Asian American curriculum bill passes NJ Legislature, Murphy signature is final hurdle

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New Jersey may become only the second U.S. state to require its public schools to teach about Asian American history and culture, after the state Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the move this week.

The Assembly on Monday passed the proposed curriculum requirement legislation (A-6100) by a 74-2 vote. The bill was approved in the state Senate by 34-2 earlier this month and now goes to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy.

If the Democrat signs the bill into law, New Jersey would join Illinois in mandating instruction about Asian American history for all K-12 students. The measure allows local boards of education to pick instructional materials, but a proposed Commission on Asian Heritage in the state Education Department may also assist in the process.

Alayna Alfaro, Murphy's press secretary, said the governor's office doesn't comment on pending legislation.

Advocates said expanding education is important in the wake of a surge of hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, which has been scapegoated for the coronavirus pandemic that started in Wuhan, China.

Alex Lee, 16, marches against Asian hate, in a rally organized by the Youth Council of Fort Lee on Saturday March 27, 2021.
Alex Lee, 16, marches against Asian hate, in a rally organized by the Youth Council of Fort Lee on Saturday March 27, 2021.

"The time is now because of anti-Asian hate and because our children are suffering," said Kani Ilangovan, an Indian American who is the founder of Make Us Visible New Jersey, a group that has been advocating for passage of the bill. "Education is the antidote to hate."

Sixty-three organizations helped Make Us Visible New Jersey in advocating for the bill's passage, Ilangovan said. Activists from all corners of the state and all ages and demographics pitched in. They contacted lawmakers and spread the word about the bill's importance to Asian Americans through multilingual channels.

Ridgewood High School senior Christina Huang, 18, who is Chinese American, joined the cause. She said she was bullied when her family lived in West Milford and she was among the few Asians in the community. Other kids made fun of her looks, including her eye shape, she said.

"I don't want other kids to go through the same thing I did," Huang said.

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Jessica Kim, a Korean American licensed clinical social worker in Cherry Hill, said she sees the impact of hate and racism in her work with children. AAPI mental health is fraught with evidence of the negative impact of perceived discrimination, she said

Kim grew up in Freehold facing racism, which is still difficult for her to talk about, she said. She would be told that she's not American and was asked where she was really from.

Now, Kim, 45, a mother of three children, said she still sees the racism that she faced decades ago.

"In hindsight, there are many AAPI youth I have counseled over the years and regret the missed opportunities to help them more deeply understand their racial identity and experiences with racism," she said. "I did not have that as part of my training 20 years ago, and I am committed to developing interventions for more culturally responsive trauma-informed care."

The current American mental health system is ill-equipped to help clients of color process racialized trauma, Kim said.

Assemblywoman-elect Ellen Park represents the 37th district in Bergen County.
Assemblywoman-elect Ellen Park represents the 37th district in Bergen County.

New Jersey’s AAPI community accounts for 11% of the state's population, according to census figures.

Ilangovan said Asian Americans in New Jersey are ready to help with suggestions for the curriculum, beginning with recognizing May as AAPI history month in schools.

"AAPI is the fastest-growing ethnic group in New Jersey," said Assemblywoman-elect Ellen Park, a Democrat who represents the 37th District, covering portions of eastern Bergen County. "We live in every town and work in every sector of our economy. This is something we should be proud of in New Jersey, and this is something we should celebrate in our classrooms."

Park is the first Korean American woman elected to the state Legislature and will be the only lawmaker of East Asian descent in Trenton when she starts her term in January.

"I wish the curriculum reflected my community when I was in school, but I am glad to see that if this bill is signed into law, my children will get to see themselves within the fabric of America, not outside of it," said Park, a mother of two sons.

Democrats Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, Mila Jasey, D-Essex, Britnee Timberlake, D-Essex, and Sterley Stanley, D-Middlesex, sponsored the bill in the Assembly.

“One of New Jersey’s best qualities is its diversity, which we should be highlighting in our schools," they said in a joint statement. "By expanding the K-12 curriculum to include lessons on the history and contributions of the AAPI community, we can help break down persisting negative stereotypes and show the over 140,000 Asian American and Pacific Islander students in our state that their stories and experiences matter.”

Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: mchao@northjersey.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Asian American history in schools law passes NJ Legislature

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