Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of conversations with those who have survived high-profile shootings or lost loved ones to them. The other interviews, as well as background about the series, can be found here.
On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist killed six worshippers in the Sikh temple of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, including Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s president. Satwant’s son, Pardeep, narrowly missed the violence, having turned back home that day to pick up a notebook his daughter had forgotten there.
Pardeep Singh Kaleka understands many sides of the debate over guns, as a former police officer, schoolteacher, and, for three of the six years since his father’s death, a trauma therapist. Just two months after the shooting, Kaleka reached out to Arno Michaelis, a renounced white supremacist, to understand what could drive someone to murder those in his community. Together, they founded Serve2Unite, an organization that aims to address the causes of violence, and co-wrote the forthcoming book The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate.
I spoke with Kaleka to learn about how he turned his grief into action, and how he is responding to the country’s strong reaction to last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Steven Johnson: How did you work through the aftermath of the shooting as a family?
Pardeep Singh Kaleka: Putting on a brave face for everybody was basically the protocol. We knew that day that it was a white supremacist that had done it. The Sikh community is about resiliency through struggle. We take pride in what we call shaheedi, in martyrdom. We knew we had to present that resilient spirit. That was what it looked like: figuring out funeral arrangements, fundraising, doing media interviews—but really doing it with a spirit of resiliency, whether we felt it or not.
That process exists within every community that’s affected by violence. I think that’s what Parkland represents now. I remember myself saying, “Okay, we need to do something about this.” The urgency to act is definitely where they’re at right now. Inspiration is great, but dedication and commitment are even better. That’s what the next couple years look like: to go through our own healing process, so that we can be dedicated and committed for longer than a few weeks.
Johnson: What do you feel when news breaks of another mass shooting?
Kaleka: Every time something like this happens, unfortunately, being a brown man in America—I do genuinely say, “I hope it’s not a brown person.” Our community has been feeling that stigma, really, since 9/11.
You get triggered, and your mind goes completely numb, back to that situation that happened that day. The first day, I just spend processing. It’s really tough to formulate any response, because your feelings are fluctuating so much. You’re like, I feel pissed—I feel guilty that I couldn’t do more. I feel fortunate that I have my life, and my daughter forgot that notebook.
But eventually, you’re energized to keep building that message that we need to get to a safer society. Gun legislation is definitely on the table. But we also need to demilitarize our society, and change the violent narrative that exists, as a collective.
Johnson: And what are your feelings now, after Parkland? Do you feel like the climate has shifted?
Kaleka: I do. I feel like a lot of that has to do with the spirit of the youth. They’re not so inundated with the way that things were. That’s why I think the collective consciousness is changing.
After the temple shooting, the youth were not the establishment, or the people with most of the power within the temple structure. The youth really said we’ve got to do something about this. So we formed Serve2Unite, not simply as a way for people to know who we were, but for us to get out into the broader community. We realized very quickly that we were—not purposefully, but coincidentally, like every immigrant group—self-segregated. Serve2Unite was a vehicle to get out into the broader community.
That’s been who has been the most committed to it. It’s been the youth. People that are younger than me—the 17-year-olds, the 19-year-olds, the 21-year-olds—They all get it.
Johnson: You’ve been a police officer, a teacher, and a trauma therapist. How have those backgrounds informed how you think about gun violence?
Kaleka: When you’re a police officer, sometimes you don't have the luxury of gray-area thinking, of critical thinking. That survival mechanism has a psychological effect on you. In training, I’ve shot a gun till my hand was ready to fall off.
As a teacher, I was free of that. As an educator, I said, “No, I don’t have to respond to the active shooter.”
For example, I was teaching in inner-city Milwaukee. And one night, the principal and I were leaving the school. We were the last two to leave. And I see from my car window that my principal is being robbed at gunpoint. And I take my car, and just because I had that mentality as a police officer of going into firefights, I tried to run the guy over with my car as he’s holding the gun. Now, luckily, I was able to scare the person enough that he ran off, but I thank God that I didn’t have to make the decision of pulling a firearm and having to shoot somebody, or get into a firefight.
When it comes to the possibility of arming teachers, we’re not going to talk about that as much—what psychological toll this is going to have on the mental health of educators, when they know they have this gun that can take somebody’s life in their possession, and the what-if scenario that they struggle with while they teach social studies.
Johnson: And now you’ve become a trauma therapist.
Kaleka: I’ve been a trauma therapist for the last three years, as a result of what happened at the temple. I really wanted to understand what drives this human behavior, and that got me into learning about trauma, and the role that trauma plays. A lot of the people that I work with now are specifically men who are affected by a great deal of pain and trauma in their life.
Violence is so multi-symptom. The complexity of multi-symptom problems needs multi-symptom solutions.
Johnson: Where do you think the national conversation goes from here? Do you feel hope, cynicism, frustration?
Kaleka: I feel all that. I feel frustration. Sandy Hook happened about four months after our shooting. And then, you know, nothing really changed. Not enough to make up for the human suffering. But I do feel hopeful. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with students every single year that Serve2Unite has been around. And to see the kind of advocacy they’re doing, and carrying through it. I feel like we have empowered these young men and women to be in the place that they are right now, to have this conversation, and to do something about it.
And generally I feel hopeful as a father. I see my kids, and thankfully they’re so much smarter than I was at their age. [Laughs] That gives me hope. Cynicism is healthy, because I think it keeps people accountable. That’s the balance that I have to look at life with.