Pardeep Kaleka: Forgiveness in the midst of tragedy
“Forgiveness is your power to take power back. It’s your ability to say, ‘I want to grow from this.’ And forgiveness is the ultimate vengeance. There’s nothing more vengeful you can do than forgive someone like Wade Page. If you start to self-destruct and lash out, then he’s accomplished what he wanted to accomplish.” – Pardeep Kaleka
In the wake of the shooting of his father by white supremacist Wade Page at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek on August 5, 2012, Pardeep Kaleka did not give into hate and rage. Instead, he sought to forgive and understand the man who kіIIed his father and five others on that fateful summer day.
To understand his father’s ʍυrdеrer, Kaleka reached out to former white supremist Arno Michalis. Along with others from the Sikh community, Kaleka and Michaelis formed the organization Serve 2 Unite, a non-profit organization that transforms Milwaukee youth into peacemakers.
Service was a part of Kaleka’s life long before the shooting. After graduating from Marquette University, he was a police officer for five years in one of the most crime-ridden districts in the country. He later became a high school teacher in the same district. Kaleka believes that the key aspect of changing poisonous ideologies starts with an education that is focused on solving real issues.
“Revolution needs to start from your mind and your consciousness,” said Kaleka. “Part of that is being solution-oriented when others are problem-centered.”
Kaleka continues with a misison of service today, through his work as a trauma-informed clinician with Serve2Unite. The Milwaukee Independent sat down to ask Kaleka about his journey from police officer to founding Serve2Unite.
Q&A with Pardeep Kaleka
SERVING ON THE FORCE
TRANSITIONING TO TEACHING
Teaching changed me too. As a police officer, you have your gun on you all of the time. You’re always approaching circumstances from the offensive lens. You think of every possible scenario. If I go into a gas station and it’s getting robbed, I think ‘what’s a safe tactical position to be in?’ You’re always in that mode. But then I started to noticed that I’m not carrying my weapon as much. As a teacher I put it in my car.
AUGUST 5th, 2012
Sikhism is a relatively new religion, it’s only 500 years old. It’s been oppressed for the longest time. Even right now you see pockets of Punjab in Pakistan that are engaged in conflict. Sikhism is almost a culture that takes pride in being oppressed, if that makes sense. The oppression for us is motivating. I think that’s where August 5th came in. The shooter tried to come and create a hateful environment. And if we had given in to that hate, he would have won.
So we wanted to understand that white supremacist ideology that had kіIIed six people. This ideology goes back a long, long time in this country. In the 1800s and 1900s, when lynching was huge in this country, there was lynching and castration, there was lynching and humiliation. This was done with a sense of ‘we need to remain in power, so basically we’ll show you our might and we’ll show you how strong we are.’ Somethings change and somethings stay the same. Today we’re dealing with segregation in Milwaukee that is rivaling the 1960s. At the same time, we need to address what the root cause of white supremacy is.
To return to August 5th, there needed to be deliberate action right after it happened. I remembered reporters coming right after and setting up at our yard and our house, and oftentimes we would be putting on a brave face for the world. After a while, the more that you faked, the more you started to own it, and then we started gaining traction. People were starting to know who we are. We were no longer this “other.” Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world and there are more Sikhs than there are Jews. For us, in the media spotlight after the shooting, we knew we only had a couple of opportunities. So I wasn’t just representing me, I was representing a whole demographic, not only the Sikh demographic, but the Hmong demographic, the Pakistani demographic, the Middle-Eastern demographic. These people are sometimes invisible in Milwaukee, because there is so much tension between the white and black populace.Q: What inspired you to reach out to former white supremacist Arno Michaelis after the shooting? A: For a while we just had to put on our brave faces to the world, but we didn’t have any answers. We knew the where and how, but the most important questions survivors want to know is the why. Part of my reason for reaching out to Arno was to figure out the why. And the only person who would know the why of this was someone who used to be involved in white supremacy. When I first met Arno, he was an open book. He was transparent. He was accountable. When I first met him, there were a lot of emotions going on within me. But we made sense of it as we went.
