Historically, Asian Pacific American Heritage month has been met with lesson plans highlighting the accomplishments of AAPI individuals, preparing dishes from different AAPI cultures or reading books and viewing art showcasing the experience or talents of different people of AAPI descent, past and present.
This year — against a grim backdrop that includes a nearly 150 percent spike in hate crimes against those of AAPI descent in the past year found by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino — there is a stronger sense of urgency to avoid sugarcoating history, and to address the trauma that both students and their families are facing.
“My focus is really more about making sure the parents are taken care of in all of this. If they’re taken care of, they should be able to support their kids better,” explained Amy Koo, CSBA Director-at-Large, Asian American/Pacific Islander and Belmont-Redwood Shores School District board president. “I’ve got elderly parents from San Francisco. I’m afraid for them when they go on their daily walk. I mean, this is real — there’s that fear and that trauma, and so we need to provide resources to the parents as well as the kids.”
CSBA has provided members a sample resolution (www.csba.org/resolutions) condemning violence and harassment toward Asian Americans and pledging to build school cultures that are fully supportive of students of AAPI descent. Passing a resolution is simply a first step, however, and though school boards and staff are likely overwhelmed with ensuring student safety and social-emotional well-being in light of the pandemic, action must be taken to foster communities that are safe and allow all children to thrive.
Engaging with families
When Belmont-Redwood Shores SD passed a resolution in May 2020 condemning xenophobia and anti-Asian hate, the district also sent an email to families with resources, Koo said. She wants to show families that the district supports them and to provide an opportunity to share their feelings, but knows that may be easier said than done.
“I think for Asian Americans, many of us are told to keep the feelings inside and almost pretend nothing happened and just walk away, like growing up, we never talk about feelings — defer to authority and work hard and keep your mouth shut,” Koo said. “So it’s not going to be easy. But I think if you open up that opportunity, once a few people speak up, then I think more people will be willing to share.”
Often there is also an assumption that Asian students are successful in school and their parents are professionals, but that stereotype is based on a view of Asians as a monolith. There are communities that need much more assistance, Koo said. In her hometown of San Francisco, for instance, a significant number of Asian families are actually very poor and living in public housing or in multiple-family dwellings in Chinatown, she explained.
“As a school board, you want to encourage people to speak up and share their concerns and feedback and ideas, so that we can do the best we can to meet the needs of students and families so that students can be successful in school,” Koo said.
Understanding the full history
In discussions about racism, anti-Asian hate is regularly overlooked, and changing that is a critical next step, Koo said. “Education is the key to turning around the current state of affairs,” she said. “When people are educated, they know the history and they’re able to make friendships and build relationships with people different from themselves.”
Being more mindful about incorporating different perspectives into history and English language arts curriculums can be a good start, especially in the elementary grades where there isn’t a dedicated ethnic studies course. In discussing the Gold Rush, educators can include stories of the Chinese community that was building railroads and doing heavy labor in gold mining.
“I feel like once you start understanding that other people have had contributions and struggles in America for a long period of time, then you build those connections,” Koo said. “And the students and families also feel safer because there’s an opportunity for others to learn more about them.”
Increase representation at all levels districtwide
One area in which trustees can make a significant impact is in improving representation at every level. Recruiting staff to reflect the representation of the student body and then providing additional support so that they’re successful is important, Koo said. “When there’s representation, there’s more empathy and understanding,” she said. “And that cuts across all people of color, not just AAPI.”
Begin building a pipeline of Asian or Black or Latino school board members by starting early and talking to people repeatedly, she explained. “You can’t just send out an email and hope for the best.”
Whether it’s providing guidance or telling a parent they would be a great addition to the PTA, “you’ve got to convince them and show your confidence in them for them to take leadership roles,” Koo said. “You’ve got to build and nurture those relationships and convince people that they can do it because they don’t think they can do it.”
She credits AAPI representation among Belmont-Redwood Shores trustees as part of the reason the board was quick to adopt its resolution last year and direct resources to AAPI families. “When you have representation at the board level then you take these things a lot more seriously,” Koo said. “I kind of worry when there’s no representation in the cabinet or the school board … especially if it’s a small number of AAPI families, they’re probably being overlooked.”