To engage older generations in the electoral process, young Sikh advocates take to community hubs like gurdwaras. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition.

Like many children of immigrants, Yashpreet Singh grew up interpreting and translating for his Punjabi parents. This, in part, fueled his interest in community affairs and led him to canvas for state representative Ranjeev Puri, the first Sikh American lawmaker in Michigan, who would represent Yashpreet’s district in Canton, a suburb of Detroit. 

Yashpreet was no longer just translating language for his parents; in a broader sense, he was translating for his entire community.   

“The most powerful thing to me is always the idea of educating people who are very much like myself on the intricacies of how to get involved and how to talk to your legislators and how to talk to your parents, community members, that kind of translation,” Yashpreet said. “You become a medium of politics and community.”

Being part of this youth-led civic “translation” would ultimately inspire Yashpreet, now 25, to equip the next generation of Sikh American mobilizers with the tools they need to navigate U.S. politics for themselves and their elders. He spends much of his time collaborating with colleagues in New York City, where he’s looking to mobilize Sikh communities to vote. To this end, he started training young go-getters as part of a new fellowship program.

How Sikh advocates are engaging the next civic interpreters

Yashpreet is the community development manager for the Sikh Coalition, a national nonprofit that works to protect the civil rights of U.S.-based Sikhs. The coalition wants to increase voter turnout and foster political awareness and activism within the Sikh community. 

Late last month, the organization launched a six-month fellowship program called Get Out The Vote (GOTV). It selected two upper-class high school students, three college students, and one recent graduate, who are being taught how to educate and engage their community in the voting process. 

Fellows learn how to talk to others about civics topics like state delegates and voter registration processes. They’re being trained on how to gauge interest from gurdwaras (places of worship) on whether they want to set up polling locations and to recruit poll chaplains, or peacekeepers at elections sites. The fellowship also encourages creative outreach methods, like discussing issues relevant to the Sikh community through Instagram Live, interviewing community members about their reasons for voting and sharing their stories on social media.

The priority was selecting fellows from swing states, but even blue states like New York are a key focus for campaigns to help raise Sikh political participation. After California, New York and New Jersey have the largest concentration of Sikhs in the U.S. 

The new Get Out The Vote fellows are being trained in how to talk to other Sikhs about civics. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition.

The Sikh Coalition will also be hiring a young fellow to lead voter engagement projects in Queens. Richmond Hill, a neighborhood in Queens known as “Little Punjab” due to its high Sikh population, was also one of the neighborhoods with the lowest response rates to the last census, signaling access issues with civic processes.  

Barriers to civic entry for Sikh immigrants

Some Sikh community members are not civically engaged for a variety of reasons, many of them systemic. Data shows that millions of eligible voters are disenfranchised by language barriers. In addition, despite South Asians being the fastest-growing immigrant group in the nation, they are canvassed less by political campaigns. 

When Yashpreet was a young canvasser for Michigan Rep. Puri, part of Puri’s campaign involved establishing free breakfast and lunch at all K-12 public schools. “That was an easy sell,” Yashpreet said. “But my parents, a lot of people in the community would not have had any idea if they [or their children] weren’t campaigning for him.” Young people engaging their parents on issues like food access, which directly affect their families, helped mobilize a community otherwise disconnected from politics, he says.

The new fellowship to train Sikh youth to engage others in the electoral process was the brainchild of Yashpreet Singh of the Sikh Coalition. Photo courtesy of Yashpreet Singh.

At least for Yashpreet’s parents and their peers in Michigan, this disconnect can be traced back to their homeland.   

“My parents are not very involved because they were trained to be disengaged with politics because of how politics is in India itself, their country of origin,” Yashpreet said. “And so that kind of idea has come into the U.S. as well — that it’s not worth engaging because nothing actually changes.” 

The reasons for this perspective are complex, but at its root is a long history of disenfranchisement of Punjabs starting in the mid-1900s, he says. 

“Every single step we tried to take forward throughout history was met with opposition from many different sides,” Yashpreet said. “So I think a lot of people, especially my parents’ generation, are not particularly interested in moving that forward — I would say the majority of people are more interested in simply taking care of their families and things of that nature apart from politics.”


While people bring their own perspectives on politics they’ve grown up with, including in other countries, it’s the job of community advocacy organizations to help engage these folks, says Hardayal Singh (not related to Yashpreet), director of United Sikhs, a nonprofit organization based in New York City that aims to empower marginalized communities around the world, including Sikhs. 

Language barriers, less canvassing from candidates, and a long history of disenfranchisement are some hurdles to voter turnout from older immigrant Sikhs. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition.

“We play a role to break the stigma [that voting doesn’t work] and educate them that these stigmas may occur in the countries that they are in, but that the United States is different,” Hardayal says. “Your constitution guarantees you that it’s important that you take an informed approach to take decisions, and voting is the biggest stick in the whole block to get what you want.”

A lack of political savviness is a big barrier for the immigrant Sikh community, he adds: “People are not even aware many times what candidates are there in the region that they’re voting for,” Hardyal said. “You have a larger idea between Republicans and Democrats and liberals, but it’s a larger difficulty knowing what the background of the candidate is, what things they’re involved with.” 

What helps, he says, are candidates meeting the community where they’re at — speaking at gurdwaras, for instance. And the young people doing the work of engaging in gurdwaras and homes. 

Back to the young

“The youth plays a role in the families that are more informed as to what’s going on, no doubt about that,” Hardayal says. “But the elderly —I think mostly it’s because of a disconnect between the engagement and the political system —don’t get much of an idea of what’s happening. There’s a gap that I see.”

Younger Sikhs are trying to close the gap for community members who might be more disconnected from U.S. politics. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition.

Young people play a crucial role in the streets too, he says. United Sikhs’ volunteers range from people in their mid-20s to those in their 30s and 40s, especially in Queens. Many of their activities are focused in neighborhoods with big South Asian populations, like Jackson Heights and Richmond Hill. A diverse crew of civic advocates helps older Sikhs relate on issues that most matter to them — in the New York metro area, that’s largely hate crimes, jobs, and getting their share of resources, Hardayal says. 

Despite the community’s historical mistrust of politics, Yashpreet also believes older generations will listen to young Sikhs leading civic efforts. His experience during the last election gives him hope. Youths, faced with nobody doing the hard work of hitting the streets on issues they care about, will likely have the most time, energy, and interest in that work, Yashpreet says. 

He also hopes to expose youths to a whole world that once took him by surprise: “I had no idea that you could have a career in politics — or get involved or even some level of engagement that is not a career for forever, but a rather kind of annual involvement in politics — without having a degree in it,” he says. 

“What excites me a lot is the idea of creating community activists,” Yashpreet said. “The more community activists you have, the more representation you have, the more likely that issues that affect our communities are given power.”

Resources for Sikh New Yorkers who want to get civically involved:

  • For voting support in Punjabi and other languages, call this hotline at 1-888-API-VOTE or 1-888-274-8683.
  • Learn more about the GOTV initiative here.
  • You can apply to the Sikh Coalition’s paid fellowship to civically engage other Sikhs in Queens. 
  • To get involved in GOTV volunteering, you can reach out to Yashpreet Singh directly at or fill out a volunteer form and set up a meeting with Yashpreet here

This is part of Epicenter NYC’s coverage of underrepresented communities and issues around the 2024 elections. Read more of our political stories here.

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