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Jessie Lehail of the Kaur Collective: “Having a Diversity of Thought Makes You a Better Leader”

For our February feature, we had the honour of connecting with Jessie Kaur Lehail, a WNORTH Member and the visionary behind the Kaur Collective. Our paths crossed at a community event where Jessie championed the cause of women at WNORTH. Soon after, we delved into the remarkable success story of Kaur Collective.

Born and raised in British Columbia, Jessie is a woman of diverse and intersecting identities, navigating a journey that initially posed a challenge in defining her place in the world. Interestingly, this internal curiosity evolved into the driving force behind Kaur Collective, a unifying movement focused on uplifting Sikh women, who have the middle or last name Kaur. 

Over the past few years, the influence of Jessie’s organization has expanded significantly, gaining recognition in publications such as Vogue India, Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, Elle, Globe and Mail, NBC News, and others.

The Kaur Collective is a space for Kaurs to build deep connections, rise up, and reclaim their voices, identity, and so much more. The mission of the Kaur Collective extends beyond showcasing the stories of Sikh women. It also unpacks and demystifies the faith, addressing cultural misconceptions and fostering a resilient community of Kaurs.

You may know some women around you who carry the name “Kaur,” and there’s a powerful story behind this name. The meaning of “Kaur” embodies that of a warrior woman, liberating Sikh women from the conventional practice of adopting their father’s or husband’s names. This empowers them to navigate the world with a self-chosen identity. Rooted in history, this naming tradition originated in 1699 as a response to liberating Sikhs from the rigid caste system of ancient India. Gender equality is grounded within the Sikh faith. The name “Kaur” promotes women as individuals with value and identities which exist independently of their relationships with men. 

In a candid conversation with Jessie, we explored the depths of Kaur Collective and dove into strategies for initiating discussions, finding common ground despite our differences, and creating a shared goal to become a positive driving force within our communities.

Welcome, Jessie! What is the story behind the Kaur Collective?

The Kaur Collective began with a simple goal: to share stories of Sikh women. It has evolved significantly, especially during the COVID pandemic, as we leaned on faith and community, hosting over 250 virtual prayer sessions to satisfy our need for connection during this challenging time. During that time, we launched our first podcast season, leaned on Sikhi wisdom via social media engagement, and also trialed many virtual event experiences. 

In 2024, we are re-engaging with storytelling and the concepts of reclamation and body sovereignty with our programming and event-related opportunities. We are excited to launch our intersectional Punjabi classes as a first step to engaging and reclaiming our language. Larger work around the “brown body experience,” the environment, and how we as women build community will be prominent.

The backstory and ethos of this Collective is personal. It turns out that there isn’t just one voice for Sikh women; there’s a multitude, and creating space to share this diversity was imperative. The contemplation of identity resonates beyond Sikh women, attracting attention even from those outside our faith. Our stories were picked up by mainstream media because women across different faiths, cultures, and geographies found connections on how they belong to this world.

The Kaur Project started in 2015, and the project’s question of self-identification is more critical than ever in 2023. In 2024, women worldwide are curious to find their place in this world and ways to reclaim their identities. We all carry titles such as mothers, daughters, sisters, and professionals, but most women haven’t been asked how they want to be seen. Inside the Collective, we are curious about each other, our stories, and our faith. It’s incredibly liberating for these women to own their stories, share their challenges and traumas, and embrace resilience, mostly through faith and through our narratives. Kaur Collective provides a space to shed layers, be contemplative about our place in the world, and possibly reveal our divine purpose and how to move forward.

Jessie Kaur the Kaur Collective WNORTH

What do you think about organizations working together in a world that often seems disconnected?

I think there needs to be more collaboration between women and organizations. Organizations need to think deeper about how they are building communities, what identity groups are represented, what their approach is towards intersectional feminism, and how they are supporting the advancement of under-represented groups. 

Movements designed by and for BIPOC communities are still encountering challenges such as funding and collaboration. For example, Kaur Collective is 100% self-funded and driven by a commitment to give back. At some point, to do this important work, we will need to find external funding sources. I want to do this important work and not have to worry about how to fund it. 

Collaboration is imperative. We cannot fall into the trap that only one organization can be the voice for all women. We need to look at who is not at the table and invite others to join the conversation. We will extend our reach and positive impact much further and much faster if we work together.

How can individuals who are not part of the Kaur Collective or seek community in general best support the mission of the Kaur Collective?

Research, ask questions, and be introspective. Create inner space to contemplate how you want the world to see you and engage in this way. The work of Kaur Collective and WNORTH is similar in many respects. We aim to create moments and experiences for women to engage in deeper conversations and facilitate community building.  

This is what the world needs right now — a deeper understanding and an effort to recognize commonalities. We need to build bridges and navigate the world with informed perspectives without causing harm.

We need to engage in conversation with one another. Being curious about faith and understanding one another is crucial. I encourage women to join diverse communities, expand their networks, and become more well-rounded ambassadors for one another. 

Engaging in conversations with people who have different lived experiences, cultures, and faiths can help build connections, as having a diversity of thought makes you a better leader. And that's the power you have as an individual to truly contribute to the world.

We live in a world where people shy away from uncomfortable conversations or unfamiliar subjects, sometimes simply due to the fear of saying something wrong. How would you personally like to be approached about this subject?

That’s a very relevant question. It begins with research to avoid ignorance of the basics. Another good practice is ensuring that the person receiving the question doesn’t feel pressured to speak on behalf of their entire community.

When an inquiry comes from a genuine place of interest, such as “Hey, I’d like to learn more about your perspective,” it opens up a conversation and removes the charge we often have around discussions about faith. Yet, there is much to learn from faith. I feel deeply inspired by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi. He walked thousands of miles to engage in interfaith conversations to understand people and the world. 

We also need to stop thinking we can’t discuss faith. A friend of mine, Valerie Kaur, is an activist who advocates in the White House and other essential institutions on how to have interfaith conversations. Her book, “See No Stranger,” shares a story about her initiatives to bring people together for discussions about race, faith, and spirituality, helping those struggling to have these conversations. Having diverse voices in an intersectional setting is important.

Thank you, Jessie. On our final note, what advice would you give to women in the Sikh Community worldwide if they struggle right now to find their place?

I love that you honed in on Kaurs and Sikh women, but what we truly need is a call to action for all women. It’s time to reconnect with our bodies and align with our divine purpose by uniting with women across communities.

My wish for all women is to discover a community rich in resources to support them, be it Kaur Collective, WNORTH, or other spaces where they find a sense of belonging. 

We must create visibility for one another and become cheerleaders for our sisters even when they are not in the room. Advancing other women, putting their names forward, and finding a supportive community are essential.

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