President Harris moderates Constructive Engagement Forum

Alex Appel, Editor in Chief

On Monday, April 29 President David Harris moderated a talk between founders of Serve 2 Unite Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis. This was the first talk in a lecture series on constructive engagement.

Since his inauguration in September, Harris has discussed his views on constructive engagement, which he sees as an alternative to free speech on college campuses. Harris has articulated unregulated free speech can be harmful to college campuses. Insead, campuses should strive to foster what Harris describes as “constructive engagement.”

According to him, talking freely often devolves into two parties talking over each other and yields little progress. In contrast, constructive engagement is a means for people to be confronted with new ideas and challenge their own beliefs in a respectful and productive manner. Kaleka and Michaelis spoke to this point during the talk.

Kaleka and Michaelis met after the 2012 Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shooting. The shooting, which left Kaleka’s father dead, was perpetrated by a white supremacist who was a member of an organization that Michaelis helped form in the 1980s.

The two founded Serve 2 Unite after the event as a “means of establishing a healthy sense of identity, purpose, and belonging that diverts young people from violent extremist ideologies, gun violence, school shootings, bullying, and substance abuse, along with other forms of self-harm,” according to the organization’s website.

During this talk, they discussed how hate had impacted their lives. Kaleka spoke about his experience in the Milwaukee Police Department and as a public school education, as well as the emotions he felt after losing his father. Michaelis recalled his involvement in white supremacist movements and how he came to disavowed his former beliefs. This talk happened two days after the Poway synagogue shooting.

Kaleka shared his family and personal history. His parents were both immigrants from India with limited education who came to the United States, worked hard and eventually opened a small business and paid for their children to go through college. According to Kaleka, through hard work his father “found his place in the American dream.”

For five years Kaleka worked in the 53206 Milwaukee zip code area as a cop. That neighborhood is the most incarcerated neighborhood in Wisconsin. Over 60 percent of African American men living in that zip code are currently incarcerated. During his time in the police force, poverty increased in the the neighborhoods he patrolled and so did crime. For years he told himself that by taking criminals off streets, he was making the area safer.

“It was never lost on me the why of what was going on, but in many ways I was just ignoring it,” Kaleka said when describing the systemic racism of the area. Eventually, he decided that working as a police officer was too “complicated” and decided to teach in that neighborhood instead.

After his father was killed, Kaleka said that “[his] students who were going through some of the most difficult life circumstances ended up helping me and saving me because I saw in them strength and resolve.”

Michaelis described a very different childhood. He grew up in the upper-middle class, although he was one of the poorer people in his neighborhood. He spoke the stress that his father’s alcoholism put on his mother and how he became angry because of it.