Congratulations on your incredible victory in Hoboken’s mayoral race. Did you feel like there was a lot of attention placed on your faith? How do you approach the topic with people who ask about the Sikh faith?
Thank you. I believe I won the election because I had served 8 years on the City Council, twice as City Council President, had the enthusiastic endorsement of a popular outgoing Mayor, had a track record of accomplishment, and the most detailed, realistic policy plans to improve the lives of my constituents. My faith was not a central focus of the Mayoral race until the very end. When people asked me about my Sikh faith, I emphasized that I was not running to be Hoboken’s Sikh Mayor, but Hoboken’s Mayor who happens to be Sikh.
Are there many misperceptions about Sikhism that you confront?Yes. Some associate the turban and beard, which are required articles of the Sikh faith, with terrorism and vocalize that association. When that happens, I share that I am a Sikh and that prejudice against anyone simply because of their faith is wrong. We should judge people by their individual actions, nothing else.

How can communities better educate themselves and be more inclusive of those who participate in the Sikh faith?

There are numerous resources online of Sikhs and the Sikh faith, and being more inclusive. I very highly recommend the “About Sikhs” section of the Sikh Coalition’s website. That said, the best education comes from person to person interaction. You’ll find that there is more that binds us together as human beings and divides us. In terms of inclusion, the Sikh Coalition’s Resources section is very helpful. It includes a plethora of resources on combatting school bullying against Sikh children, resources for educators on Sikhs, and resources on combatting discrimination.

You have spent a great deal of time in courtrooms defending the ability for individuals to avoid discrimination based on their faith. Have you ever been bullied because of your faith or ethnicity? If so, could you share what happened?

I have endured discrimination in various forms, from name-calling to violence, since I was young until today. Like many children, I experienced school bullying. This included name-calling and harassment by classmates because of my faith or perceived faith. My message to young people enduring bullying is first that it’s wrong and that there are people who will support you likely within your school, and certainly outside your school if you reach out to them. There is no reason to feel shame, you have done nothing wrong, but you must reach out to those who will help you if you can’t help yourself.

Did it influence your decision to become a civil rights attorney?

My experience with school bullying led me to be a civil rights advocate as an adult. It’s my hope that people realize that with time, it does get better, and that you can turn your pain from school bullying into progress over time if you reach out and take action.

What do you think are the best ways for someone being bullied to respond?

The most important response is to talk about it, don’t hold it in. People will support you if you reach out. You are not alone and you have done nothing wrong.

Being a parent, what do you do to communicate to your children about the value of diversity?

I say to my children that light and love is in every human being and one of the most important things we will ever do in our lifetimes is to bring out light and love in every person not matter who they are, their race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, and the like.

How do you share the concept of bullying with your children? What ways do you bring that subject up as a parent and how your child should react if they see bullying?

My children are relatively young and so I have not spoken to them a great deal about bullying. I will always encourage my children to talk about it when it happens to their teachers and to their parents, whether it occurs to them or someone else. I would also hope that my children will be upstanders and stand up for children experiencing bullying when they see or hear it.

It is so important that parents are able to Stand Up, Stand Out in their communities to encourage bullying prevention through a program like #Day1. How does your child’s school community discuss the impacts of bullying, and what do you feel needs to be done (or is being done) to prevent bullying, harassment and hostility from impacting students?

We are blessed to live in a school district in Hoboken that takes a very active stance to address school bullying. All public school districts have a dedicated staff member to leads anti-bullying efforts in schools—something I have never had as a child growing up in New Jersey—and the school regularly holds programs on school bullying. I think an active culture, like what we have in Hoboken, where school leadership actively names the problem and makes clear that bullying is inappropriate is a critical foundation for combatting it.

If you could say something to a person being bullied, what would you say?

You are loved. You have done nothing wrong. Be who you are and be free. You have support. Don’t be afraid to speak out. If you do, you will receive support eventually.

Ravinder (or Ravi, for short) Bhalla was born and raised in New Jersey, is most proud of his work as a civil rights lawyer, and looks forward to serving all and serving my constituents as Hoboken’s incoming Mayor. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The views or experiences expressed are solely those of the contributor or interview subject and do not represent the views of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, its staff or board. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the material, please contact the Tyler Clementi Foundation, and we appreciate your support and commitment to end bullying starting on #Day1.

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