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"So many of us have been in crisis response mode lately," Valarie Kaur tells PEOPLE. "So this is an opportunity for people to come together and reflect on what they're carrying with them that they no longer want to"

By Virginia Chamlee
February 01, 2021 04:17 PM
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Kerry Washington, Valarie Kaur, America Ferrera
From left: Kerry Washington, Valarie Kaur and America Ferrera
| Credit: Getty Images (3)

A diverse group of celebrities, activists, faith leaders and political experts have joined in the days since President Joe Biden's inauguration for a "People's Inauguration" of their own.

Activist and author Valarie Kaur — who spearheaded the 10-day, largely virtual campaign alongside partner organizations Amplifier, the Revolutionary Love Project, Dream Corps and Sounds True — spoke to PEOPLE about the impetus behind the event, which began one day after Biden took his oath of office and concluded on Sunday.

"America is in transition. Sound government is necessary — but it's not enough to create a society where we are all free," the campaign's website states. "This work belongs to us, the people."

It's a focus, in other words, on national renewal and regrowth in the shadow of Donald Trump's oft-divisive governing style.

As Kaur says: "It's about inviting communities and people around the nation to ask, 'What is my role in rebuilding America?' "

Kaur, who participated in Biden's ceremonies by delivering a virtual Sikh prayer at the inaugural prayer service, says that participants for the The People's Inauguration were encouraged to express their own version of an oath of service.

It says: "I do solemnly vow that I will faithfully execute my role in healing, reimagining and rebuilding our country, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend dignity, justice, and joy for myself and for all around me and that I will do so with love."

As Kaur, 39, explains, "At every inauguration, the only words that are constitutionally mandated are those of the president's oath. And I reimagined them into a 'people's oath.' "

"Each of us has an unmistakable role that only we can play in building a more just and beautiful world," Kaur says.

Among those who joined in on the effort were a "dazzling coalition of different kinds of leaders," Kaur says. "We do have celebrity artists — Ani DiFranco, Kerry Washington — capturing the imagination of America, but we also have faith leaders and public voices like [CNN's] Van Jones."

"So many of us have been in crisis response mode lately," she says. "So this is an opportunity for people to come together and reflect on what they're carrying with them that they no longer want to."

Though Kaur developed the idea for the series of events early on in the 2020 election cycle, the idea of coming together as citizens and expressing hope for the future became a particularly relevant theme in the wake of the Jan. 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol.

The chaos of that day hit especially close to home for Kaur: Her brother-in-law, CNN reporter Manu Raju, was inside the Capitol when it was breached by a violent mob.

She remembers that day how her husband "pulled me downstairs into his office so we wouldn't alarm our small children."

With the television turned to CNN, the couple could hear Manu's voice, still reporting from inside his locked office.

"Next to his voice we could see the images of what was happening — doors breaking down," she says. "He's a reporter and he's brown, so I was just thinking, 'What would they do if they found him?' "

After long stretches of silence, Kaur says the couple would again hear Raju's voice on CNN, and they eventually watched as he reported live on his own evacuation from the building.

"I think what we saw on Jan. 6 was a clear sign that every single one of us has a role to play with our neighbors, friends, family members — in order for our country to become a multi-racial democracy," Kaur says.

The People's Inauguration, Kaur says, offers attendees a chance to ask themselves how they are contributing to their country and how that role might shift during this new administration.

"The events began on Jan. 21 with a beautiful kick-off of music and poetry," she says.

Since then, events have included a conversation with political commentator Jones, a video of Washington performing Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman" speech and a segment in which actress Debra Messing recited the group's "people's oath."

Among others, participants also included Beyoncé's mom, Tina Knowles-Lawson; Alyssa Milano with activist Jerome Foster II; Messing reciting the oath; and America Ferrera in conversation with Kaur on "the courage to have hope."

Much of the campaign's programming revolved around the theme of "revolutionary love," culminating in the Sunday events centering on joy and a performance by DiFranco, Kaur says.

"Every day I'm getting notes from people [who have watched] — people with families are doing this together, teachers with their students," she says. "We have about 40,000 people participating in the entire 10-day experience. And then a much wider audience experiencing The People's Inauguration in segments and clips."

More information on The People's Inauguration can be found here.