2021 Unity Awards Honoree: Pardeep Singh Kaleka

He builds community from tragedy.

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Nanak naam chardi kala, tere bhaane sarbat da bhala. The phrase, which roughly translates to “In God’s will, we shall remain relentlessly optimistic in our commitment towards the betterment of all mankind,” sits at the heart of the Sikh religion, and Pardeep Singh Kaleka has said it tens of thousands of times over the course of his life. But while Kaleka memorized the expression as a kid, he would not come to truly understand its meaning for another three decades, when he found himself rebuilding his life in the wake of tragedy. 

Growing up in Milwaukee, Kaleka, whose family moved to the United States from Punjab, India, in 1982, often played the role of cultural – and literal – translator for his immigrant parents. “We moved a lot and I had to learn how to fit in,” says Kaleka. “My father, who had a thick accent and wore a turban, didn’t always get that opportunity. So for those people who were not comfortable with him, I was often the one to bridge the gap. I was always the one to bring people together.” 

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Kaleka’s ability to connect proved useful in the Milwaukee Police Department, where he served as a police officer for four years, and in Milwaukee Public Schools, where he taught at-risk youth for eight. But it wasn’t until Aug. 5, 2012, when a white supremacist entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and fatally shot six members, including Kaleka’s father, that the 44-yearold decided to focus his life around building bridges. “In the hours following the shooting, so many different people and communities came together,” recalls Kaleka. “They all spoke this universal language of empathy. In that moment, I felt I had a choice. I could let this be a one-off or I could keep people together and help them navigate different languages, customs and cultures.” 

Kaleka, perhaps unsurprisingly, chose the latter. He soon started giving talks on the power of empathy, and in 2018 Kaleka, along with former white supremacist Arno Michaelis, wrote The Gift of Our Wounds, a book that explores the power of forgiveness. A year later, in 2019, Kaleka was hired as the executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, a role he hopes will broaden the longstanding group’s reach. “I’m the first nonwhite, non-Christian executive director of Interfaith,” says Kaleka. “I took the job because I believe in the work, but I also took it because for America to feel welcoming to immigrants, people need to see themselves in institutions.” Last year, he also took on the executive director role of the Zeidler Group, a nonprofit that promotes civic discourse. 

While it’s been difficult to build any kind of community during the coronavirus pandemic, Kaleka hasn’t lost sight of the work. Sometimes, he says, the most important connection is the one with yourself. “There are so many people struggling right now,” says Kaleka, “but living through this has also caused us to sit still and take in what’s really important. Maybe there’s purpose to this, too.” You might even call it chardi kala.

Pardeep Kaleka and former white supremacist Arno Michaelis. The two co-wrote The Gift of Our Wounds in 2018. Photo courtesy of Pardeep Singh Kaleka

What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee? 

 

“When I first came to Milwaukee, what I observed was a city with a neighborhood feel; a feeling where you feel like you’re being raised by a village rather than living in fear of the village. And there’s work to be done: it has to focus on how we can get Milwaukee to feel like a village once again. How can we care for our neighbors’ children? We need to repair that. Not just the individual level, but a systemic one, too.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue.

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