“It's a historic moment for our state and for our nation, as we elevate Asian American voices teaching history to include those who have been historically silenced,” Pritzker said during a bill signing ceremony at Niles West High School in Skokie.
Gong-Gershowitz, a third-generation Chinese American, said the bill was prompted in part by the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States that arose during the pandemic.
“Like a lot of legislation, this has been a topic of conversation for a while,” she said. “But it occurred to us and the TEAACH coalition and (Asian Americans) Advancing Justice Chicago that this was the best way for us to respond to the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia that we have seen in the pandemic. And so the strategy to pass this legislation now was very much motivated in part by what we saw happening in the world.”
Gong-Gershowitz related her own family history from the time her grandfather came to the U.S. in the 1920s, about 40 years after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major federal legislation restricting immigration. But she said she never learned about that, or about the constitutional issues surrounding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, until she was in law school.
“Throughout elementary, high school and college, none of this history was covered in my social studies classes,” she said. “I had no idea that these laws existed, much less how deeply they had impacted my own family. My family's history had been deliberately hidden by my grandparents, who like many other first-generation Americans, were desperate to survive and saw the discrimination that they endured as an impediment to the success of the next generation. They never talked about their struggles.”
Under the new law, beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, all public elementary schools and high schools in Illinois will be required to teach one unit that focuses on the events of Asian American history from the 19th century to the present, including the history of Asian Americans in Illinois and the Midwest, as well as the contributions Asian Americans have made toward advancing civil rights.
The law also provides that the course work will include the contributions made by individual Asian Americans in government, art, humanities and science as well as the contributions of Asian American communities to the economic, cultural, social and political development of the U.S.
It also tasks the State Board of Education with preparing and distributing instructional materials that local districts can use as guidelines as they develop their own curriculum.
That new law comes on the heels of legislation Pritzker signed earlier this year expanding the teaching of Black history in public schools, including the history of African civilization before enslavement, as well as a law Pritzker signed in 2019 requiring schools to include the contributions of LGBTQ individuals in history lessons.
Carmen Ayala, the state superintendent of education, praised passage of the new law and noted that the majority of Illinois students – about 53 percent, according to data from ISBE – are now people of color.
“I strongly believe in the intrinsic value of sharing the stories and the contributions of our cultures that weave the beautiful tapestry of our state and of our nation,” she said. “Our country and our state are the result of the sacrifices and the contributions from all sorts of individuals, individuals of different races, cultures and religions, people who speak many different languages, eat different foods and celebrate different holidays. But for too long history education, the official ledger of those contributions, has been incomplete, and therefore has been inaccurate.”
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