Sonny Partola: How educators can support Utah’s Sikh students and communities

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion globally, with more than 30 million followers — over 700,000 of whom reside in the United States.

The Sikh faith was founded in the 15th century in the northern region of India, known today as Punjab. Despite their presence in the U.S. since the beginning of the 20th century, relatively little is known about Sikhs by the broader U.S. population.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have recently passed bills to teach Sikhism in K-12 settings, and in 2022, the Utah State Board of Education voted in favor of including Sikhism into the social studies standards.

As a second-generation Sikh American and former K-12 employee, I argue that to support Sikh learners, we must first learn what Sikhism is and is not, given that many common misconceptions about Sikhism continue to plague the minds of Americans. For example, Sikhism is not a branch or combination of other religions, but a faith of its own, with particular tenets and teachings. Additionally, while uncut hair and wearing a turban is a common identifier of Sikh men, many followers prefer to cut their hair and/or beards — this does not make them any less Sikh.

Sikh communities have also experienced a great deal of discrimination in the U.S. since the events of 9/11, as many members of the Sikh faith have been misidentified as Muslim — a group also facing undue discrimination. Sikh youth, in particular, have been on the receiving end of Islamophobic attacks, such as being called “terrorists” by peers. Furthermore, in 2022 a Sikh student was arrested on the University of North Carolina campus for wearing a kirpan, a small dagger worn across the body by many followers of the Sikh faith. Finally, the Sikh community continues to condemn the acts of violence that took place in 2012, when a white supremacist entered a gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, opened fire and killed six Sikh congregants.

Nevertheless, the Sikh community has demonstrated unwavering resilience as they are guided by the mantra: “Nirbhau, Nirvair,” which translates to “living without fear and without hate.”

In order to meet the needs of Sikh students, schools must increase their knowledge about this community. Here’s how.

Look to national organizations

Several national organizations are working to disrupt misconceptions and increase the visibility of the Sikh community and students. The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) is the nation’s oldest Sikh-American civil rights organization dedicated to building leadership and capacity in the Sikh community. In addition to providing resources on Sikh awareness, SALDEF also has excellent internships for students who are interested in issues pertaining to the Sikh community.

The Sikh Coalition is another leading Sikh civil rights organization, and they provide an outstanding Educators Guide about the Sikh community, traditions and faith.

Finally, the Kaur Foundation is a nonprofit organization that partners with schools to deliver curriculum and teacher training that supports the equitable education of Sikh- Americans.


School curriculum is a wide-ranging area that is influenced by various factors, including subject, state standards and local and school politics. However, there are ways for educators to integrate Sikh-inclusive materials into their classrooms.

Many Sikh students, including myself, go through their entire K-12 education with little representation in class materials. An effective way to increase Sikh visibility is by including reading materials with Sikh characters.

Additionally, the most prominent Sikh holiday is Vaisakhi (April 13 and April 14), which celebrates the new solar year. This is an opportunity for educators to ask Sikh students what Vaisakhi means to them. Educators can use holidays, such as Vaisakhi, as entry points to discussing how Vaisakhi is commemorated with langar (free communal meal) and seva (community service), which are key principles of Sikhism.

School-Community Partnerships

For those educators willing to step beyond their comfort zones, I recommend visiting a Sikh temple, known as a gurdwara. The first gurdwara in the U.S. was established in California in 1912, and since then, gurdwaras have flourished in cities across the nation — including Salt Lake City.

Anyone can visit a gurdwara, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation or religion. By visiting a gurdwara, educators can learn more about the Sikh faith and key stakeholders of these communities. Many times, important conversations about relevant issues are discussed among congregants.

By introducing yourself as an educator and establishing trust with Sikh families and stakeholders, educators can develop stronger family-school-community partnerships, which can benefit the education of the students from this community.

Rather than responding to the culture wars and ongoing battles over school curriculum with fear, we must move forward with strength. Historically marginalized communities have demonstrated much resilience and passion in pursuit of social, political and educational justice. As educators, we must meet them and their children with the same level of commitment. The resources mentioned above can benefit educators in building a solid foundation for learning about and supporting the educational needs of the Sikh community. By getting to know our students, their communities and their faith, we can prioritize and support these students’ wellbeing and educational success.

Sonny Partola

Sonny Partola is a Sikh graduate student and educator dedicated to improving the relationships between minoritized families, schools and communities. Prior to university teaching, Sonny worked in college and career readiness programming in public schools throughout Salt Lake City.