When Ayesha Akhtar learned that Illinois recently became the first state in the nation
to require public schools to teach Asian American history, she was excited. A first-
generation Pakistani American, Akhtar said she hopes the new curriculum will finally
shed light on more Asian countries and figures that have largely been ignored in history classes and textbooks.
“I feel like a lot of people just don’t recognize how vast Asia is and how many subcultures there are,” said Akhtar, a longtime Oak Park resident and mother of two teens.
Earlier this month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act, or TEAACH for short. The act – which will take effect Jan. 1, 2022, – includes studying the important events in Asian American history in the United States, as well as in Illinois and the Midwest. Lessons will also center on how Asian Americans contributed “toward advancing civil rights” since the 19th century and how their communities continue to shape the U.S. economy, society, culture and more, according to the legislation.
The legislation also stated that the Illinois State Superintendent may provide instructional materials and local school boards will have the chance to determine how time will be devoted to teaching Asian American history.
“Asian American history is American history. Yet we are often invisible,” said state
Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview), the act’s lead sponsor, in a statement. “Empathy comes from understanding. We cannot do better unless we know better. A lack of knowledge is the root cause of discrimination, and the best weapon against ignorance is education.”
The advocacy group, Asian Americans Advancing Justice of Chicago, first introduced the act, which came at a time when the nation saw a sudden rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 6,603 incidents of hate reported between March 2020 and March 2021, according to the national coalition Stop AAPI Hate.
In a statement to Wednesday Journal, Eboney Lofton and Tawanda Lawrence, administrators at Oak Park Elementary School District 97, said the act aligns with their mission to “create a more inclusive school environment for all students.” Expanding the school’s curriculum to include the Asian American experience will move the fight forward “against negative stereotypes and racism,” said Lofton, the district’s chief academic and accountability officer, and Lawrence, senior director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Mary Grace Bertulfo said she was 20 years old when she first learned the U.S. colonized the Philippines, her home country – “and that was because I took an elective in Asian American Studies at UCLA.”
Up until that point, the only thing she really knew about the Philippines came from an excerpt in an encyclopedia, which haunted her. The excerpt read, “Ferdinand Magellan was killed in the Philippines by savages,” Bertulfo, another Oak Park resident, said via Facebook. “It broke my heart, and my sense of identity.”
When Bertulfo became a mother, she built her own library in her basement, chock-full of stories on Filipino Americans, as well as the history of the Philippines, for her son. She also donated those kinds of books to the Oak Park Public Library, so her son and “other kids would see positive, accurate representations of Fil Ams.”
For Akhtar, she mostly learned about her cultural heritage at home. Akhtar, whose parents came to the states in the 1970s, recalled dinner times were special. They would gather around the table, eating Pakistani food almost every night and talking in their mother tongues, Urdu and Punjabi. Akhtar said her grandmother also lived with her parents and her siblings, so stories about the homeland never seemed too far away.
“I was just immersed in it from Day 1,” she said. “… It was just part of my identity.”
K, who lives in Oak Park, echoed Akhtar and spoke about how her father was instrumental in teaching her about their Japanese culture.
K, who asked her name to be withheld for privacy reasons, said her paternal grandmother was a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American, who lived in California. As a child, K’s father told her stories about his own mother’s experience as a Japanese American, growing up in a newly integrated suburb of Los Angeles. Outside her home, K remembered a school librarian, who was also Japanese American, had helped her find resources, bridging any gaps in understanding her racial identity.
Even as adults, K and Bertulfo shared their continuing efforts to discover more about Asian American history, and they hope the next generation, Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans alike, won’t have to face the same challenges.
“I’m thrilled that Asian American history will be taught across Illinois,” Bertulfo said. “Hopefully, funding for the materials will be roundly supported.”