Editor’s note: The following article, prepared by the Sikh Coalition, discusses the importance of continuing to include information about the Sikh religion in the state’s social studies standards as a way of increasing cultural diversity and tolerance in New Jersey’s public schools.  

The Sikh Coalition is the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights group, founded in 2001. With a headquarters office in New York and staff spread throughout the nation, one of its core areas of work is to create safer and more inclusive classrooms.

Since launching in 2001 as a pro bono resource for the approximately 500,000-strong population of Sikh Americans, the Sikh Coalition has received thousands of requests from parents for support and more than 100 formal legal intakes to address instances of school bullying. A 2014 report by the Sikh Coalition found that turbaned Sikh children are bullied at a rate twice the national average; unfortunately, this problem persists in New Jersey as well. Last year alone, the state created a task force to fight hate in schools as bias incidents grew, and CBS Religion and Culture did a feature special, Religion and Identity in Young America, on the bullying of religious minority youth that featured a New Jersey Sikh student’s story.

The power to make classrooms safer and more inclusive lies in the hands of teachers. Education is the most dynamic tool to foster understanding and respect between classmates and communities, and an emphasis on diversity and inclusion have positive effects for students. Studies have shown a link between a strong emphasis on diversity in schools and better health of students, in both racial and sexual orientation and gender identity contexts; students in diverse classrooms are thought to be better prepared for the rigors of their careers and citizenship. More broadly, diversity is thought to benefit cognitive function, creative thinking, and more for all people–including students. Clearly, increased awareness and education around cultural issues are the keys to more knowledgeable students, and ultimately, more tolerant human beings.

The Sikh Coalition believes that, for our community, a key component in the work of creating safer schools is the inclusion of Sikhism in state social studies standards–a development that the state of New Jersey was the first to pursue back in 2009. Given that the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) is reviewing these standards this year, a retrospective on the importance of Sikhism’s inclusion, the resources available for educators to ensure implementation of the standards, and the benefits of this work for Sikh and non-Sikh students alike is warranted.

Sikhism: An Overview  Despite being the world’s fifth largest religion, Sikhism remains largely unknown or misunderstood–especially in the United States. With over 25 million followers worldwide, and an estimated 500,000 in the United States, Sikhism is still under-represented in both classrooms and textbooks, frequently being either omitted or taught inaccurately. Providing basic factual information about the Sikh religion, culture, and identity, then, is a fundamental first step to filling this awareness gap.

Sikhism is often incorrectly identified as a mix of other religions, but it is a distinct faith tradition with historical roots in the Punjab region of South Asia. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 CE. The fledgling religion grew throughout his life, and developed further under the guidance of nine more gurus (religious teachers) until 1708 CE, when the tenth guru passed on the guruship to the Sikh sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhism is a monotheistic belief system with an emphasis on God’s oneness, and values such as love, equality, and justice are core to the faith tradition. Today, the spiritual authority of Sikhism rests not with a clergy or other structural authority, but with the Guru Granth Sahib and the community of initiated Sikhs worldwide.

The most visually striking aspect of Sikhism may well be the articles of faith that many Sikhs keep. This identity includes five articles of faith and a dastaar (turban). These articles of faith are meant to make Sikhs stand out in a crowd and to remind them of the duties and values inherent in their religion. Unfortunately, the turban or patka (a head covering worn by young practicing Sikhs before they start tying their own turban) and the long hair of Sikhs who choose not to wear head coverings, can also attract unwanted attention and bullying in the classroom.

Sikhs in New Jersey  Sikhs have been an integral part of the social fabric of the United States for over 125 years, with the first immigrants from Punjab settling on the west coast in pursuit of farming and other economic opportunities. Today, there are Sikh populations in states across America, and New Jersey is home to a vibrant Sikh community. The state has 12 gurdwaras (Sikh houses of worship) and there are approximately 50,000 Sikh Americans in the tri – state  area on the whole. The highest ranking state-level Sikh public servant in the United States, Gurbir Grewal, currently serves as New Jersey’s attorney general.

Part of the Sikh Coalition’s strategy for creating safer and more inclusive classrooms for Sikh children everywhere–especially in states with larger Sikh populations, like New Jersey–has been to make state standards more inclusive. In 2009, after six years of advocacy by the New Jersey Sikh community, the state became the first in the nation to add Sikhism when revising and updating content standards to be more inclusive. In addition to guiding classroom curricula and lesson plans, these content standards also inform textbook selection. At the time, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) also pledged to work with the community to add material about Sikhism to the appropriate classroom application documents, which are supplemental guides that teachers use to provide curriculum content to the standards.

Given that these standards are under review by the state again this year, the Sikh Coalition is engaging once again to advocate for the religion’s continued inclusion; at this time, Sikhism remains in the new draft standards that are under consideration. The Sikh Coalition is working with the NJDOE to follow through with supporting teachers to implement the standards in the classroom, ultimately empowering them to teach about Sikhism accurately with both professional development and with curriculum and instructional resources.

The large Sikh population in New Jersey has warranted not only engagement through conversations around education, but direct relationship-building with law enforcement and policymakers. The Sikh Coalition recently worked with other Sikh organizations, the CLEAR Institute, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, and the Bridgewater Police Department to craft a Cultural Diversity Training that will reach more than 30,000 police officers in the state. The organization also conducted trainings with the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office following the resignation of that office’s previous sheriff following his making bias-motivated derogatory remarks (including some targeting Attorney General Grewal). In addition, the Sikh Coalition also worked to secure a state-level resolution in 2018 that permanently designated April as Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month in New Jersey.

Conclusion and Resources  The Sikh Coalition continues to believe that educational exposure to diverse faith backgrounds, through both inclusion in state standards and teaching material that is both constitutionally appropriate and factually accurate, is a critical component in creating safer, more inclusive classrooms for children of all backgrounds. Facilitating this kind of proactive cultural education helps students of minority communities feel safe and seen, but it also expands the intellectual horizons of students who would otherwise suffer from an incomplete education.

The work to include Sikhism in social studies standards across the country is far from over. As of the time of writing, 12 states have added Sikhism to their standards, meaning that approximately 43% of public school students nationwide have the opportunity to learn about Sikhism; the Sikh Coalition is currently engaged in advocacy work around an additional four states’ standards so far in 2020. This work continues, along with efforts to provide the necessary supplementary materials to teachers, parents, and students to ensure the successful implementation of these standards.

As the state continues its standards review and Sikhs across the country prepare to celebrate Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month this coming April (in conjunction with the Sikh holiday Vaisakhi, on April 13, 2020), please consider encouraging teachers and educators in your network to take the following actions:

Example of resource provided for public information by the Sikh Coalition
Example of resource provided for public information by the Sikh Coalition