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Duy Nguyen: New Hmong American and Asian American history bill is about healing

(Photo: The Hmong Institute)

It is fitting that we celebrate Hmong Americans in Wisconsin during April and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. I appreciate that these celebrations take place during the spring, a time for renewal, growth, excitement, and opportunities for better days ahead. The recent signing of Assembly Bill 232/Senate Bill 240 will spring us towards a fuller sense of our state’s forward-thinking community. 

On April 4, Gov. Tony Evers signed this bill into law, requiring all school districts in the state of Wisconsin to include the teaching of Hmong American and Asian American history in the K-12 curriculum. This law amends a previous state statute which required the teaching of First Nations, Black Americans, and those of Hispanic descent. This bill came to be as a result of those who testified in favor of the bill, including community leaders, bipartisan legislatures, and organizations who have worked tirelessly in the past and present to pave the path for our state to move forward. This includes advocates like State Rep. Francesca Hong, Lorna Young (AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin co-founder), and so many others who are deeply involved in this continuous effort to advance our great state of Wisconsin. 

Duy Nguyen

“Having the opportunity to learn about the history, culture and contributions of Hmong and Asian Americans – we will be a better state. Diversity will make us stronger,” said Gov. Evers.  

This marks a momentous shift for citizens who have advocated for the acknowledgement and inclusion of Hmong and Asian American history and culture as part of Wisconsin history. Asian Americans have lived and worked in Wisconsin for over 150 years. Inclusion, cultural awareness, and multiculturalism benefit all students. Our children deserve to know their own stories, the stories of their peers, and the story of Wisconsin. 

One such story is my own. 

My family left Vietnam as refugees in the 1980s because we did not believe in the political construct that ultimately took over. It took us four attempts to flee Vietnam to finally be united as a family in Wisconsin. 

I still grapple with my younger self’s experiences. In elementary school, it was decided that I was unable to speak English proficiently. Because of that, I was sent to a separate classroom and was tasked with playing a computer game to help me learn, instead of using my knowledge to think critically like other students in my class. As one of the only Vietnamese students in my elementary school, it was clear to me that I was different, and for me to fit in, I had to act and be someone else. In this case, I assimilated to a point where I was embarrassed of who I really was and where I came from. 

I now look back and have so many questions. 

What if my educators recognized that my understanding of language was higher than my ability to speak? What if I had the chance to be with my peers, in the classroom, to feel connected, to be visible, and to know that my story was worthy of inclusion? 

What if I had educators who acknowledged my prior experiences and saw them as my strengths to then build upon? What if our schools taught about Asian American experiences? 

What if I could be my whole self, not ashamed of my genesis story; instead, feeling proud knowing that it is the counter-story that supports the work of wanting all humans to flourish? 

This bill sets our communities up for the most essential elements of our humanity: belonging, empathy, and curiosity. These are elements that we all have as children and that are often lost along the way.  

It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to be with people who believed in me, people who were curious about me, that I could start to put my compelling “why” I am in education into words. As an educational leader, I want to give every child a voice, so they do not end up being adults who do not recognize their own. I encourage all of us to know our own stories and find ways to engage in storytelling and story LISTENING. Our sense of empathy and creating spaces of belonging starts with acknowledging that Asian Americans matter.  

I deeply respect educators, communities, and our students. This bill is about HEALING. It allows stories similar to mine to be recognized as stories worthy of our humanity so we can start to do the most important work – to heal by understanding one another in ways that transform our future together.  

As we acknowledge and celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, let us create spaces for one another to share who we are and advocate for representation. The acknowledgment and awareness of our humanity is only the first phase. The work of a healing journey truly begins with curiosity and fascination to learn and understand cultures and histories in order to be inclusive of all