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Asian American history proposal heading to Illinois Senate floor

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois public school students are one step closer to learning more about Asian American history in school. Senators hope to get a bill to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk requiring students to learn about the history of Asian American figures and their contributions to society.

The proposal addressing accurate Asian American history passed out of the Senate Education Committee Tuesday.

Senate Democrats say Asian American experiences must be taught during a time when anti-Asian racism and xenophobia are increasingly common. Hate crimes against Asian Americans spiked by 150% in 2020 alone.

State representatives already approved this legislation last month with a 98-13 vote.

As the first Asian American elected to the Senate, Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago) says he knows firsthand how important representation matters.

“I know how much being able to relay the culture and the heritage of a community matters in terms of understanding the policies and understanding the communities that exist,” Villivalam said.

He believes this bill could set the foundation for the future and help all students better understand Asian American culture.

“Holistic and inclusive history”

Niles West High School student Kiana Kenmotsu is a fourth-generation Japanese American. She told committee members history is important because it helps people see and feel what others went through. Kenmotsu said that could’ve helped her when learning about several topics in middle school and high school, including Japanese internment.

“I was incredulous when classmates staunchly believed that my Korean War veteran grandfather and 442nd [Regimental Combat Team] great uncles and thousands of innocent Americans were rightfully convicted,” Kenmotsu said. “This is not what we should be learning. Our education should be teaching us right from wrong through holistic and inclusive history.”

Kenmotsu’s grandfather and other family members had to give up everything they worked for in California before they were placed in an internment camp in Arkansas. She first learned about that experience while working on a class assignment in eighth grade.

“They lived behind barb wire and horse barns,” Kenmotsu explained. “Hearing what the country they loved and immigrated to did to them made my 13-year-old heart heavy and eyes filled with tears. While this class in eighth grade presented a good opportunity for me and my family, Asian American history is so much more diverse and we’re all apart of American history.”

Kenmotsu said students should know the importance of embracing and accepting all cultures. She hopes this is the last time Asian American students have to testify for equal representation in school.

Having the strength to push for change

Villivalam thanked Kenmotsu for sharing her story with lawmakers. He felt lawmakers get caught up in looking at “numbers and data and fact sheets” during hearings and other discussions about bills, but this was different.

“She quite frankly reminded me of when I was her age and being the only Asian American kid in class and being different. I just want to thank you for sharing your story and having that strength to do so.”

The legislation passed out of the Senate Education Committee on a 13-1 vote. Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) was the only member to vote against the proposal. The bill now heads to the Senate floor for debate.

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Mike Miletich

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