March 23, 2023

Dreaming in Color: Dr. Simran Jeet Singh

Episode Notes

In this episode, we welcome Simran Jeet Singh, a scholar, author, and champion of equity who leads the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society program. He is the author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life and the children's book Fauja Singh Keeps Going. He’s also a visiting professor of history and religion at Union Theological Seminary and a Soros Equity Fellow with the Open Society Foundations. In 2020, Time magazine recognized him among 16 people fighting for a more equal America. 

Join this conversation as Simran takes us on a journey of radical introspection. He talks about how growing up as a Sikh in South Texas helped him to better serve the most vulnerable communities, challenges us all to change the rules that foster inequity, and candidly shares how meeting his hero forced him to confront his own biases about whom society celebrates.  


Episode Transcript

Darren Isom (00:01):

Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom, and I invite you to join me in these candid kitchen-table conversations where together, we celebrate these leaders' ingenuity, are inspired by their wisdom and wit, and learn how collectively we can all strive to do and be better. This is Dreaming in Color.


Simran Jeet Singh leads Aspen Institute's Religion & Society program, and is the author of both The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life and the children's book Fauja Singh Keeps Going. He's a visiting professor of history and religion at Union Theological Seminary and a Soros Equality fellow with the Open Society Foundation.


And in 2020, Time magazine recognized him among 16 people fighting for a more equal America. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, and he is a columnist for Religion News Service. It is a joy to talk with him today, even as New York City sirens circle around him. A bit of chaos to make the call that much more calming.


Hello there, Simran. Great to talk with you today. Thank you so much for making time. And so, as you know, the first thing we do is I pass the mic to you to tee us up with an invitation to start the conversation.

Simran Jeet Singh (01:22):

I'm going to share something that I draw from my Sikh practice from the scripture. It's a line from the fourth teacher. I'll say it in the original and then translate it. (Passage in foreign language.)


And what he's saying here, it’s very simple and also really profound. He says, "If you give me happiness, then I'll adore you. But even if you give me difficulty, I'll still adore you. If you give me hunger, I'll still be satisfied. Because even in difficulty, I can find happiness." It's just something that's been on my mind thinking about how difficult the world is for all of us, for all the complicated reasons that we all know. Just a really simple reminder that even through it all, we can find joy. So it's something I'm trying to live by these days.

Darren Isom (02:13):

One hundred percent. What a beautiful way to start the conversation, and there's always joy through it all. So thank you for kicking us off with that. Really powerful. I wanted to jump straight in, and get to your roots, your upbringing, and all those things. You talk a lot about enjoying the process of learning from other faiths as a way to enhance your own practice. And this is really interesting because I know that you grew up in South Texas, which isn't exactly famous for engendering interfaith relations. But I would love for you to talk through and share with us your upbringing and where did your openness and curiosity for other spirituality, religions, other faiths come from.

Simran Jeet Singh (02:47):

It's one of those things. I mean, you'll probably understand what I mean when I say this. Sometimes people come up to me and they're like, "How did you learn to be so accepting of difference?" And I'm like, "Man, I was the different one. It's not like I had a choice."

Darren Isom (03:00):

One hundred percent.

Simran Jeet Singh (03:03):

It's interesting in some ways, too, because I look at how much people struggle dealing with difference. Whether it's people who are thinking about the world differently than you, who believe differently, who look differently, whatever it is. And, in some ways, I think because of my experience growing up in Texas and being one of the only kids with a turban and a beard, that part of life doesn't seem so hard to me. There are other parts of life that are harder, but that one I think is one I think about a lot, when I'm looking around at how much we all struggle, and it really doesn't have to be that hard.


Growing up in Texas was different in a lot of ways, and it was very normal in a lot of ways. I grew up. I have three brothers. We're all close in age. We had a great childhood, friends, teammates. We were really into sports. Neighbors. It was very idyllic, romanticized in a lot of ways, at least the way that I think about it.


And at the same time, it was very atypical in that people saw us as being different, as being foreign, as not really belonging. And I knew that from a young age because people would tell me. And sometimes it would be malicious. People saying nasty stuff, removing us from places, or denying us service, or whatever it was. I mean, the reality is most of those reminders were actually not malicious. I mean it was just kids in our classes or people on the street just saying, "Hey, why do you wear that? What language are you speaking?"

