Zabeen Khamisa

Zabeen Khamisa

PhD candidate | Religious Studies

Zabeen Khamisa

Zabeen's dissertation research project brings together two seemingly disparate fields of interest — religion and social innovation and entrepreneurship.

“It’s a weird one,” she says. “When I say ‘religion and social entrepreneurship,’ people say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

As a PhD candidate in the joint Laurier-Waterloo program, Religious Diversity in North America, Zabeen points out that such a research venture isn’t such an unusual combination when we consider the role religion has played in societal change in the Canadian context, for example.

Zabeen discusses how we live in a series of complex systems with numerous persistent complex problems such as poverty, gender inequality and environmental degradation. In some ways, religion has provided people with a framework in which to navigate society’s most pressing problems.

In another way, Canada’s social economy has always been influenced by religion. Zabeen gives the example of Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister and proponent of the “social gospel,” a call to social reform rather than conversion, who played a role in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and formed one of Canada’s most significant social enterprises: universal health care. But the impact of Canada’s religious diversity on its social economy isn’t as well known. “What do we include when we talk about diversity in Canada’s recent Innovation Agenda? Often, we’re talking about race, gender, class,” says Zabeen. “But what about religion or spirituality?”

For this reason, Zabeen is investigating the ways in which non-Christians, particularly young Canadian Sikhs, are engaging the social innovation and entrepreneurship movement, starting community gardens across the country, for example. Canada’s Sikh community has strong traditions in both entrepreneurship and social justice. In the late 1890s, the first Sikh immigrants to Canada found jobs with the railways and the lumber industry in B.C., but pervasive racism meant that Sikhs looking for more advanced work had to found their own businesses. Today, that early entrepreneurial spirit remains a strong part of the Canadian Sikh community. That spirit, combined with the Sikh faith’s emphasis on social equality and volunteerism, is creating a new generation of millennial Sikh social innovators, says Zabeen.

Zabeen states that the social innovation and entrepreneurship movement has a long history, and is rapidly growing in Canada, pointing to the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience and Velocity as examples. “In Canada, we’ve always had a social economy, but for many Canadian millennials, pursuing change this way is something they’re training to do in universities and is becoming a career choice.”

Zabeen has had the opportunity to explore the intersection between different religious traditions and social movements throughout her bachelor and master’s degrees in Religion and Culture Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interest in the Sikh community was inspired by a Waterloo international travel seminar on the living religious traditions of India, where she was able to visit Harminder Sahib (Golden Temple) in Punjab, one of the most sacred sites of the Sikh tradition. Upon her return, she started to explore the significant impact young Canadian Sikh activists are having in Canada.

Zabeen’s inspiration also comes from her own life experience. Born into a philanthropic, religious immigrant family, she volunteered at the local food bank and various international development agencies. “I’ve always been curious about how religious institutions foster social change.”

Now she’s looking at the experiences of the next generation. “Really,” says Zabeen, “I’m asking questions I’ve asked about myself, but of another community.”