SPRINGFIELD – Illinois could become the first state to require public schools to teach the history of Asian Americans, a community that reported an increase in anti-Asian hate incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History, or TEAACH Act, would require Illinois K-12 public schools to teach a unit of Asian American history. The legislation allows individual districts to develop their own curriculum plan under the guidance of the Illinois State Board of Education.
Introduced by State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview) in January, the legislation was the result of multiple advocacy groups working together, such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Chicago.
“This is both important for Asians and non-Asians alike to have a comprehensive understanding of American history, and it is also incredibly important to combat anti-Asian hate and discrimination,” Gong-Gershowitz says.
The bill passed in the Illinois House in April on a 98-13 vote, and passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate earlier this month. It awaits action from Gov. JB Pritzker. Lawmakers say they’re very optimistic that the bill will be signed.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago) co-sponsored the bill and says change starts in the classroom with education.
“This is a huge step forward, because as with everything, it starts with our youth,” Villivalam says. “It starts with what our youth learn in our schools and that’s why we have to make sure we’re as inclusive and accurate as possible in our curriculum.”
Gong-Gershowitz and Villivalam, who are both Asian-American, say they grew up in Illinois schools never learning about Asian American history.
It wasn’t until law school, Gong-Gershowitz says, where she learned about immigration law and Japanese internment during World War 2, that she explored her own family’s connection to this history.
“By leaving out Asian Americans, you leave out those who have contributed to not only Asian American communities, but to American history as a whole,” Gong-Gershowitz says. “Without it, you have a limited and narrow view of American history.”
In addition to an accurate teaching of history, she says the bill will help address hate and violence.
“Without having a comprehensive knowledge of Asian American history, what fills that void is harmful stereotypes,” Gong-Gershowitz says. “That has led to a rise in anti-Asian hate and violence, and I think the best way to combat ignorance is with knowledge and education.”
The group Stop AAPI Hate has recorded nearly 7,000 reports of hate incidents in the U.S. involving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Villivalam says he hopes this is one step of many to create change in the community. He says more cross-cultural experiences are needed to better understand the diverse groups in the country.
“We need to translate what we’ve done with the TEAACH Act to what we do in industries,” Villivalam says. “It is a process, it is a challenge, but we have to meet that challenge in order to better serve the Asian American community.”
Overall, lawmakers say they hope this will set a precedent for other states in the country. Gong-Gershowitz says she’s received calls from other lawmakers and organizations looking to implement similar legislation in their own state.
“I believe that when communities that are underserved stand together, we will achieve progress together,” Villivalam says.