Darren Isom (04:29):

A general curiosity. Yeah.

Simran Jeet Singh (04:31):

General curiosity. And so it was I think in some ways, learning to live within that experience of being different and understanding that people are interested, people are curious, some people are mean. And that's the reality of our world.

Darren Isom (04:47):

There is something to be said about being a lot more comfortable with people asking questions when you're pretty firm and strong in who you are. And this normalization of, I joke all the time that people ask you, "What is it like growing up Black?" Honestly, that's all I know. It was my experience. So this idea of being in a family and a community where those things were normalized made it a lot easier for you to speak to others who didn't see it as normal to some degree. But I would love for you just to share a little bit more about how your experience as a member of what would be considered a marginalized community has influenced your perspective on what it means to be inclusive.

Simran Jeet Singh (05:20):

It's interesting. I think about this a lot, because, on the one hand, I'd like to think that my sense of inclusiveness comes from a really clear ability to live into my values. I'd love to be able to sit here and be like, "I just believe that we should be inclusive and so it's easy for me."


But if I'm being honest, I'll look at all my other values and be like, "Well, I don't eat what I should all the time." I know what I'm supposed to do, and I don't always do it. And so I don't want to claim a sense of perfection in this regard. Some part of it, I've come to realize that is learned, that's conditioned through my experience.


And I think the biggest one, and I was just talking to my wife about this the other day, she came to this country as a refugee. Basically her family was escaping political violence in India. And having been on the margins, both her and I, we were just talking about how hard it is for us to see other people experiencing pain that's unnecessary. She's a human rights researcher now. I'm in the space doing what I do.


I think what really has shaped me is this deep understanding of what it feels like to be left out, when it doesn't have to be that way. One of the most painful points of connection that I have with kids on the margins right now are those who if you wear a turban, or you wear a hijab, or you wear a yarmulke, a lot of sports leagues say you have to sit out. It seems like on the scale of things, not the most important thing in the world. But for me, having gone through that as a kid and being forced to choose between two things that I loved, and sitting there and being like, "This is so unnecessary. This is such a false choice. You could just change the rules, and things could be easy for everyone."


And so I think it's a combination of that deep personal experience of knowing what it feels like that's engendered this empathy. And also, that understanding of injustice. And how sometimes as people, we just make things harder for one another than they need to be. I think it's probably the combination of those two things that's really shaped my perspective and my commitment to it.

Darren Isom (07:24):

And I love when people make things a lot harder than they need to be. I mean, that's the most truest statement, that we really complicate things in ways that they don't need to be complicated. There is something very powerful about, it's easy to speak to what inclusion is, because you know exactly what it is not as well as, or what it doesn't feel like as well.


I do want to jump in and talk a little bit more about the Sikh concept of sevā, which really encourages this idea of selfless-love-inspired service. And I would love for you to share a little bit more about sevā itself and how it has inspired how you move through the world and your work.

Simran Jeet Singh (07:54):

I mean, it is again, one of those things that is both aspirational—I would love to live a life where I am perfectly in tune with this concept of sevā, which is at its best, actions and service that are inspired by love, and oriented towards justice. That's how I would translate it into English.


And I'll also say sometimes, we find ourselves paralyzed. We say, "Well, how can I start serving people until I myself am perfect? How can I help other communities until I fix all the problems of my own community?"


And part of what the Sikh tradition teaches us is that actually, the way you achieve the aspiration is by practicing it daily. How do you become a loving person? Well, you just practice living into love every day. How do you become an honest person? Every day, you practice honesty. And so you just cultivate those values until they become characteristics, part of who you are.


And I think the same thing about service, about sevā. Which is, I'm not living a perfect life. I do want to be more loving. I do want to be less selfish. And part of the way to get there is to have the right intention that's underneath the actions in our life. And that's where sevā comes in for me. It's a practice of serving others, of moving towards justice, of doing things that are not out of self-interest. But actually, out of the needs of and a real empathy for other people.


And part of what we're taught in Sikh philosophy is, when you do that, you actually become less selfish, because you're not thinking about yourself all the time. You actually reduce the ego. And part of the spiritual wisdom in our tradition and in many others is if you can start reducing the ego, then you can start experiencing all kinds of joy that are inaccessible otherwise. Ego and selfishness are the root of all suffering. So that, to me, is the promise of sevā, of selfless service. That living into that is actually a way of accessing joy in a way that we don't really know otherwise.

