Although 2006 Trinity University graduates Nava Kavelin and Simran Jeet Singh differ in many of their religious and cultural traditions, such differences were essential to cementing their friendship. “When Nava and I met our first year, I was really intrigued by some of our shared experiences around life on the margins,” says Singh, who grew up in San Antonio and is a Sikh. “When you feel like you’re the only person whom no one understands, it’s a powerful experience when you meet someone else who is also often left out.”
During their time on campus, Kavelin and Singh formed a club dedicated to interfaith exchange with three of their friends, including a Muslim, a Protestant, and a Catholic. “We came together because of our personal relationships and our curiosity,” explains Kavelin, who was raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and is a member of the Baháʼí faith. “It was a space to build consensus—and it was just really fun.” More than a dozen years later, bridge-building remains an important theme of both their careers.
Kavelin, who also earned her Master of Arts in Teaching from Trinity in 2007, has been an educator, researcher, and writer in varied contexts across the globe, from Israel to China and back to the U.S. In 2017, she joined the Baháʼí International Community’s office at the United Nations in New York, which laid the groundwork for her current role as CEO of Ninth Mode Media, a production company she co-founded with actor Penn Badgley to create meaningful content through a hopeful lens.
Since graduating from Trinity, Singh has largely remained in the world of academia and racial justice—first at Harvard Divinity School and then at Columbia University, where he completed his Ph.D. in religion. Today, Singh lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children and teaches at Union Seminary. His first children’s book, Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon, was just published by Kokila/Penguin Random House; his next focuses on Sikh wisdom for today’s world.
Kavelin and Singh joined Trinity in virtual conversation about their work in promoting exchange, inclusion, and understanding—a mission that, today, feels more vital and urgent than ever.
How did your undergraduate years set you on the path you’re on now?
Nava Kavelin (NK): As an English major, I took as many creative writing courses as possible, and professor Andrew Porter helped nurture that interest, which is definitely relevant to the path I'm on now. In education, professor Angela Breidenstein was an incredible human and an incredible female role model. And though I'm not strictly in an educational field, the idea of helping young people and taking every opportunity to promote education is something that will never leave me.
Simran Jeet Singh (SJS): Similarly, education is the primary lens of everything that I do. I went to Trinity interested in teaching and ended up majoring in English and religion. Academically, professors Mackenzie Brown and Randy Nadeau were important guides, and everyone in the religion department—that’s what started me down the path to academia.
Dean David Tuttle and Reverend Stephen Nickle were also big influences. Part of the reason I felt like I belonged at Trinity was because every time I went to them with an idea—around justice or activism or something like the Interfaith Club—they figured out a way to make space for it.
NK: I echo those same feelings—Reverend Nickle even helped me get a scholarship to attend a Baháʼí conference on the arts! And being a resident mentor was also a really meaningful experience. I met Katie Storey through residential life, and I could just feel her sincere love for the students. She wanted them to progress academically and also feel at home at the University, and to know that it was a fun and adventurous and inclusive place.
It sounds like promoting respectful, mutual exchange has always been important to you both. Nava, how did you transition from education and research to media?
NK: It's a winding path, but while I worked at the UN, one of the areas that I researched was the way that media influences public discourse and identity—and specifically how it shapes behavior and relationships between women and men. There was something about the way that media negatively impacts girls, especially, that really broke my heart. I began to feel like I didn’t just want to study this challenge, I wanted to build solutions. So, I started developing relationships with producers and actors, and after co-writing and co-directing a film about women’s rights, I left to start my own production company with Penn.
Simran, you recently published your first children’s book about Fauja Singh, the British Sikh runner who became the first 100-year-old to complete a marathon. What was the impetus for writing that?
SJS: Since childhood, I’ve sought out books with characters that look like my family, and I was always disappointed. I even asked a librarian once if there were any, and she said, “No, it's not relatable.” The message that sent to me was that our stories didn't matter.
Thirty years later, nothing has changed. And a big problem I’ve seen while teaching is that 18-year-old students arrive at college with very little understanding of the world around them. It’s a shame that some students don’t begin learning about and appreciating different cultures and communities until adulthood.
In April 2016, a few months after my first child was born, I took her to meet Fajua Singh, who was in New York for a celebrity race. He held her in his arms while we sat in the living room talking. He was 105 then, and I remember thinking how I wished she could just absorb all the wisdom he was sharing. I realized that if I wrote it out as a book, she could! It’s the first children’s book from a major publisher to center on a Sikh story—which is sad, because I can't believe it's taken so long—but is also really exciting to open this gate for stories from our community and others that are so underrepresented.
Likewise, Nava, a major focus for your company is creating thoughtful children’s entertainment. Why did you and Penn decide to go in that direction?
NK: We currently have a family comedy in development with Warner, and we pitched that along with a concept for an educational kids’ show. Penn and I felt, like Sim said, that it’s really important to give children, from a young age, the sense that they have agency to make the world a better place.
In our meetings with executives, we found that there was sincere interest in creating this type of content, but that there was also fear and hesitation, because it’s not really being done. The show didn’t sell back then, but people were impressed. A major children’s network exec said, “Everyone is coming in and selling us the apocalypse, but you came in today and brought us hope.” They liked the different premise that we brought to the table. So now our mission is to prove that premise. We aim to tackle some of the heaviest issues that humanity is facing, but to do it in a way that doesn’t feel too heavy and is entertaining.
What is the key to making underrepresented stories mainstream successes?
SJS: You just tell a good story. Human connection happens through storytelling, when we can really see one another in a deeper way.
NK: Absolutely. And I think there's an appetite for stories from people that you haven't heard of, from communities you don't know about.
Questions of diversity, inclusion, and representation have risen to the top of our national consciousness in recent months, as many people begin to grapple with the ways that historically entrenched systems of racism and privilege have shaped our country. How does it feel to see these topics come to the fore of public conversation just as your own work in this realm is taking off?
SJS: It's exciting, but increased representation won’t solve all of our problems; representation is not equity, and representation is not liberation. That said, representation is powerful, especially for those who have been marginalized and unseen for so long. It helps kids reimagine who their heroes can be and helps us connect with people's humanity.
NK: I agree that it's exciting. I think that there is a lot of work to be done and also that change comes over generations. It can be easy to feel impatient, like things aren't happening quickly enough, so you have to steel yourself for a long-term journey. All of humanity is on this path of learning about—and moving toward—a social reality that is inclusive and allows everyone to prosper. It’s also inevitable that some individuals like things the way they are and will fight progress. But it’s beautiful to see more and more people realize that things need to change. That gives me a lot of hope.
Watch the trailer for Kavelin’s upcoming documentary, Glimpses into the Spirit of Gender Equality, by visiting bit.ly/3jcb9uW.
Purchase Singh’s book, Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon, wherever books are sold. The book, which tells the story of the first 100-year-old person to run a marathon, has hit the bestseller list on Amazon. It is the first children’s book from a major publisher that centers on a Sikh story.