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Throughout the past year, and most notably this spring, the rise in anti-Asian violent crime sparked questions and frustrations across our network. It also prompted action by a cohort of zealous students at MELS, a NYC Outward Bound School in Forest Hills and an intentionally integrated, unscreened school. 

Social studies teacher Lauren Kosasa recalls a conversation she had with a student after class one day this spring. The student shared that she was disappointed that the year was coming to a close and there had been no mention of Sikhs in social studies class. She was frustrated with how Sikhs are often misunderstood in the U.S. and sometimes the target of misdirected Islamophobia. 

“She was totally right!” said Lauren. “We had addressed so many current events in social studies but never the ones about Sikhs. After having that conversation about how I personally need to do better, I asked if she’d like to plan something with me so that kids do learn about Sikhs before the end of the year.”

This simple conversation was the spark that ignited a student-led initiative to educate the entire 7th grade community at MELS about the Sikh religion.  

“We are a school that believes in equity for all, and we must set that example,” said Ajulia Bryan, a special education and math teacher at MELS. 

The teachers helped recruit other Sikh students who were interested in participating, and, inspired by a project conducted in 2017 by student advocacy group Hate Free MELS, decided that a community meeting would be the right forum. Together, Satnam Kaur, Gurleen Kaur and Bhagwatpreet Kaur collaborated with their teachers to first create a Crew lesson that would function as an introduction to Sikhism before the grade met virtually for a larger community meeting.

“I remember Gurleen mentioning that when she first came to MELS, no one really knew about her religion,” said Bhagwatpreet about her classmate. “I’m thinking she must’ve felt a bit left out. And other students will probably experience this too.” 

On a mission to promote belonging and inclusivity, the girls developed a slide deck and encouraged their peers to ask questions to help tackle stereotypes and preconceived notions about Sikhs.

“I wish people knew that Sikhs are not terrorists, and we do not hide weapons under our Damalas,” said Gurleen. 

“Next, they took the lead in planning and facilitating a community meeting, which opened the door for other students to either connect, be curious or learn something new,” said Ajulia. “When we do this, it also allows student-to-student interaction to positively grow stronger and help students build respectful relationships with one another, which then leads to that safe space.” 

The virtual community meeting was well-attended and featured guest speakers from The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group that was founded after 9/11 to help advocate for the Sikh community and address hateful discrimination. The guests openly answered student questions and facilitated deeper discussions in breakout rooms.

“We ask students to notice and be critical of anti-racist systems. But then what?” added Lauren. “This is the other half of it. We do something about it — we create!”

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