Advocates urge action on bill to establish Asian American and Pacific Islander curriculum in N.J. schools

Trenton state Capitol building. (WHYY file photo)

Trenton state Capitol building. (WHYY file photo)

Updated: 1:15 p.m., Monday, Dec. 6, 2021

Growing up, Dr. Kani Ilangovan said she was one of the only Asian American kids in her predominately white school district. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from India in the 1970s.

She didn’t learn in school that Asian Americans helped build this country, she said. And she recalled experiences with racism.

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In March, after a shooter killed six women of Asian descent at three Atlanta-area spas, Ilangovan founded Make Us Visible New Jersey. It’s a coalition of New Jersey teachers, students, parents, politicians, and community members fighting for “thoughtful and comprehensive Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) studies into K through 12 curriculums in New Jersey public schools.”

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in New Jersey, according to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.

“Part of the reason why I founded this group is I was part of this Asian American reading group that was founded by three Princeton students, for the community, who introduced us to AAPI literature that I had never read before,” Ilangovan said. “And it really helped me understand myself in a way that I didn’t before, and I learned history that I never knew.

“I think education is a way to confront (racism),” she said.

This year, Make Us Visible New Jersey has rallied around a bill in the state Legislature that aligns with the coalition’s core mission: It would require schools to teach students about the history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the U.S.

The bill passed by a 34 to 2 vote on Thursday in the state Senate.

Though there was widespread support for the bill in the upper house, community organizers fear the General Assembly may not pass it in time with just five weeks left in the current legislative session.

The Assembly Education Committee has not taken any action on the legislation.

“We are concerned about the hold-up. We feel this is an issue of life and death, and our hopes and dreams lay in balance,” said Jessica Kim, a licensed social worker who is organizing a demonstration at Grace Ministry Church, a predominantly Korean American congregation in Cherry Hill, at 3 p.m. on Monday.

Kim expressed urgency surrounding the issue, but remained hopeful after she said advocates had a productive conversation with Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-6) on Sunday. Kim said Lampitt expressed support for the bill and for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community. 

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Lampitt, the Assembly Education Committee Chairperson, did not respond to a request for comment.

On Sunday night, Daniel Harris, deputy executive director of the N.J. General Assembly Majority Office, wrote to advocates to say that the bill had been added to the Assembly Education Committee’s agenda for its next meeting on Thursday.

“I remember growing up, I did not see in my education the history of Indian Americans or a lot of Asian Americans. And we’ve made these improvements as it relates to Black Americans, Latino Americans, LGBTQ. I think it would be appropriate to do for AAPI also,” said state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-11), the Senate bill’s primary sponsor. “And I think it helps when kids are growing up, they can see in their textbooks, people that look like them, and it helps them on their own story.”

New Jersey state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-11) sponsored a bill during the 2021 legislative session that would require public schools to incorporate Asian American and Pacific Islander studies into K through 12 curriculums. (Tennyson Donyéa/ WHYY News)

Many Asian Americans have voiced fear and concern for their safety following a surge in hate crime incidents since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The group Stop AAPI Hate, which began tracking hate incidents against people of Asian descent across the country in March 2020, received reports of 10,370 incidents as of the end of September.

Last week, hundreds of people rallied in Philadelphia, decrying an attack on four Asian teens on SEPTA.

“Many of these attacks and bias incidents are centered on how Asian Americans are ‘perpetual foreigners’ and not ‘truly American,’” said Kim, a licensed clinical social worker and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. “Education is critical.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that since publication, the bill has been added to the Assembly Education Committee agenda.

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