires to expand Jakara Movement’s model throughout California and then potentially into western states such as Arizona, Nevada, and Washington.
- Jakara Movement is expanding its affordable housing advocacy efforts and plans to establish some of the first community land trusts in the Central Valley.
- Under Singh’s leadership, Jakara Movement endeavors to be a driving force behind young Sikh Californians becoming involved in local education and government boards and commissions.
Video by Talking Eyes Media
The written profile and video reflect the work of the leader(s) the year they received a Leadership Award. Please contact the leader(s) for current information.