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From Heartbreak To Hope





As President Barack Obama’s time as our leader comes to an end, I’m reflecting on the last eight years of his legacy.

In my opinion, he is one of the most influential people of our time. He has held a special place in my heart since I began following his campaign trail since the mid-2000s. He has inspired me and my generation to do great things and I’m pretty positive that millions of Americans feel the same. Now that his presidential term comes to an end, I will truly miss his poise, strong leadership skills, and level-headedness in leading our country towards a better tomorrow.

Just last week on January 10th, 2017, Obama spoke to the country for the last time with his Farewell Address. I received the news of a lifetime when I discovered an invitation to attend his last address to the nation in my email spam folder. (I’ve always enjoyed the perks of once being a Field Organizer for the Obama Campaign!)

Without hesitation, I planned my impromptu trip to Chicago to watch the speech live. The atmosphere at McCormick Place in Chicago was nothing less than inspiring. As Obama delivered his moving speech, every clap, every cheer and every tear made me so much more emotional. Obama said so many motivating quotes that night that I will never forget, but there was one statement that deeply resonated with me and I felt connected to:

To all of you out there -- every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town, every kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change -- you are the best supporters and organizers anybody could ever hope for, and I will be forever grateful. Because you did change the world. You did.

At this moment, I stopped and thought to myself, “Did President Obama just include me in his speech?”

I instantly became overwhelmed with emotion and I felt like everything I had done in my career regarding advocacy work and grassroots organizing was being recognized by this very statement. It was a moment of clarity for me. I always felt like I made a difference in the world, and with this very line, the President of the United States just confirmed it for me.

This particular part of his speech took me back to how I began my journey in 2011 with grassroots advocacy work. I became interested in working closely with community groups and nonprofit organizations to bring social and political change to communities.

After I graduated from college I began volunteering with The Sikh Coalition, a US-based civil and human rights nonprofit organization. The Sikh Coalition began during the aftermath of 9/11 when hate crimes and racial discrimination was at an all-time high. Working with The Sikh Coalition gave me the opportunity to attend training seminars in Washington D.C. on behalf of the organization to learn how I could be a local advocate in my community.

During my time volunteering, I pitched and wrote stories for the media, lobbied locally and nationally regarding workplace discrimination issues, was a part of curating and conducting an anti-bullying workshop for children, and the highest honor of all, I attended the first-ever briefing on Sikh civil rights issues at The White House. This was only the beginning of my advocacy work, and I already felt like I was making a difference, but I wanted to do more.

In July 2012, I had the opportunity to interview with Obama’s grassroots re-election campaign, Organizing for America. After a couple of nerve-wracking interviews, I got a call from the battleground state of Iowa. They wanted to hire me and I was ecstatic at this point. I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of something big, and I decided to take that leap of faith and accept this opportunity with open arms.

I quit my 9-to-5 job, packed up my belongings, booked a one-way ticket to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and began my journey.

Just a few days into being 23-years-old, I began working as a Field Organizer to re-elect the President of the United States and the feeling was indescribable. I was a daughter of a middle-class immigrant family, a ‘brown girl’ from California who had moved to Iowa out of all places. “How did I get here?” I would often think to myself. I realized what a monumental position I was taking in my career as my time in the Midwest moved forward.

Being a Field Organizer, I was able to build relationships with the local community, manage neighborhood teams of volunteers, knock on doors, register citizens to vote, and spearhead vote by mail and early voting campaigns. Campaigning was one of the hardest things I have ever done. My life consisted of thirteen-hour days for over one hundred days straight, with no days off!

I quickly realized that there wasn’t much time for a social life; my colleagues became my home-away-from-home and every day I was faced with new challenges. Regardless of those hardships, I always reminded myself of the reasons why I risked everything to support this cause, a cause I felt so passionately about, and a cause that I always believed would change the world.

A couple days after my arrival in Iowa, I decided to take a short road trip to a friend’s house in Oak Creek, Wisconsin before I started my role as a Field Organizer. A day after being in Oak Creek, I randomly checked the weather and realized that a storm was coming from the North traveling Southeast, which meant it would be hitting Iowa first and then making its way up to Wisconsin. That’s when I decided that I needed to leave Wisconsin as soon as possible to reach Cedar Rapids before the storm. I was pretty upset that I had to cut my trip short because I was hoping that I would be able to visit the Oak Creek Gurdwara to pay my respects and also pray for success in my newly anticipated job.

After two hours into my journey back to Iowa, the rain and stormy weather began. There I was rushing back to Iowa battling the biggest storm I had ever experienced in my life. This is when I realized I made a dangerous decision. I remember my sweaty palms holding tightly onto the steering wheel, I sat upright to get a better view of the road; I stared into the windshield as hard as I could just to make sure I didn’t miss a thing on the road ahead of me. I could barely see the area in front of me, and soon after, I became so frightened, that tears slowly began falling from my eyes. All I could see was the rear tires of the car in front of me. The storm had engulfed everything in sight.

With paranoid thoughts racing through my head, I carefully followed what little I could see of the car in front of me. At this moment, I couldn’t help but question why I jumped into my car in the first place to get home before the storm. Maybe it was a mistake?

