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Sikh-Americans and Civil Rights

Les Jin, Senior Counselor to the Assistant Attorney General, describes a visit to the Silver Spring Sikh Gurdwara as part of the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders outreach as part of an event co-sponsored by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

On May 5, 2010, Les Jin visited the Silver Spring Sikh Gurdwara as part of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders outreach to the community during AAPI Heritage Month. The event was co-sponsored by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and the Silver Spring Gurdwara, and approximately 60 to 75 people attended. Following his visit, Mr. Jin gave the following feedback:

In advance of meeting with members of the Gurdwara, I spoke at length with leaders of SALDEF and several leaders of the Gurdwara. We spoke about issues of interest to both groups, which in many respects overlapped. I then participated in a portion of the Gurdwara's evening services and program and spoke to the members as a group. Afterwards, I met with and spoke to some of them individually. I spent about three hours total with part or all of the groups.

The conversations I had were very educational. I did not have a very strong knowledge of the Sikh community before my visit. I learned a lot about the issues of concern to the Sikh community, the work of SALDEF, and the history, beliefs, and practices of the Sikh religion. I observed the religious practices and a couple of my hosts explained to me many of the practices as they were being performed. I learned how the Gurdwara plays an integral part not only from a religious perspective but how it serves an important role in the social and service fabric of the community. I was very impressed by the number of young people who were present and truly enjoying the activities. Everyone I met was incredibly hospitable.

At various junctures, I spoke to them about the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and various projects DOJ's Civil Rights Division was working on that I thought would be of interest to them. Regarding the Initiative, I spoke about President Obama signing the Executive Order last October, its purposes and the importance of community participation. I noted that SALDEF was an integral part of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and that NCAPA was a strong proponent of the Initiative and that it had already demonstrated that it would be advocating for its strong implementation. I told the group that in addition to SALDEF being a potential vehicle for transmitting their individual views on how to make the Initiative stronger and more effectively implemented, the Initiative's website provided a direct way to communicate with the staff through email. In addition, the website contains a wealth of useful information.

Regarding the work of the Civil Rights Division, I noted the work we did on hate crimes; combating state, local government, school district and other entities' unduly restrictive rules on what employees can wear when it interferes with religious practices (e.g., turbans); and school officials who do not respond adequately to student harassment in schools. I also highlighted the Civil Rights Division's outreach efforts, including bi-monthly meetings with various religious communities and groups such as SALDEF and a recent meeting with NCAPA which included the SALDEF leadership. I also noted that sending Division staff to meetings such as the one I was attending that night was a priority for the new Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights, as well as noting his Montgomery County and Maryland roots.

Les Jin is a Senior Counselor to the Assistant Attorney General