Darren Isom (09:57):

I love that thought. It really speaks to this whole concept of faith and action to some degree. How do you live into the principles as a daily exercise? And in doing so, you learn to do so very naturally. And you build the muscle to aspire to.


There's also a lot of lessons that I would love for you to share about how social change leaders, who are really thinking of serving their communities—what are the things from a sevā perspective that they can incorporate into their daily practices and their work, as a way of bettering their work and their thinking, and really supporting the communities that they hope to serve?

Simran Jeet Singh (10:27):

There's so much that I've learned through this worldview. And in my position now, I think a lot about what leadership looks like as it relates to service. In business school, in leadership trainings, we often talk about servant leadership, and what does it mean to lead with an attitude of service.


And in some ways, this tracks with part of the way that we are taught. But I think there's something more expansive that we can access. If we think not just as thinking about leadership as a vehicle for service, but actually think about leadership as service. It's not like the two have to be separate. It's not like there's a binary here or a dichotomy between leadership and service.


And this is part of what I love about the frame of sevā. In the West, we think about activism as what we do. We think about it as action. And it becomes very limited to anything that is particularly understood as being within the frame of justice. So we might say, "I marched." We might say, "I protested." We might say, "I petitioned." And all of that falls within our frame of activism.


One of the challenges I had during the pandemic was my wife was out at the hospital serving patients who had COVID, and I was at home with the babies, and I wasn't doing anything. I was with them and taking care of them, and maybe you say that's its own kind of activism.


And then as the pandemic heightens, I come to realize, and a lot of this country does, the actual best thing you can do for other people is nothing. Stay home, don't infect anyone. There's no action involved. And I'm sitting there, growing up in this country, very much attuned to activism, thinking, "Well if I'm not doing anything, if I have no action to contribute here, what's the value in this world?"


And it took me a while to understand that actually sevā, this model from the Sikh philosophy, offers something different. Which is to say it's not about what you do. It's about the inspiration behind what you do. It's about your orientation towards others. And when you approach it in this way, anything you do—whether it's professionally, in medicine or teaching, whether it's parenting or collecting garbage—anything can be service as long as the intention is underneath that. Your every action becomes in some way an expression of gratitude, an expression of worship, and also an expression of how we can live within this world in relation to one another, as opposed to something that's in relation to ourselves. So it's just this really transformative experience, I mean a mind-opening experience, where I started to realize there's a different way we could be approaching our understanding of service to one another—that's more expansive than we realize.

Darren Isom (13:20):

That's really powerful and very beautiful. And I think at some point during the pandemic—my mother reminds me all the time that, "If you love me, take care of yourself." This concept that, in many ways, service is looking after yourself and supporting yourself in some ways. And I do wonder from a community perspective, as you think about the way you've laid out sevā in many ways, is the process is the product. The leadership in itself is what you're offering the community itself. What are your obligations to yourself from a self-care and a healing perspective, to make that work more powerful?

Simran Jeet Singh (13:48):

My struggle is not so much serving other people and recognizing the need to help them. My struggle is often internal. Do I deserve something when I already have all these privileges? And other people are suffering. Should I work out today or should I focus on this other urgent thing that will help somebody else somewhere else?


If I dive into my Sikh faith, the way we're taught, and the part that really resonated for me as a kid and growing up was: we all share the same divine light. Everyone is fully deserving. So if you really see that and you really love other people, then you'll show up for that. I mean in some ways, that's profound, and in some ways, pretty simple. I got it as a kid. But for whatever reason, I didn't see it in myself. And maybe it's because I was internalizing all the messages I was getting from the outside world in terms of what my value is or what my place is in the society. Or maybe there were other aspects of growing up as a teenager, a boy, a brother, whatever, where I just really didn't feel it.


And then I came across this reminder from Sikh teachings that really put me in my place in a way. It says (foreign language 00:15:10). It's a reference to the self of saying, "Oh my mind, oh my heart. You are an embodiment of light. Recognize where you come from."


