by We Are Sikhs — June 09, 2019
Your obligation as a Sikh is to uplift others who might need a helping hand and to see all of humanity as a family. As a Sikh, it is also important that you connect yourself to your community and Hoboken is my community.
Ravi Bhalla, is an American civil rights lawyer, politician, and the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey. Prior to becoming mayor, he served in the city council of Hoboken, New Jersey since 2009. On November 7, 2017, he was elected New Jersey's first Sikh mayor, as well as the first elected mayor in the United States who is a Sikh and wears a turban.
In this blog, Mayor Bhalla's shares his childhood, why he pursued politics and public service, his various initiatives as Mayor for the city of Hoboken, and his advice on how to get into politics.
*The blog has shortened Mayor Bhalla’s responses for brevity, check out the full podcast with Mayor Bhalla below.
Gurwin: How did your parents immigrate to America?
Mayor Bhalla: My father immigrated in the 1960s after completing a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering and then later he went to Penn State to complete another degree in Physics. On his first day in the US another student from Penn state picked him up from the airport and suggested that they go to the barbershop so that my father could get rid of his beard and turban. The man explained that it would be easier to integrate with the other students. My father was disappointed because he envisioned that people in America would respect his faith especially since the turban represented defending equality for all people which is a core American value.
Gurwin: How was life like growing up when you were younger?
Mayor Bhalla: During that time, and to a large extent today, there was a lot of discrimination and bullying because of the complete lack of understanding of who Sikhs were.
I was educated in the New Jersey homeschool system and also was the only student of color in my grade school and I had racial slurs hurled at me and I was bullied and experienced physically assaults bullied because of my turban and hair.
I genuinely thank my parents for teaching me the value of standing up for myself and fighting for what is right. “The one ground rule my mother always taught me is if somebody touches your hair you have the right to physically pushback”. This taught me from an early age that as a Sikh I have to defend myself and my beliefs.
Gurwin: Who did you look up to growing up?
Mayor Bhalla: I have always looked up to my mother and father. They have instilled the values in me which laid the foundation for who I am today.
Gurwin: How did you get into public service?
Mayor Bhalla: I always observed and listened to politics from my parents which instilled a sense of civic duty within me early on. I was also inspired by Cory Booker and President Barack Obama. When Barack Obama was running for president he would often encourage people to get engaged with their democracy and run themselves. That is when I decided to run for public office.
I also had a genuine desire to improve my city and local government. The combination from the inspiration I received from Barack Obama and the genuine desire to create change in my community, motivated me to go out and campaign for my city council seat.
When I started running for office, political experts would tell me that I did not have a natural constituency in my city since Hoboken did not have many Sikhs, Indians, and Asians and that my turban and beard would not go unnoticed -- and that was not meant as a compliment. So, I went to work by knocking on doors and really connecting with the voters and proving to my community that I was qualified on the merits.
If you put in the hard work you can do it.
Gurwin: How did your Sikh values reflect your decision to go into public service?
Mayor Bhalla: Sikhism has 3 main tenants: believing in our creator, working hard, and charity. Your obligation as a Sikh is to uplift others who might need a helping hand and to see all of humanity as a family. As a Sikh, it is also important that you connect yourself to your community and Hoboken is my community.
Gurwin: Can you please discuss the climate action plan in Hoboken?
Mayor Bhalla: I am taking initiative to make sure that Hoboken is a sustainable and resilient city that is combating climate change instead of contributing to it.
Through my leadership, Hoboken has committed to ensuring that the city uses wind and solar sources instead of fossil fuels. I am proud to share that Hoboken is the first city in New Jersey to run on 100% renewable energy.
In addition to the climate plan, my first act in office was to sign an executive order that declared Hoboken a fair and welcoming city also known as a sanctuary city. In addition to reinforcing our American values for“equality for all”, it also means we will not cooperate with federal law enforcement in regards to immigration policies. All people will be treated with equal rights in regards to their immigration status.
This is an important message to send in this national political climate and this aligns with my Sikh values in making sure that every human life is treated with respect and equality.
Gurwin: What qualities make a good public servant and any advice for someone wanting to get involved in politics?
Mayor Bhalla: The qualities that make a good public servant are honesty, authenticity, and a fierce focus on advancing the public’s interest in a mindful way. Also, being able to acknowledge one's mistakes and basic competency is needed in a public servant. It is also very important to listen just as much as one talks.
Advice for any Sikh who wants to get involved is to start small and play a game of long ball. I am almost certain that every member of Congress at one time served as councilman, mayor, or assemblymen. Too many people in our community try to run for elected office as a Congressman or a Senator, but I chose to take a hyper-local approach. This allowed me to develop relationships and then see what opportunities present themselves. That trajectory will take some time if you aspire to state or federal office. However, many people at a federal office started small.
It is also important for our community to keep striving for these elected positions because we want to be in control of our destiny as a community. We want to be on the side of the table that is making decisions, not asking someone to make decisions for us. To do this we need power and one a way to obtain that power is to roll up your sleeves and run for office.
As a Sikh, you are more aware of the needs of the Sikh community and are able to approach them better. You can run for school board, volunteer for a campaign, attorney general, federal prosecutor, we need to get off the sidelines and integrate ourselves into our society to implement our needs more.
Gurwin: Thoughts on the future of the US with recent political times, how can we overcome this divisive time?
Mayor Bhalla: I have concerns about the future but in the spirit of “Chardi Kala”(The Sikh belief in keeping an optimistic spirit). I have a high degree of confidence in the stability of American institutions. I also know that the pendulum of politics swings in American history. The checks and balances that our founding fathers have created have lasted and overcome challenging times. As an American, I believe we will sustain and get through these turbulent times with faith in our values.