I was caught dead center in this massive storm and didn’t know if I would make it out alive. At this moment, I really questioned my place in time, and if it was even worth it?

I finally got a grip of myself and pushed past my fear. I began mentally strengthening my thoughts during this terrifying storm. I remember telling myself, “It’s a game; you have to win the game – keep driving and keep your eyes focused on the road!” I began to pray as a way to calm my nerves and to get peace of mind. After nearly an hour in the storm, I approached the outskirts of Linn County, Iowa, and the rain began to thin out.

As soon as I got home to my apartment, I was so distraught and traumatized, I cried my eyes out. I couldn’t believe that I had made it back; I was shivering, still scared and couldn’t believe what I had just been through.

I felt so alone and helpless. But the very next day, by the grace of God, I found the answer to this question I kept asking, and it was a big Yes. It was all worth it.

The next day, I drove to Des Moines in preparations of arriving a day early for my first day of training. On my way over, I received a call from my friend. She delivered the tragic news that a white male had entered The Oak Creek Gurdwara, shot and killed six people and wounded four others. Instantly, my heart dropped to my stomach when I realized I was planning to be at the same gurdwara that same day.

This awful tragedy had struck too close to home. My mind was distressed trying to rationalize why this happened. I couldn’t understand why the Sikh community needed to go through this, even though it had been over a decade since 9/11, and Sikhs were still being targeted as victims of hate crimes because of mistaken identity.

After I wiped away my tears, it wasn’t sadness or sorrow that was left with me. At that point, I knew more than ever that I needed to be a part of a bigger and more monumental change. The days after the Oak Creek tragedy, I questioned my purpose of being in Iowa and the Midwest more than usual. I went through periods of anger and confusion, but I had to remind myself that I was here to represent my community and make them proud. I believed that being in the Midwest at this time was not just a coincidence for me. The chances of being in Oak Creek a day before the tragic shooting was such an unsettling feeling. Trying to settle down into life in the Midwest after this tragedy wasn’t the easiest thing to do as a Sikh-American.

I was far from my family and community but I held onto my faith, tucked away my fear and told myself I would make it through this heartbreaking time and that the notion of hope would guide me into becoming a stronger person.

When I think back to my toughest moments during my time in the Midwest, I think about the times when I fell victim to racism. I was constantly being labeled as ‘the brown girl’ campaigning for the ‘black’ President in Middle America. People were often confused by my identity and who I was. “Are you Mexican or Muslim?” they would ask.

I recall a volunteer asking me as he questioned my ethnic background. I had made it a point to explain the background of my name, ethnicity and religion to educate people around me. I let those types of micro-aggressions act as my fuel to keep me going. As each day passed, my beliefs grew stronger and my passion deeper to continue representing for ‘my community:’ children of immigrants, minorities, young people and women.

As October 2012 rolled around and election season was entering its fourth quarter, I found out that President Obama was going to visit Cedar Rapids for his last push for support from Iowans. I was excited to meet the man who brought about change and hope to so many Americans, including myself.

This was the first time I saw Obama speak at an event, and once he was done, he made his way down to the audience to shake hands. I wanted to talk to him and I had this instinctive feeling that I should go for it. As I was standing in the crowd, a pathway opened up, it was a sign from God to go make a move and take the opportunity. I made my way down closer to Obama, stuck out my hand and he grabbed it without me realizing and we shook hands. My emotions were spiraling at that point, and I couldn’t believe I was right in front of the President himself.

After a couple seconds of disbelief, I leaned in and exclaimed “Mr President! I need to tell you something!” He nodded, smiled and that’s when I knew to proceed.

As I continued speaking, I explained how I wanted to do something to make a difference in the world with advocacy work and that’s why I joined his campaign. I then began to explain that I was a proud Sikh-American and thanked him and Michelle for their support during the Oak Creek tragedy. He gave me his condolences and told me how the Sikh community will always have his full support.

As we spoke, I instantly felt like neither of us saw color, we spoke as two Americans, mourning the loss of fellow Americans. He thanked me for being a part of his journey and we parted ways. This moment changed my life forever and I will never forget it.

Fast forwarding to present day, it is hard for me to come to terms with Obama leaving office after everything I’ve shared with him along his journey and him being a part of my journey. Having the opportunity to work for him gave me more purpose than just being a part of the re-election. The journey helped me become the change I wish to see in the world.

When Obama recognized my field organizing efforts in his Farewell Address, it was touching and I felt the need to share my journey with you. I feel lucky and grateful to have had such a life-changing experience during Obama’s presidency. Sure my journey was not what I imagined, but the hope to make a difference in the world is what helped me get through the ups and downs I faced along the way.

With the hardships that I went through, the one anchoring idea that sticks with me is the belief of not falling back on our system, but the hope of people and the willingness to be someone who makes a difference in the world. Besides our physical differences, skin color, ethnic backgrounds, etc., we all have a fire inside of us to achieve something bigger and better that will make an impact for generations to come, and President Barack Obama helped me become that person.

With that said, I’ll leave you with the most important call to action that President Obama has asked of every citizen:

“I am asking you to believe not in my ability to bring about change - but in YOURS!”

The question is now, will you?

January 20, 2017

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