And to me, it was this really surprising moment where I started to realize, actually— as I am seeing everyone else being essentially created in the image of God, I am too. That's something that I can own and it's not egotistical. It's not self-centered to own that. I can still be humble and recognize how I am interconnected with others.


But I think that experience, that opening of how do you balance a sense of humility with a sense of self-worth. It took me a while to understand that intellectually, and it's still something that I struggle with putting into practice.

Darren Isom (16:01):

And it reminds me in many ways growing up—and I grew up in New Orleans—and was lucky enough to grow up in a fairly radical liberation theology situation in my church. And I remember one of my favorite sermons that our pastor gave was on reminding us all that there was a little bit of God in all of us. I know that within the Sikh faith, that there's divinity in everyone is one of the tenets to some degree. And this was almost an embodiment of Quakerism, right? That there's God in each of us, and our job is in many ways to celebrate that God.


But also, there was a connection there made by the minister to not only celebrate that God, but also that the tenant of love thy neighbor as you love thyself. And so this idea that how do you love that God in you as well? Which was not the most humble sermon, really—“Love the God in you” as a commandment— but a really beautiful way of thinking of our obligation to ourselves as we carry out this work, particularly those of us in service. How do we figure out what's the God in each of us, the divinity of each of us that needs to be celebrated, and loved, and nurtured as we are in service of others? Does that resonate for you? Is this a framing as you think about this work and the thinking?

Simran Jeet Singh (17:02):

It does. I see aspects of this teaching in so many traditions that I've studied, and it's really beautiful. And I'd also say there are ways in which we understand it sometimes that can really disfigure the idea.


So what does it mean if we say, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." When we are loving ourselves too much, or we are falling into traps of hierarchy and supremacy, and saying, "I'm better than you. I'll love you as if you are better than someone else." We can create all kinds of problems when we don't start from the right place. So I think that creating a firmer foundation in understanding who we are and how we want to see ourselves can then inform how we see others.


And what we've seen historically and in this country in particular, that's led to real social fracturing. It's led to real frustration. I mean, our inability to see our own divinity is, I think, in part contributing to our mental health crisis. If we can't see our own self-worth, if we can't see value in ourselves, of course we're going to struggle with ourselves and with others. And I do see the power in it. But I also see that when we're not able to access it or when we transform it into something that it's not, it can be really dangerous too.

Darren Isom (18:23):

One hundred percent. And I also think there's something to be said about the place from which that conversation is happening. So for me, this young gay, Black kid sitting out in pew four right here, and the minister is telling me to love myself as a divine instrument. That's definitely a pretty radical statement.


I joke all the time that my grandmother used to always say that God teaches us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But in actuality, most of us are hating our neighbors as we hate ourselves. The projection of hate kind of speaks to the world situation that we’re at now.


I really want to turn the conversation as hatred, bigotry, and violence—I don’t know if they’ve become more prevalent, but they feel like they're becoming more prevalent in society. It can be really difficult to reach across the divide and see the humanity in those who seem dramatically and diametrically opposed to justice and equality. I would love your thoughts on how can we practice love and build community with people who do not understand us, or want to understand us, or want to love us?

Simran Jeet Singh (19:16):

It's a tough one, and it's something that I've been working on since early childhood. It's true that as early as elementary school, there were kids who didn't like me just because of how I looked, mistreated me. And I would go home and talk to my parents, and they would guide me. "How do you interact with these people so that you're not responding to them in ways that are going to get you in trouble?" At an early age, it was very strategic for my parents.


And then as I started to get older, middle school, high school, I started to realize that it wasn't just about how I responded to them. It also had to do with how these moments made me feel inside. I could give you all kinds of stories of times when I fought back against people. Physically, fist fights, friends, opponents on other soccer teams and basketball teams. Those didn't feel good. It made me feel good in the moment to fight back, but I didn't walk away feeling like I was proud of myself. There are many times when I just walked away, and I typically in those moments didn't feel proud of myself then either.


So the question I started to ask myself, as a teenager especially, was in a lose-lose situation, in these moments where there's no perfect answer, it does suck to be in that situation. What are you supposed to do so that at least you can live with peace and calm?


And part of what I've learned, and part of what I'm starting to try to teach my kids now, is that you can only do what you can control. And the best of what you want to engage in those moments is living into your values. How do you become the person you want to be in these difficult situations, so that you can find more happiness and more joy, and contribute to more justice within the world?


