If the Bakersfield Sikh community gets its way, there could soon be a major change to Stonecreek Park in Southwest Bakersfield.
The Bakersfield chapter of the national Sikh nonprofit organization Jakara Movement is leading an effort to rename the park in honor of Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist commonly called the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Sikh community.
The youth-led organization is in the process of collecting signatures of support from the community and have reached out to city officials and Councilman Chris Parlier, whose ward the park is located in, in their efforts to get the name changed. So far, more than 300 people have signed the petition.
“We thought Stonecreek would be good for a permanent landmark acknowledging a Sikh community that has lived in the area for years,” said Manpreet Kaur, community organizer for the Jakara Movement. “We believe naming the park after Jaswant Singh Khalra is a great way of showing the community what challenges we’ve faced and what we stand for.”
Khalra was a man from Punjab, India, who revealed to the world in the early 1990s that thousands of Sikhs had been unjustly killed by Punjab police while in their custody. In 1995, Khalra was abducted, tortured and murdered by several personnel from the Punjabi police.
A few teenage girls associated with the Jakara Movement advocated for the name change at this week’s City Council meeting.
“Jaswant’s life is a symbol of hope for all who care about human rights, dignity, truth and justice,” said Stockdale High student Harleen Kaur (no relation to Manpreet Kaur) at the meeting. “Naming a park in his honor preserves that legacy and celebrates the values that all of Bakersfield’s residents hold high.”
Ridgeview High student Harvir Kaur (no relation) said she feels that the city hasn’t done enough to recognize the local Sikh community.
“We ask for greater representation, greater acknowledgement of diversity and civil and human rights be reflected and honored in our local community, especially in a political climate like today’s,” she said in her comments to the council. “We want to honor our future, as this park renaming will be a permanent landmark in Bakersfield, marking our presence in our pursuit of the values that Jaswant Singh Khalra gave his life to.”
Both Harleen and Harvir said they were a little nervous about speaking in front of the City Council and those in the audience, but were excited to have their voices heard.
“it was kind of intimidating going in front of the City Council, but it was a good experience to take on,” Harvir said. “I think the information we provided gave them more context on what we’re trying to do here.”
Harleen said she thinks the council members understood the goals and meaning behind what they’re trying to achieve and were receptive to their comments.
“I like how we were taken seriously, even though we are teens,” she said. “I think we made it more clear to the council why we’re asking for this.”
Manpreet Kaur said the Jakara Movement initially brought the renaming idea up to Councilman Parlier last year after they learned that the Fresno City Council had approved the renaming of the city’s Victoria Park after Khalra.
Kaur said that inspired the group to seek a similar name change in Bakersfield.
“We have around 35,000 Sikhs living in Bakersfield, so we thought ‘why not here?’” she said.
Kaur said she and other Sikhs met with Parlier and Recreation and Parks Director Dianne Hoover earlier this year to discuss the issue but there has been little progress made since then on the city side. The group is hoping that bringing up the issue again at the City Council will speed things along.
Parlier said the main issue is that renaming the park isn’t just as simple as switching the name. He said there are legal and public safety considerations to take into account, not to mention the fact that there would be expenses involved in changing the name.
“I love their exuberance, but there are challenges,” Parlier said of the girls who spoke at the meeting. “I am definitely open to conversations going forward. I’ve been a huge supporter of the Sikh community in my area.”
Hoover said a name change would also present a cultural challenge, in that Stonecreek Park has had that name since it was built in 1985 and some members of the community may not be happy with a name change.
“To change the name of a neighborhood park becomes more difficult because of the identity of the neighborhood. They already identify with the name of the park,” she said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve never changed the name of a park once it’s been established.”
Manpreet Kaur said she thinks the real issue that people have is that the park would be named after a minority figure. Out of the nearly 60 parks listed on the city website, only two are named in recognition of a minority group or figure: Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Yokuts Park.
“There are people in the community that would be against any ethnic diversity being celebrated in our city,” she said. “It seems like the city and our elected official don’t want to trigger those people by changing the name.”
Parlier suggested that the Sikh community consider alternatives. He said there’s some land that has been set aside for a future park a little south of Stonecreek Park at Akers Road and Sierra Madre Avenue Road and the group could work on getting that park named after Khalra.
“My concern was that the park hasn’t been built yet and there’s no guarantee that it will be,” Kaur said. “We also don’t know the demographic of the area around that park. [Stonecreek] is already a park that for years has been attended by the Sikh community. We know and recognize this is a place where the community gathers.”
Despite the potential challenges and the lack of significant progress on the city's side, Kaur said the Jakara Movement is still passionate about renaming Stonecreek.
“We’re trying to get our community rallying around this,” she said. “We’re hoping we can change the tide here locally and bring something like this forward.”
To further educate the community about the effort, the Jakara Movement will hold a Town Hall meeting on Wednesday at the park.