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The Need for Asian American History in Schools

Stewart Kwoh talks about the need for Asian American history in the curriculum, how this can be done, and the challenges to making it a reality in education.
Map of U.S. made up of people

Stewart Kwoh believes education is the best tool to fight back against ongoing anti-Asian American violence and damaging stereotypes. As co-executive director of the Asian American Education Project, Kwoh has been dedicated to developing curriculums and trainings for educators. Despite many of the lesson plans and tools being available for free, Kwoh admits it has taken time for education to embrace this rich history. 

“You really have to have a champion because if Asian Americans are invisible in this school curriculum right now, how do you get them into the curriculum? You have to convince the administrators it's worth it. You have to convince the teachers. You have to train the teachers. You have to help them figure out how to make the time or how to merge the lessons in,” Kwoh says.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Kwoh discusses the importance of learning about Asian American history and investigates the roadblocks to embracing such a curriculum in our schools. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Stewart Kwoh sees education as the best way to stem ongoing hatred against Asian Americans. The problem is the story of Asian Americans is often forgotten and ignored in today's classrooms. He discovered this while teaching a college course and realized how little students knew about Asian American history. This prompted Stewart and his wife, Patricia, to work with educators on developing learning resources about this rich history. The recent rise of anti-Asian violence in the US furthered their mission as co-directors of the Asian American Education Project, where they've continued to create lesson plans and train educators on how to implement this history in their schools. They aim to reach a million youth in the next five years. I asked Stewart why this is so important that all our students understand Asian American history.

Stewart Kwoh
Stewart Kwoh: Well, three or four reasons. Number one, Asian American history is American history. For example, there's some seminal cases like birthright citizen, the incarceration of 120,000 people. A lot of the start of the United farm workers was a union between Filipino American and Mexican American farm workers. And the Filipinos actually started the 1965 grape strike in Delano. So there's a lot of seminal cases. Way back in the 1880s, it was one of the first challenges against segregated schools, was brought by the Tape family. And so there's a lot of seminal cases. So you don't really understand American history if you don't know where it came from.

Secondly, Asian Americans now are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. There's over 23 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. So understanding that large and growing population is very important for students and schools.

And then thirdly, there's a new wave of anti-Asian violence and we feel there's a number of things that can be done short term to stem the violence like bystander intervention training, companionship, so that people are not walking alone, especially elderly women. But long term, we feel education is where we have to go. And education, not just in terms of general knowledge, but in terms of building alliances and solidarity can come from understanding the common issues and common struggles that people have.

And so a relative of mine by marriage who was Japanese American and incarcerated during World War II, was at a family dinner a number of years ago. He's passed away now. But I said, "I know you were incarcerated during World War II if you could have foreseen that happening years before it happened. What was missing from the community?" And he said, "We didn't have strong enough community organizations that could fight for us. We didn't have attorneys who could defend us." In fact, I asked Fred Korematsu one year, "Was that true?" And he said, his ACLU attorney in San Francisco almost got kicked out of ACLU for representing Fred. And then thirdly, he said, "We didn't have allies." Even other Asian American groups didn't stand up for Japanese Americans.

So I think that education, when you look at the intersectionality amongst the groups like Frederick Douglass speaking out on behalf of Chinese immigrants in 1869, 4 years after the civil war. A former slave speaking out for Chinese, it was the first instance I found of solidarity from non-Asians for Asians. And he was eloquent in arguing for Asian immigration, Asian citizenship, Chinese being able to vote. He wanted a composite nation of all different nationalities. There's many examples where Asians have supported Blacks and other minorities. The NAACP wrote articulate, passionate articles against incarceration of Japanese American during World War II. So there's a history of solidarity that nobody knows about. When I even told our trainers about these examples, they were wondering what history books am I reading, because they'd never read about these things.

Jill Anderson: Are there certain states doing a about better job at incorporating Asian American history into the curriculum? Are there places where you think this is being done well, or is it a mystery?

Stewart Kwoh: Well, I think overall it's a mystery for people, but California did write a model curriculum. It's been posted, but not too many people are using it yet. Our model minority lesson is in the middle of the Asian American model curriculum. There's a lot of Asian ethnic groups, so they settled on each ethnic group getting one story each. So one for Koreans, one for Chinese, one for Japanese. Anyway, they're still missing some groups. They're trying, but the depth of the understanding is not there yet. So we're hopeful that some districts like Los Angeles will ask us to write semester-long courses where we could get into it in more depth. We're hopeful. We have offered this to New York. I spoke to deputy chancellor. We would like to offer it to other districts.