Let's say one more thing here, which is fresh for me. I was in a conversation yesterday with some parent friends. And they were talking about how frustrating it is to raise your kids with these values, knowing that other parents aren't teaching their kids the same things.


So parents of color are saying, "We have to teach our kids how to be careful, how to be cautious. But also how to respond in ways that aren't going to get them in trouble." Where my head started to go was the impatience, the frustration, the outrage against, "Yeah, that isn't fair. It is annoying that we have to live this way."


And as I started to think about it, I realized, "Well, you know what? This is my whole life experience. This is all of our lives' experience. And part of the opportunity here is to focus on what is the most important thing for our kids. And that is their internal happiness." At the end of the day, that's all I care about. I want them to be safe, and I want them to be happy.


So how do we instill in them, and also in ourselves, an understanding that in these moments, there are so many things that can distract you and pull you away? But ultimately, it's only when you live into your values that you're going to walk away feeling proud, and cultivate this sense of inner calm and happiness. And to me, that's part of what it looks like to build resilience.

Darren Isom (22:27):

One hundred percent. I think this just reminds me of a conversation that's fresh for me as well in a different way. I was talking with some friends a week or so ago, a really good friend of mine, one of whom who leads a foundation here in the Bay Area. And we always had this ongoing conversation about the constant dilemma of both recognizing our power and our agency, and living into that and the world that we live in. At the same time, also recognizing how small and unimportant we all are and the fullness of time. It's just this expression she throws up, the fullness of time. Literally. I mean, our years are minute in the fullness of time. We're on this planet for an hour and a half max. This planet that's been around for billions of years.


And so how do you manage the contradiction of you're so important, your agency matters, your ability to change things really matters. And at the same time, no, you're not that important. And I think that being able to navigate that dilemma is important in those moments where your happiness is the most important thing in the world in the moment to some degree. But in actuality, being able to back away from a situation and recognizing the fullness of time that's even your life, that's such a small and unimportant moment that you really shouldn't get caught up in too much emotionally.

Simran Jeet Singh (23:38):

Yeah, I love that. I think it's so true. And it is one of those tensions in life where my wife calls me out on this all the time. Sometimes, I care too much and sometimes I don't care. The Super Bowl was last night. Why am I so invested in sports? And then halfway through, I'm not paying attention. It's like, "Hey, don't you care about this game?" It's like being present, but also not being present, and finding out the right balance of attaching.


And part of what I've learned in finding that balance is grounding it in a sense of oneness, of interconnectedness, is in what I've experienced the best way to live, both with the full presence of the self, while also the humility, with the perspective of the rest of the world, the fullness of time as you said. So having a sense of interconnectedness to the world helps you see yourself for who you are, without making yourself to be more important in ways that we are so easily apt to do. And so it's that teaching, which I think in many ways is the core of spiritual wisdom, that can really give us a different way of being in this world.

Darren Isom (24:53):

One hundred percent. I hear you're out here writing books. In your children's book Fauja Singh Keeps Going, you tell the story of Fauja Singh, the oldest person to run a marathon. In addition to introducing many children to their first book with a Sikh protagonist, it also offers young readers really valuable lessons on determination, perseverance through adversity. And it also in many ways talk about the fullness of time, like carrying on your obligations to the next generations to come.


With that in mind, I would love for you to share a little bit more behind the motivations for that project, and the happiness I imagine that it brought you. I want to celebrate that a little bit as well. But also would love for you to show a bit more. You were really thinking through what lessons you wanted to pass on from a generational perspective, you want to instill in others. If there were one or another Sikh teaching to be taught in American schools, what would it be?

Simran Jeet Singh (25:49):

In some ways, it was a very simple notion. I'm a kid growing up in this country. There are no books with characters who look like me. And even as a kid, before conversations really kicked up around representation mattering, as a kid I felt it. I just remember wishing that there were books with Sikh characters. So that's part of my promise to myself as a kid, that I would eventually write these books.


Part of my experience once I start writing and thinking about these stories, one is, this man Fauja Singh became my running inspiration. The day that he crossed the finish line at the age of 100 was the day that I signed up for my first marathon. And so I'm inspired by him, this experience of starting to run marathons, of transforming my life. I feel grateful to him. And I think, “Okay, this is an incredible person with this major feat. Wouldn’t it be great to write a book about him?”


