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Legislators, students push for K-12 Asian American studies

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In this Monday, May 10, 2021 photo, Senior Annie Chen, center, listens with classmates as Connecticut Attorney General William Tong speaks for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at Farmington High School in Farmington, Conn. The year of anti-Asian violence has led students and teachers to advocate for reexamining how Asian American studies and history are taught in public schools. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When the Asian American Student Union at a Connecticut high school organized a Zoom call following the killing of six Asian women in Atlanta, senior Lily Feng thought maybe 10 or 15 classmates would attend. When she logged on, more than 50 people from her school were online. By the call's end, nearly 100 people had joined.

Seeing her peers at Farmington High School turn out for the conversation — one piece of a student-led effort to explore Asian American identity issues — made her realize how much they wanted to listen and learn about a topic that is often absent from the curriculum.

“Our Asian American and Pacific Islander community members, they want their voices to be heard,” said Feng, co-president of the student group that also has brought in speakers, hosted panels and created lessons about Asian American history. “They are almost desperate to be speaking about it. This is so heavy, this is heartbreaking and it was a space for them to really voice that.”

As students push for more inclusive curriculum, some lawmakers, educators and students themselves are working to address gaps in instruction and fight harmful stereotypes by pushing for more Asian American history to be included in K-12 lesson plans.

Illinois would become the first state to require public schools to teach Asian American studies if the governor signs a bill that cleared the state Legislature. Lawmakers have proposed similar mandates this year in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin.

Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, an Illinois representative, said she sponsored the bill in response to the increasing anti-Asian violence and rhetoric. Growing up, she said she knew little of the discrimination her family had faced in earlier generations because it wasn’t taught in school and her family did not openly speak about it.

“I think, like a lot of Asian families, their response to that discrimination was to endure, to survive,” she said. “And that meant moving past it, not talking about it, not educating the next generation about the struggles faced by a first generation.”

It wasn’t until law school that Gong-Gershowitz learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that prohibited Chinese workers from immigrating and the only law to exclude a specific ethnicity from entering the country, and the deportation threat it represented for her grandparents. Understanding that history is central to addressing the violence today, she said.