Break Barriers

Preet Didbal MPA ’12 is first Sikh woman mayor in the country

By Sayantika Mandal Posted Mon, 03/26/2018 - 16:07

From surviving sexual assault to becoming a single mom in a conservative community, Preet Didbal MPA '12 has not had it easy. But that hasn't stopped her from making history as the first Sikh woman mayor in the U.S. 

Didbal, who comes from a traditional Sikh family, was elected to the Yuba City council in 2014, and appointed mayor in December following the city’s protocol of rotating city council members into the top spot. Her new job is a far cry from her early days of harvesting peaches and prunes in the foothills of Sacramento alongside her farm laborer parents, who immigrated from Punjab, India before she was born. 

Yuba City has one of the largest Sikh populations in the U.S., and each year the religion's faithful from around the world gather there to take part in a 4.5-mile-long parade that commemorates their holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib.

Woman of the year

In addition to being the daughter of immigrants, growing up poor, and being the first in her family to attend college, the master in public administration alumna faced criticism from conservative Sikhs who questioned why she wanted to enter the "male world" of politics.

Didbal wasn't new to such attacks, however. Having been sexually assaulted at 19, she and her parents had to leave Yuba City for three years to escape social stigma. As a result, she didn't begin to speak out about the rape until two-and-a-half years ago, when she revealed it to her 16-year-old daughter Arianna.

“All these years, I had carried the shame," Didbal says. "Talking with Arianna gave me a voice. She said, ‘Mom, you have to talk about this.’ It was difficult but most freeing." 

Since then, Didbal has emerged as an advocate for women. She volunteers as a mentor for Girls on the Run, a nonprofit that teaches life skills to young women. As a councilwoman, she's spearheaded youth community forums about human trafficking, internet safety, mental illness, bullying, and more. 

She's also organized a three-week Summer at City Hall program, where local high schools students learn about government and civic engagement.

In 2015, Didbal was named Woman of the Year by Congressman John Garamendi, D-Solano.

More good in the world

Didbal credits USF for paving the way for her to become an advocate and run for office. 

“My education gave me the confidence to emerge out of my shell. It would’ve been unthinkable had I not attended USF,” she says.

Catherine Horiuchi, associate business professor, was particularly influential. “The assignments I worked on helped me look at projects with a broader point of view," Didbal says. "They helped me get a better understanding of my community, take a deeper dive into projects, speak clearly when I communicate with my community and staff, and obtain support of the legislative staff.” 

“USF values of social responsibility and culture of service are where my heart lies. Compassion, empathy, and belief in the fact that there is more good in the world, make me who I am,” Didbal says. 

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