Fortunately, we raised a little money, so we're able to do it for free. All of our lesson plans are available for free. Our teacher trainings are free. Obviously, if we get into the thousands of teachers, we would have to hire more trainers. So that would be a cost, but groups like the Ford Foundation, the Costa Foundation, the Asian American Foundation, and several Asian American foundations have supported our work because they felt it very important at this period of anti-Asian violence, where there've been over 10,000 hate incidents in the last two years. It's very important to spread education, not as the only measure, but as a longterm measure to stem the hatred. It's obviously happened before, but we want to do a better job because when the Chinese were massacred in the late 1800s, all across the West, nobody was talking about educate. When Japanese Americans were incarcerated, nobody's talking about education, but now we can talk about education. So, that allows us an opportunity to try our best to inform Americans.

There was one high school in Los Angeles. This happened just a year ago, one non-Asian student wasn't coming to school. So the administration called the student and she said she's staying away from school because her relative said that Asian teachers and Asian American students are spreading the coronavirus. So she shouldn't have any contact with them. So she stayed out of school. And this is in Downtown Los Angeles. When you have that kind of misinformation, falsehoods, you have to educate. You can't punish the students. You have to educate the students. And so we feel education will make us less vulnerable. It won't stop it entirely, but we have a much better chance of reducing the falsehoods and misinformation and people believing stereotypes.

Jill Anderson: Right. What are the challenges to getting this curriculum implemented?

Stewart Kwoh: One challenge is starting early. How early can you start? Obviously you have to use more pictures. You have to use concepts that elementary school students can understand without hitting them over the head with a hammer. So that's one challenge, is how do you start early in a relevant, understandable way?

Secondly, we have a broad approach. We feel that you can insert Asian American history into existing lesson plans. You can have separate courses like we're writing for the LAUSD. You can have joint programs. Like there was a survey course with Blacks, Latinx, Native Americans and Asian Americans, but the survey course didn't have any lesson plans on Asian Americans. But nevertheless, you could have survey courses. Our approach is you could use any of those methods to get to students. You don't have to just use one approach because teachers are busy. And then with the pandemic, they had their hands full. A lot of teachers in some cities are leaving the profession because of the pressure and the pay. We understand that.

But at the same time, I think the third reason aside from having broad methods and aside from starting early is you have to work the districts sometimes school by school. And you have to be sensitive to the pressures that the teachers have. So you have to be patient and try to work with them on how to get the programs into the schools. You really have to have a champion because if Asian Americans are invisible in this school curriculum right now, how do you get them into the curriculum? You have to convince the administrators it's worth it. You have to convince the teachers. You have to train the teachers. You have to help them figure out how to make the time or how to merge the lessons in. You have to have a champion. So even if you have a good policy at the statewide level, implementation is 80 or 90% of the pathway going forward. It can't just be left at a legislative policy because then people will scurry around and then they may not come up with a very good curriculum. So that's why we think already-made curriculum...

By no means are we saying that the 53 lesson plans are sufficient. We continue to develop new lesson plans. So we're trying our best to make it possible for teachers to incorporate lesson plans into their teaching.

Jill Anderson: Obviously this is about educating all students, but I'd like to hear a little bit about how learning about Asian American history can be particularly impactful for our Asian American students.

Stewart Kwoh: Well, I think that for the Asian American students, a lot of them have told us they feel alone. They feel that they're going through this alone. And so they need to know that this is not the first time this has happened, that there are unfortunate incidents where people have been killed. People been brutalized throughout our history. A lot of Asian Americans have tended to keep their heads down to try to do well in school, but not speak up. And so we need them to speak up, but to learn what has happened before. There were actually to political parties like in California, whose sole mission was to get rid of Chinese American immigrants in the late 1800s, early 19000s in California, Workingmen's Party. 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated, but there's a history of fighting back in the courts, in the legislatures. So they should be proud of that history of fighting back, of seeing the hatred sometimes spilling over, but still fighting back, trying to assert our rights as American. Hopefully that inspires people. So they're not alone.

