Pennsylvania parents, students push for AAPI education in K-12 classrooms

"I felt like I just wasn't part of American history. We would always learn about Columbus and the pilgrimage...," said Stella Kim.

Nydia Han Image
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
Push for AAPI education in Pa.
Push for AAPI education in Pa.

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Pennsylvania parents and students rallied on the Capitol Steps in Harrisburg on Monday in support of the AAPI History Inclusion Act. The bill calls for the inclusion of Asian American and Pacific Islanders studies in schools and is co-sponsored by one of our local lawmakers.

Action News reporter Nydia Han sat down with a Montgomery County mom, who is one of the organizers of Monday's rally, and a mom and daughter in Cherry Hill who helped get similar legislation passed in New Jersey earlier this year.

"It was just really hard," said Stella Kim of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Stella Kim and Ally Yim said until very recently they never saw themselves in their school textbooks or lessons.

"I felt like I just wasn't part of American history. We would always learn about Columbus and the pilgrimage, and civil war," said Kim.

But not about how Asian Americans have served the U.S. too including Stella's dad, a member of the United States Army. Both 7th graders said it's been tough at times to feel proud of who they are.

"I sometimes wish I was just a normal white girl," said Ally Yim. "I want to have like blonde long hair and like blue eyes."

It's a struggle many Asian American adults, like Denise Hellenbrand of the organization Make Us Visible PA, remember all too well.

"I've been in the United States for 40 years, I went through the public schools. But, you know, having known only very few things about Asian American contribution, certainly made me feel like an outsider," she said.

Asian Americans being wrongly blamed for the coronavirus has heightened that forever foreigner sentiment.

A recent study shows just 29% of Asian Americans feel like they belong and are accepted in the U.S. Seventy-one percent say they're discriminated against.

"The rising Asian hate, especially during this pandemic, really woke up. A lot of us, probably for the first time to confront this issue of racism against Asian Americans," said Jess Kim also of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Jess Kim is a mom to three children, including Stella.

"A lot of this hate comes from ignorance and having lack of proximity with Asian Americans and lack of understanding that Asian Americans are actually part of this country, that we've helped build this country, that we have a shared history in this country because we don't learn about it in the schools," she said.

So when Jess Kim happened across a post from Make Us Visible NJ, she jumped into action.

"I told my kids, we're not going to school tomorrow. Why? We're going on a field trip, where we're going to the State House in Trenton and you're going to learn about what it looks like to participate in democracy."

Kim testified in support of legislation requiring that Asian American history be taught in schools. Then she organized a rally in Cherry Hill where both mom and daughter used their voices.

"Not talking about Asian American history makes me feel invisible," said Stella Kim at the rally.

Kim said learning AAPI history can instill a greater sense of identity and belonging, strengthen a sense of civic engagement for Asian Americans and help build multiracial coalitions.

"We've all been part of systems that have, you know, oppressed us. And you have been designed to marginalize us. I think when we learn about that shared history, and the shared solidarity that's in both of our all of our histories, that that can really lead to greater understanding and a pathway forward," said Jess Kim.

The Kim's efforts with Make Us Visible NJ led to success. In January New Jersey became the second state after Illinois to mandate that AAPI history be part of the Kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum.

Now Pennsylvania parents, including Denise Hellenbrand, are pushing for similar legislation in the Keystone state.

"Not just for the Asian American kids, but also for non-Asians," she said.

Pennsylvania House Bill 1917 also calls for the inclusion of AAPI history in K through 12th grades. It was first introduced by State Representative Patty Kim in Dauphin County. And now State Representative Todd Stephens in Montgomery County has signed on as a prime co-sponsor.

"I think it's really important for our students to understand and learn and appreciate, you know, what the AAPI community has contributed in so many different disciplines, whether it's music, the arts, government, military, medicine, civics in so many different areas," said Stephens.

Hellenbrand is grateful for the bi-partisan support and the precedent set in New Jersey.

"It definitely gives me hope," she said.

Stella and Ally said since the bill passed in Trenton, one of their teachers has begun sharing AAPI stories sparking space for the girls to share their own.

"I was happy that I got to talk about it and like my experiences," said Ally.

"Recently I've just had like an overwhelming sense of pride that, like we helped make a change in our community, and that it's gonna help a lot of people. I just know that," said Stella.