After the media went away and after the news stop reporting on it, it’s was time to start to get back to reality. And the reality is my Dad is dеаd. A mother is dеаd. A brother is dеаd. These people are dеаd and they’re not coming back. People’s lives changed, so they have to put those lives back together again. There was a whole slew of reasons for why I reached out to Arno but part of it was to try to put these lives back together again.Q: In seeking understanding and forgiveness, did others in the community feel the same way? A: The simple answer is no. A lot of people felt that forgiveness wasn’t the way because of a simple interpretation of what forgiveness means. To some people, forgiveness means forgetting and moving on. For me it has a different meaning. Forgiveness is your power to take power back. It’s your ability to say, ‘I want to grow from this.’ And forgiveness is the ultimate vengeance. There’s nothing more vengeful you can do than forgive someone like Wade Page. If you start to self-destruct and lash out, then he’s accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. That’s destabilization 101. To forgive is not that we forgive the act, but we’re not going to attach you to the attack. You don’t get credit for this. What gets credit for this is the ideology that has existed for hundreds of years. What we’re going to do is attack that ideology. We’ll take that and put it on its back. That’s forgiveness, one by one by one by one, forming those connections.
But I did understand where they were coming from. My dad was 65 years old. He had lived a long life, a successful life. He had built a congregation of over a thousand, and had accomplished a lot of his goals. But a lot of the people who died didn’t have a chance to accomplish their goals. They had very young children and they left a lot of unfinished business. So for me to be able to say that I exist the way I exist because of my circumstances, they exist the way they exist because of their circumstances. By all means, be enraged. But be purposeful in your rage.Q: What did you think about the media coverage after the shooting? A: There was this idea of comparative justice. If this person had been a Muslim and the people inside Christian, would the media have covered it more? Would the police have been there faster? Would more lives have been saved? People bled out before the police even got there.
With the media coverage, we had to call and tell them what happened. There was a lot of media coverage that wasn’t there. There were a lot of national news that wasn’t there, until they started to see our response. It was up to us to be able to take this event and say, ‘you need to be able to know who we are.’ You need to understand how we fit into this American culture. Are we stitched in or are we not? Having a deliberate message became a huge part of how we interacted with the media.
My mom was in extreme morning, and I went to my mom and had to asked her to address the media, because she was the only person that could as the widow of my father. With my father being the temple president, she could have the respect to do this. That’s the power of media. You can amplify a voice, it just depends on what voice you are amplifying.
FORMING SERVE 2 UNITE
Wade Page, who was the shooter at the temple, came from a traumatic environment. When he was trying to identify his role as a person, he was engaged in a hyper-masculine stance of what a man should be. We have to understand even that has an effect on boys as they’re growing up. Sometimes a boy is striving to be a man and they feel like if they’re not manly enough, they have to prove themselves. And that’s exactly what Wade Page was doing. He joined up the military, he went off to war, he was dishonorably discharged because he had a problem with alcoholism. That he had a problem with alcoholism lets you know there’s something else going on. Discharged, he comes back here. In 2001 he moves out to Colorado. That same year Columbine happens, which he witnesses from his own house. And then he becomes radicalized in the far-right movement. And the cycle just keeps going on and on and on until August 5th happens. Red flags were going off everywhere, but at the same time they went unaddressed.Q: What has been your most transformative speaking engagement? A: What comes to mind is a kid that came up to us after an event we did at a church in Sussex. He was part of the military academy and was really tall and built. Even though I talk about masculinity a lot, I still have those ingrained stereotypes about what masculinity is. I was not expecting this kid to be so open when he came up and talked to me. He walked up and I reach out my hand, but he just goes in for a hug. He says something in my ear, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being a racist. I rethink everything I’ve ever thought. I’ll be better. I’m sorry.’ You see this tough guy, and have this idea of what he’s going to do, and he just blindsides you with that. And that guy will go forward and he touches people. That’s really the response that you want.
Monster | TEDxUWMilwaukee