I’m thinking about this book, and I get the chance to meet him. He was 105 I think, when I met him. And I got about two hours with him. I learned about his life. And I realize actually, his life story is really challenging me and a lot of my assumptions. And I’m sitting there in the living room with him and realizing he’s talking about the disability, severe disability, that he dealt with growing up. And I'm realizing, "It never occurred to me that one of my heroes could be disabled."


I learned in this conversation that he's illiterate. Because of his disability, he never went to school. He never learned how to read. And he's more than 100 years old now, he still hasn't learned to read or write. And I have had a real challenge internally recognizing that all my life, I've been taught that the people I respect are the people who are educated. And this man has a different kind of education, but it's not one that I've learned to respect.


So it's these kinds of assumptions and stereotypes that I learned to challenge through him. There are many more. Ageism is a big one for me and a big one for a lot of us. What does it mean to have a hero who's more than 100? I mean, we don't think about our elders in that way. Not in this culture.


So as we think about what we want to give our children in terms of seeing the humanity in people who seem different from us, this is part of what intersectionality looks like in our tradition. It goes back to this concept of oneness—seeing the connection across people, and often across people who seem very different from us. So I just had this profound experience through this man and his story, and that's exactly what I wanted to pass on to my kids.

Darren Isom (28:26):

Beautiful. And you've written as well, quite a bit on this idea of radical introspection as a tool to understand others and their actions. Can you share more about the concept of radical introspection for our listeners who may be unfamiliar? And also just think about how leaders and people in positions of power can utilize the framework to build connections and uplift marginalized communities.

Simran Jeet Singh (28:47):

It's a hard one. And I think in part, it was easier for me, relatively, because I had developed a muscle for introspection through spiritual practice. But it's not one that I really took on seriously from a social perspective. I never really introspected in terms of my inner self and how I had learned, or I had developed, my understanding of other people.


And the big challenge, the big moment came for me in 2012 after a white supremacist massacred people in my community, while they prayed in their place of worship. And up until this point, as I was sharing earlier, for the most part, I hadn't had trouble seeing the humanity in people. Even when people said racist things to me, or were mean to me, or whatever, I could get there. I could understand them. I could see them.


And in this case with this white supremacist, I couldn't see it. I was so mad. I was so upset with this guy who was so overtaken by his own hatred, that he couldn't control it. And he ended up killing innocent people. And he was so cowardly that he killed himself before he could be held accountable. I was mad.


And as I tried to deal with that anger that I had, I went back to many of the tools that I had used before. Trying to understand this person's biography and how he got to be this way. Sometimes, that engenders sympathy or connection, where there's something that happens where I'm like, "Okay, I see where this person is coming from." And that had always worked for me. And in this case, it wasn't.


I tried academic study. I'm trained as a scholar. I study hate. I study race. I study religion. I started going to the message boards that he used to go to, trying to understand a little bit more about his world view, what motivated him, who he hung out with. And the more I did that, the madder I got. This is not pretty stuff. And also, none of it makes sense to me. I don't look at the world this way.

Darren Isom (30:53):

These coping mechanisms aren't working, right? Yeah, totally.

Simran Jeet Singh (30:56):

Not this time. So I really didn't know what to do. And that's where this practice of radical introspection started to do something different for me. But what I started to do was instead of looking to him for connection, and instead of looking to aspects of his life to recognize my own, I started to look at myself first. I'm not really sure where this came from. It's not something that had been taught to me.


But part of what's happening during this period in my life is that I'm involved in racial justice organizations. I'm starting to learn about ideas like implicit and unconscious bias. And what I'm unraveling internally about myself is actually, I have some of these white supremacist ideas inside of me too.


And up until this point in my life, I would've denied it. I would've been offended if you had said that about me. And through these trainings, I started to understand actually, it's not personal. It's not about me. This is what our society is like. These are the messages that I've been receiving.

Darren Isom (31:59):

You've been sitting here with everybody else. Right? You're in the same America as the rest of us.

Simran Jeet Singh (32:03):

Yeah. And part of my perspective up until this point was, "Hey, I'm the victim," right? "I'm brown skinned. I have a turban. I'm a victim of racism. I'm not a perpetrator." And it was very much a duality for me. Either you're one or the other. And it hadn't occurred to me that these ideas could be inside of me, even while I'm being a victim of it.


