Making History by Learning History

On January 18th, NJ Governor Phil Murphy signed state bill S-4021/A-6100, which mandates NJ schools to teach Asian American history as a part of the core curriculum. This represents the finish line of a grueling race to get the bill passed before the NJ legislature ends session for the year. The main proponent of the bill, New Jersey grassroots group Make Us Visible NJ, ran this race with determination, pushing through numerous important milestones to reach the end goal of raising awareness of Asian American contributions and impact to the country.

The bill was conceived as an idea by members of Make Us Visible as a response to rising Anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic and concerns of Asian American parents from different NJ school districts. Make Us Visible board member Dr. Ying Lu, Associate Professor, Director of Education Studies NYU Steinhardt, noted how as she observed the overlapping complaints from so many New Jersey families, she realized that having legislative support is critical to make meaningful change. Make Us Visible NJ was founded by Dr. Kani Ilangovan, with a group of community members, as a platform to advocate for the inclusion of AAPI curriculum in K12 classrooms in New Jersey. “Education is the antidote for hate,” said Dr. Ilangovan.  Since last April, MUVNJ has built a state-wide broad coalition of Asian Americans and their allies on AAPI curriculum legislative advocacy. They have pushed through the entire legislative process, starting from bill introductions, advancements in the legislature, and ultimately passing of the bills.  

In this process, MUVNJ has worked with the legislators closely in making sure that the languages and contents of the bills reflect true inclusion of Asian Americans. For example, in the original version of bill S3764/A3369 “establishing the Asian American Heritage Commission at the DOE”, the word Asian sprung up in lieu of Asian American. However, with MUVNJ’s persistence, an amendment that delivers the correct message was included,  and was cleared through the Senate Education Committee.  

To ensure the bills advance through the legislative process with strong support and in a timely manner, MUVNJ has mobilized the broad Asian American community to participate in rallies, email campaigns, and phone petitions to gain legislators’ support. In the end, over 40 legislators sponsored and co-sponsored these AAPI education bills, The coalition was able to clear many obstacles lay ahead of the bill’s path during the “lame duck” period. On January 10, the very last voting session of the legislative 2020-21, both AAPI education bills passed with unanimous bipartisan support. Now that Governor Murphy has signed the bill into law, New Jersey is just the second state to mandate Asian American history education.

The work Make Us Visible NJ and state legislators have done to pass this bill will have far-reaching consequences for New Jersey students. First and foremost, Dr. Lu hopes it will help Asian American students feel significant to this country, and feel safer with representation. She wants students to be able to see people like themselves in the classroom and learn about their own struggles and oppression both then and now, which will change how Asian American students view themselves. When every student sees the impact of Asian Americans on this country, Lu says, the perception around them in society will change as well. Next, she hopes that students get a more accurate picture of American history and progress. Bringing up Wong Kim Ark, Tape v. Hurley, Mabel Lee, and more historical figures, Lu shed light on just how many important Asian American contributions to this country that were forgotten. Even today, the accomplishments of contemporary Asian American activists and leaders are not shown enough. According to Lu, Asian Americans are “integral contributors to American values, to democracy, and to civil rights” but these stories are not being told today. In order to honor the legacy of these heroes and continue the work they started, they must be seen as an essential part of American history. Learning these stories will give all students a more holistic view of America and its multilayered history. 

This race has reached its finish line, and soon the impact of the bill will be felt across the state. When the school year begins next fall, perhaps our history textbooks will look a little different.

– Han Li

This story is based on an interview with Dr. Ying Lu, board member of MUVNJ.

Information on Make Us Visible can be found here at https://makeusvisible.wixsite.com/newjersey and on Facebook @makeusvisiblenj, or email makeusvisiblenj@gmail.com

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