Bill to teach Hmong and Asian American history gets public hearing

“Asian American history is American history,” is the resounding message students, teachers, parents and others delivered to lawmakers at an Assembly hearing Thursday on a bipartisan bill that would require Wisconsin school boards to provide curriculum on Hmong and Asian Americans. 

The hearing, which comes at the end of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is the first step towards a policy change that has previously stalled in the Legislature. The bill, despite bipartisan support, never received a public hearing in the last legislative session.

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), Wisconsin’s first Asian American lawmaker, said in written testimony that the hearing “marks a significant milestone in what has been many years of bipartisan effort to include Hmong Americans and Asian Americans in our education curriculum here in Wisconsin.” She said the effort is one led by students, teachers, community members and legislators who believe that stories and histories of Asian Americans deserve to be told and heard in Wisconsin classrooms.

“It’s not too late to make sure that first graders, like my son George, just embarking on their educational adventure can look forward to lessons that illuminate and celebrate their identities,” Hong said. “One of the fundamental goals of education is to prepare students to become active and engaged citizens in a changing society. I know that this is a goal shared by all of you on this committee. By including information about Hmong Americans and Asian Americans and instruction curriculum, we can provide Wisconsin students with a well-rounded education that reflects the realities of our multicultural state and nation.” 

AB 232 would amend a current Wisconsin law that already requires school boards to provide instructional programs designed to give students “an understanding of human relations, particularly with regard to American Indians, Black Americans, and Hispanics.” The bill would add the words “Hmong Americans and Asian Americans” to existing statute. 

Supporters of the bill from Milwaukee, Madison, Eau Claire, Stevens Point and across Wisconsin spoke about the importance of teaching Asian American history in Wisconsin schools, including how education could help Hmong students feel more seen and give all students a more complete education.

Caitlin Lee, president of the Eau Claire Hmong Parent-Teacher Association, spoke about how she felt invalidated growing up because Hmong and AAPI history, culture and languages were never included in K-12 curriculum. She said she didn’t feel like she could celebrate being a Hmong person outside of Hmong spaces, and she doesn’t want her children to feel the same way. 

“I wish for things to be different for my own American-born children. I want them to see themselves being taught in the curriculum, validating my children’s lived experiences as Hmong children, so that it can foster in them the ability to express their thoughts and opinions comfortably,” Lee said. 

Lee said the bill would help fill curriculum gaps and accurately represent the stories, histories and achievements of Hmong Americans and Asian Americans. 

Hmong Americans are the largest Asian American ethnic group in Wisconsin with more than 58,000 people, and Wisconsin has the third largest population of Hmong people in the country. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey estimated Wisconsin’s total Asian American population at nearly 200,000. 

Today, Wisconsin communities with significant Hmong populations include Milwaukee, Wausau, Sheboygan, La Crosse, Madison, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh, Manitowoc, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, Menomonie and Fond du Lac.

Lawmakers at the hearing — both on the committee and co-sponsors of the bill — appeared receptive to the bill and supporters’ testimony.

“Just your presence,” said Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), chair of the committee before the start of the hearing. “I think we recognize how important this is to all of you.” 

Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield), the lead Assembly co-author, said many Wisconsinites that he has spoken to are unaware of how Hmong people came to Wisconsin.   

According to the Hmong American Center, many Hmong people first came to Wisconsin as political refugees who fled Asia due to war and persecution. 

Hmong people were recruited by the U.S. CIA to help fight a “secret war” against the North Vietnamese and communist Pathet Lao. Recruits assisted by providing intelligence about enemy operations, guarding U.S. strategic radar installation and rescuing downed American pilots. Following the war, many faced persecution by the governments of Laos and Vietnam, causing many to seek refuge in the U.S. 

“Each year, fewer Hmong veterans remain to tell this important story, which is one of the many reasons I think AB 232 is important,” Snyder told the committee. “It is essential that this story is relayed for future generations.”

Verona Area High School student Jonah Hansen, who is Filipino American, said he was faced with insensitive questions from his peers while attending a predominantly white elementary school. 

“People’s perceptions of me were constructed from tropes they’d seen on TV,” Hansen said. “I felt like my culture was invisible. I didn’t see anybody that looked like me in the textbooks given to us in school, the educational programs they showed us or even the heroes they put up on the wall.” 

Hansen said he worked on a project his freshman year of high school that gave him the option to research Asian American culture. He said being allowed to research the achievements of Asian Americans brought a new dimension to school, but he also realized how difficult it was to obtain information on Asian American heroes. 

“I didn’t know what to research. I couldn’t name one accomplishment from Asian American history and I was ashamed,” Hansen said. “Ever since then, I’ve felt it was of the utmost importance to teach everybody about Asian American history.”

Lee and others also said the bill was urgent due to the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans following the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee said the rise in hate crimes is the result of “a fundamental unawareness of the history and complexities of the diverse groups of ethnicities within the AAPI identity.” 

“There is no other way to combat fear than education,” Lee said. “The last three years of COVID revealed what can happen when there isn’t a way to accurately educate our communities about Asian Americans and their contributions to this country. It led to the unnecessary anti-Asian hate incidents and violence across the nation.” 

Kabby Hong, Verona Area High School teacher and Wisconsin’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, pointed out that other states including Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Florida have already taken steps to combat the increase in hate crimes. 

More than 11,000 hate crimes against Asian Americans were documented between March 2020 and December 2021, according to a report by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit group that tracks incidents of hate and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.

“We know that hate crimes are vastly under-reported, so the real number is actually much higher,” Hong continued. “This staggering statistic highlights the urgent need for visibility of the Asian American community as valued members of our community, and vital contributors to our shared history.”

The bill will need to pass the committee, which hasn’t scheduled an executive session yet, before going to the Assembly floor. The bill would also need to be considered in the Senate before it goes to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. 



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F05%2F26%2Fbill-to-teach-hmong-and-asian-american-history-gets-public-hearing%2F by Baylor Spears

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