And I think this practice of introspection, coming through these trainings on implicit bias, unconscious bias, whatever you want to call it—that really opened me up to the possibility that I had these ideas inside of me. And that made me start to uncover those and see how they came inside of me, helped me recognize my own imperfections, my own flaws, the social conditionings, and so on. And that is what started to create an understanding of what this person was like, and where they were coming from, in a way that actually felt honest. It felt resonant. And it also gave me this space to forgive other people's imperfections, not just the extreme situation of a white supremacist killer. But also now, giving grace to other people who are imperfect as I meet them. That's true for random people on the street. That's true for my own kids. That's true for my partner. It's just softened me in a way that I wouldn't have expected when I first started it.

Darren Isom (33:23):

And there's something to be said about the powerful gift of grace on so many levels, and how it exists in so many cultures, and so many different ways. And how it leads us to both in forgiving ourselves, forgiving others too. There's something very empowering about that as well.


I do want to spend just a little bit of time, and I've shared with you in many ways how I feel that... there's a wonderful quote from Andre Leon Talley, actually. Someone was asking him about where did he gain his love of fashion, his love of aesthetics, and all the things. And he talked about how although he taught in fashion schools, and worked in the best fashion magazines, and was around all of the muses that were necessary within the pop culture world, everything he needs to know about fashion or about the world in general, he learned as a kid going to church in North Carolina. This powerful shoutout to his religious upbringing.


And for me, I feel like so much of my world was really positively shaped about my time sitting in fourth pew and then up in the mezzanine at some point when I was old enough to sit away from the adults, at church as just a liberating and graceful experience.


I do want to give you space to share as you think about both your upbringing from a faith perspective and your community, what are the lessons that you've learned there that you think can be internalized and shared for funders as they think about doing better work for all of us? Where does Sikhism, in some ways, offer lessons that the world can learn from, particularly within the philanthropy space?

Simran Jeet Singh (34:50):

So many directions in which I could take this. And there are a few that I'll offer as I'm looking at my community and seeing what opportunity and generosity looks like.


There's a big cultural conversation around this—the approach of scarcity versus abundance. And part of the conversation around abundance that I see as it plays out in this country is A, there's enough to go around. And then the follow-up is even when you give more than you have to give, it'll come back to you. Twofold, fivefold, tenfold, right? We've all heard versions of this.


And I think part of what we learn in our tradition is the outcome of that or the payback is not the point. There's this really beautiful line from Guru Angad, the second teacher. He's talking about what it means to be a lover. And if you're truly inspired by love, you're not sitting there accounting. He's describing somebody who's a shopkeeper, and you're not taking account of what is the dollar amount or each piece that you received. And essentially what he's saying is, it's not transactional. That love is generous, and there's no real self-interest, and there's no real payback expected.


And this resonates for me as a father. I mean more so than any other relationship that. I give to my kids without any expectation in return. If it comes back twofold, fivefold, tenfold, great. If it doesn't, fine. And my parents were the same way with me. And I can tell you honestly, I haven't returned their love in the way that they love me. They haven't complained about that. I mean, they've complained about other things, but not that.

Darren Isom (36:37):

I'm sure they have. Yeah.

Simran Jeet Singh (36:40):

So part of what I'm thinking about here, and it's somewhat of a raw thought that's coming out of me, is what does it look like to be transactional in a context where we're looking for impact, we're looking for metrics? And those are important tools for affecting change. But then what we're also looking for is the return, right? We're always asking, "What's the ROI? What are we getting back when we're giving this? What's the deliverable?"


And I think part of it, being on the receiving side and having been on the funding side, but also especially trying to think about this from the perspective of someone who lives and practices as a Sikh. Part of the question that I'm grappling with is actually, if we're taking this abundance mindset and we're living fully with generosity, and trying to live into love, how tied ought we be to the outcomes, to the deliverables, to the transactions?


And it's not to say we stop caring about the change. Of course we do, right? That's part of what love is. Cornel West says, "Justice is what love looks like in public." And I love that, right? That's part of what philanthropy is at its best.


