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Local History Project Trains Students to Tell Sikh Community Stories



Fresno County's Kearney Mansion Museum will host an exhibit next year spotlighting oral histories. (Fresno Historical Society/Rich Berrett)
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Gary Chahil recalls making trips back and forth to India every year as a child and treasures those visits as something special.

Now, as humanities adviser for the Sikh Youth Project in Fresno, he will be helping others from his community document the Sikh and South Asian culture across the Valley.

“It’s a humanitarian project where we’re teaching our Sikh and South Asian youth how to become collectors and curators of their personal history,” said Chahil.

“The Valley has always stood with the Sikhs and so has the leadership. So I think it’s going to be a positive impact and they’ll appreciate more information on who their neighbor is, who their doctor is, or in some cases, you know, who’s the guy behind the counter at the gas station, the business owners, realtors, religious leaders, doctors, and educators.”

Collecting Oral Histories

Candice Pendergrass, development director with the Fresno City and County Historical Society, will work in partnership with Chahil to recruit students from Fresno area high schools to produce the oral histories on video. 

The students will learn the value of oral histories in historical research and the process for collecting stories. They’ll also be trained on technical skills including setting up camera shots, proper lighting, and using other audio and visual devices to conduct interviews.

Workshops will begin in early 2022, with the final exhibit and online launch of the oral histories digital collection planned for late summer. 

Representation of Sikh Voices

Chahil, who sits on the Historical Society board, says that the main goal of the project is to help students build and preserve local Sikh community stories that will help foster understanding among their neighbors and fellow residents.

Originally from Detroit, Chahil has been living in California for the past 14 years and has been active in building awareness of the Sikh community in Fresno through community events and his non-profit organization, the NANAK Mission.

NANAK seeks to promote and educate a better understanding of the Sikh community in the U.S.

“We do a lot of interfaith conferences with the NANAK Mission, and it’s something that I do basically on behalf of the community and working with our city council members and things of that sort,” said Chahil. “It’s been an honor in working with the Historical Society on helping people, you know, get educated on who Sikhs are.”

Members of the Sikh community in Fresno attend an event at the Fresno State Memorial Garden. (Photo: Gary Chahil)

Pendergrass says Chahil will be an anchor point for helping connect with Sikh and South Asian American groups that serve students, and she hopes that this project will help inform the larger Fresno community about the rich history of Sikhs.

As we get to know each other and understand each other, we can learn from each other and find better ways to be neighbors and citizens together,” said Pendergrass. “It is important for us as we collect these stories to share them so we can better understand where we’re all coming from and that is something that would be nothing but beneficial for our community, for our South Asian and Sikh citizens, to be able to say who they are, where they come from, why they do what they do, and what their practices are.”

Fresno Only Valley City Awarded Grant

The California Humanities program received $175,000 in funding which aims to “give voice to voices seldom heard,” according to the organization’s website. 

Pendergrass says the Historical Society applied for a $20,000 grant with the California Humanities program to help boost Sikh representation in its portfolio and as a way to conserve history through more updated digital forms. 

At the end of the program, the oral histories will be shared on-line and showcased in an exhibition at the Kearney Mansion Museum.

Liz Juarez joined GV Wire in July, 2021 as a Digital News Producer. She has experience working for publications around the Central Valley including the Clovis Roundup, Porterville Recorder and Hanford Sentinel. While in college, she interned for Mountain West Athletics and served as Outreach Chair for the Fresno State Radio and Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). Liz earned a bachelor's degree in Media Communications and Journalism at Fresno State and a master's degree in Communications from Arizona State University. In her down time, she enjoys reading, drawing and staying active by playing basketball, taking trips to the coast and visiting national parks. You can contact Liz at