They're fighting along with their ancestors, hopefully with the intersectional stories. They're fighting alongside of whites and Blacks and Latinx and Native Americans who are also fighting for their rights. And so we think that that's the way to inspire our youth to become more active, to be civically engaged, to vote. So that to us is particularly interesting and important to Asian American students. But my favorite story is I knew some board members in the Englewood School District outside of Los Angeles. Englewood is best known for having the Rams football stadium, but I contacted the school and they said, "Well, we have less than 1% students who are Asian Americans," and this was a Black administrator. But she said, "But because of the anti-Asian violence, I want you to train our teachers." So we did a training of the teachers. That was a good example where you don't have to have Asian American students to teach these lessons.

In fact, if you want to stop racism, it's not the racism of Asian American students towards themselves. It's non-Asians sometimes targeting Asian Americans. So we need to spread the curriculum broadly in order to educate Americans on who Asian Americans are, their history, their struggles and their contributions. And there's a lot of Asian Americans contributing now to the vitality of the United States, who we also want to promote, not as the model minority, but as Americans who are contributing to the country.

Jill Anderson: Is there a way to approach this topic without making Asian American students feel uncomfortable or feel that they are the example in the school community?

Stewart Kwoh: Frederick Douglass had a vision of a composite nation, and a composite nation made up of whites, Blacks, Latinx, Asians, Native Americans. And so I don't think we want to single out any one minority group. We don't want to single them out. So in the course of teaching about the different segments of the American fabric that have contributed and have struggled in America, then you're not singling them out. If you're singling out a specific ethnic group, then that can make people uncomfortable. But I think if you say, we're going to cover the fabric of the United States where different people have struggled and contributed, then it's part of the composite nation. It's not this semester we're targeting one group for examination. I think it's part of the fabric. Even if you have a course, it's part of a larger theory of reaching the composite nation. You want to talk about what they have gone through and how they've come through in a stronger way using American values and made America stronger because of that.

Clearly every group has contributed as well. So teachers could use that angle, that they want to talk about contributions from different groups. And so you don't have to start off with saying this group was discriminated against from day one and so that's why we're looking at them. But you could look at how people have contributed to the country.

I was talking to an entrepreneur the other day, and he was saying, "In our afterschool program, you have to talk about people's names and see where the names came from. You have to talk about the food that they eat and see where that food came from." You could approach it in different ways rather than just hammering on the racial discrimination that people have faced.

Jill Anderson: You mentioned earlier how many Asian American students may feel alone or invisible with all of this ongoing anti-Asian violence. Can you provide some insight and guidance into how that might affect our students, Particular Asian American students?

Stewart Kwoh: We've looked at some of the surveys and Asian American students are not unlike other students, but where they are put under the microscope and they're pressured, or they feel that... Most Asian American families feel that they could be a victim of racial violence. The pandemic plus the anti-Asian violence have made Asian American students more depressed than other students. And so there has to be some way to deal with that. We're just starting the planning for an afterschool program, as I mentioned, in New York City. We've been invited into three schools and then hopefully more. So we will test this out firsthand because these are mostly in Chinatown. And so we'll see how our creative lesson dissemination can be utilized in a way to make students not only feel better, but to activate them, get them civically engaged.

Jill Anderson: Well, you have so many amazing things happening and I urge all of our listeners to go check out all this great work that you're doing. Thank you so much for coming and talking about it today.

Stewart Kwoh: The website is, and I encourage people to get on it. On the website, also has a schedule of our workshops. Our workshops, we've tried to keep small to around 20, 25 people. So there could be some interaction and some questions and some feedback. So we encourage that. It's very interactive. We've done over 40 workshops. And so we encourage people to participate in the workshops to start working with the Asian American Education Project. We'd love to continue working with your school. We're trying to expand as fast as we can. When we first started the project, we didn't anticipate the wave of anti-Asian violence. So we thought we could handle this just with a few people. But last year we had to hire about 12 consultants because of the demand, but we still want to hit a bigger number so we could reach a lot of students.

Jill Anderson: Great. Well, thank you so much.

Stewart Kwoh: Thank you.

Jill Anderson: Stewart Kwoh is the co-executive director of the Asian American Education Project. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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