But the question for me is, are we limiting our opportunity? Not just for impact, but also for love. By tying ourselves so much to what the outcomes are, what the deliverables are. It's a tough balance. I recognize that. But it's just an idea to play with, and it's something that I've been playing with as well.

Darren Isom (38:10):

A hundred percent. I love this concept of the ROI being a limited fact when you're investing so much from a love perspective, and how do we measure success in a way that's meaningful and powerful, and really gets to the heart of it? Well, this has been a great conversation. We're well over. I really enjoyed chatting with you today. I do want to give you space. I always give folks an opportunity. I talk all the time about how I had a therapist many years ago who said that sometimes hope comes from experience. And as we look out in the future, I would love to give you an opportunity to share as you think about what brings you hope, what experiences have built into that or exemplify that for you? Where does your hope come from these days?

Simran Jeet Singh (38:47):

It comes from an experience that I had when I was younger, where things felt really difficult and dark. And my parents helped me realize that I was only focusing on the negative. And so the practice that I've developed, and I use it often, is that when things feel dark, pop outside where people are, and just watch them. 15 minutes, 20 minutes, see what they do.


I will guarantee you. I've been surprised by this, and now I've come to expect it. And it's always a nice reminder. Nine times out of 10, amazing. What they'll do for one another, for strangers. It just reinforces the goodness and humanity. So at times when things feel dark, and people are hurting each other, and it doesn't feel like there's any hope that we don't care about each other, it's nice just to go out into the world and watch people actually take care of one another, with no expectation of anything in return. Picking up a glove that someone drops on the street. I saw that this morning when I was walking. Somebody's kid falls over, and a stranger goes and helps them up. I mean, these little things. But they just remind me that actually, these aren't random acts of kindness. This is how people are. And it's easy to forget that sometimes and lose hope.

Darren Isom (39:55):

A hundred percent. It's a wonderful way to end the conversation as well, reminding me of the Bill Cunningham quote, the New York Times photographer, who always said that "He who seeks beauty will find it. Look out in the world, because there's plenty of beauty out there." That's a lot to restore our faith and our sense of grace in the world. So thank you so much for your time. This has been beautiful. I appreciate the conversation, and I hope to talk with you soon.

Simran Jeet Singh (40:14):

Sounds great. Thanks, Darren. Really enjoyed it.

Darren Isom (40:17):

As a child during the summer months, my maternal grandfather, my grandpa Royal, would wake me before day in the morning and invite me to go fishing with him. I was one of some 15 grandchildren, and not the oldest or the youngest. So one-on-one time with Grandpa Royal was always a treat.


We start the morning digging for worms in the backyard. When we collected enough, we packed the car. And armed with fishing rods and lunch prepared by my grandma Lucinda, we'd head up River Road to a spot beyond the levy, where I would sit under a tree and fish until early morning. My grandpa was quiet. And unsurprisingly, I was a bit of a talker. And prompted by his questions, I'd talk earnestly for hours about school. What I was learning and everything I knew or thought I knew.


Occasionally, our conversation, which was more like a monologue, would be interrupted by a catch. Catfish, trout, or perch that we'd throw back in instantly. My grandma Lucinda didn't cook river fish, and wouldn't even allow it in the house. We'd break for lunch, and before heading back, my grandpa would have us take a few minutes to pause the conversation and listen for the river. I never knew what we were listening for, but it seemed important to my grandpa so I played along, wanting to keep him happy. After a few minutes of silence, he'd announce, "That's nice, right? Okay, little professor, let's head back.” And we'd pack up and head back to the house.


My grandpa Royal died more than 15 years ago. The last of my grandparents, all of whom I was lucky enough to know to pass on. But I think of him often. And when I'm home in New Orleans and time allows, I walk along the levy and take a minute to listen for the river. I'm reminded of the Navajo blessing prayer. "I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me. I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty above me. I walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful." A bit of beauty to lessen this load that is life. Beauty that Simran would be happy with.


And voila y'all, that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan-supported StudioPod Media production.


Special shoutouts to our wonderful show producers, Theresa Buchanan and Denise Savas; our video editor, Dave Clark McCoy; graphic designer Diana Jimenez; and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge shoutout to my Bridgespan production team and family: Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diane, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel. What a squad, y'all. Truly best practice. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Catch you next time.

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