From Invisibility to Solidarity: An AAPI experience

Our guest author for AAPI Heritage Month is Jessica Tang, President of the Boston Teachers Union, an AFT vice president, co-chair of the AFT Asian American and Pacific Islander Task Force, and a Shanker Institute Board Member. This blog first appeared on on May 1, 2023.

While I have called Boston home for over two decades, I actually was born in Ohio and grew up in several states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana and New Jersey. What each of these states had in common throughout my years of attending school was that not once did I have an AAPI teacher. Nor did I ever learn about Asian American or Pacific Islander history.

Like so many AAPI students, I grew up feeling not too sure where I belonged — whether it was embarrassment as a child when I was told my home-cooked lunches “smelled” and “looked weird,” or when during a social studies lesson about an Asian country other students would look at me as if I were supposed to know all the answers. I had never been to Asia and certainly did not know about the dozens of countries with disparate cultures, languages and customs.

It wasn’t until college and later that I truly started to learn more about the Asian American diaspora — those who, like me, had families that immigrated to the United States and shared common experiences. Only then did I realize that I was not totally alone.

I remember reading Helen Zia’s book Asian American Dreams on a plane home during a break and, within just reading the first chapter, having tears stream down my face. Not because of sadness, but because I was overcome with an unusual feeling of being seen. It was the first time I read a book that reflected my own experiences growing up. It was a feeling that maybe my story was also worth telling, and that I did belong somewhere in the United States.

Where do I belong?

As an adult, I would (and still do) — whether subconsciously or unconsciously — have doubts about whether I belonged somewhere. Shortly after I was elected as the first person of color and first AAPI president of the Boston Teachers Union, I visited the headquarters of United Teachers Los Angeles. I was being given a tour by Arlene Inouye — one of the first AAPI labor leaders I had met at a labor conference. We quickly noticed each other and sought each other out. At one point, we walked by a wall that had former UTLA presidents and officers, and for the first time, I saw on the wall AAPI faces. We happened to also be talking to AAPI staff at UTLA. Once again, I broke down in tears.

I remember apologizing for the sudden outburst, and it was only later that I realized I had never seen an AAPI face on a labor union wall. Perhaps it was a combination of pride, relief and realization that I was not alone that moved me to tears.

In addition to leading the BTU, I would also become the first AAPI leader on many labor boards in Massachusetts and become the first AAPI to serve on the AFT executive council. I am still usually the only AAPI and also often one of just a handful of women, young leaders, queer people and/or people of color on many of these boards as well. So, it continues to often be a lonely place to be, despite the fact that I have since found an incredible community of AAPI educators and activists and, particularly at the AFT and the AFT AAPI Task Force, a welcoming, supportive and inclusive community. Imagine if I had those communities growing up — perhaps I would not have struggled so much with “imposter syndrome” and self-doubt.

Today’s experiences

I would like to think that my experience growing up would be different for the new generations of AAPI youth. Unfortunately, it is not. I was reminded of this recently at an event that local Boston AAPI students put together through a newly formed group called Truth from Youth. As I listened to the students share key takeaways and recommendations from a report they had put together about AAPI student experiences in Boston public schools, the stories and findings were all too familiar. It highlighted so much of what has not changed and still needs to.

After the event, one of my former middle school students from years ago who was working with the students of Truth from Youth told me that I was one of the only AAPI teachers she ever had. The previous week, I had just had a meetup with a former AAPI student who is about to graduate from college. She reminded me of the time she was unfairly disciplined by her high school for speaking out against discriminatory actions toward fellow AAPI students; she reached out to me then for help and support, though it had been years since I’d taught her as a middle schooler. She didn’t know who else she could talk to, she said.

May is AAPI Heritage Month, and while I am glad it is an opportunity to elevate the contributions, successes and needs of the AAPI community, this work must happen year-round. This is why advocating for ethnic studies, including AAPI history experiences and culturally relevant books and stories, is so important. Why having educator diversity, including more AAPI educators, is so important. Why we must acknowledge the bicultural and bilingual experiences of our students, and why we need to collect the data of AAPI students and families within education, but also beyond. There are too many AAPI students who still feel overlooked and invisible.

Building resources

At our last meeting of the AFT’s AAPI Task Force, I had the privilege of presenting the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance toolkit on anti-Asian racism and UCLA’s multimedia textbook, and I was thrilled to learn about the excellent AAPI resources on Colorín Colorado, a partnership project of my union, the AFT, and PBS Station WETA for educators and families of English language learners. Here, teachers and other educators can access articles and resources on how to work successfully with ELLs of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

Their recommended booklists celebrating the diverse cultures of AAPI students is impressive, and these resources are helpful to all educators of all kids. For instance, showing the following interviews with AAPI authors to students or to teachers during in-service professional development days is educational and inspirational, regardless of your background: Erin Entrada Kelly, Cynthia Kadohata, Hena Khan, Paula Yoo, Linda Sue Park, Allen Say, Gene Yang, Minh Lê, Grace Lin, Ellen Oh, Uma Krishnaswami, Greg Tang, Janet Wong.

In addition, you don’t want to miss this new blog post from Mia Wenjen highlighting information on where our Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian communities come from, plus a diverse group of authors you should know about! For booklists and information that include Native Hawaiians, check out these pages.

And in the article “Lessons Learned from Immigrant Families,” Young-Chan Han, who was a family involvement specialist for the Maryland Department of Education, shares unique insights for educators, while two articles from AFT member Xiao-lin Yin-Croft also highlight important perspectives and considerations around culturally responsive instruction and best practices for ELLs:
Building Bridges: An Interview with a Chinese Educator of ELLs
From the Classroom: Working with Chinese ELLs

For anyone who wants to learn more about second language acquisition and policy affecting ELLs, Kenji Hakuta is one of the authoritative voices in this field.

I was especially touched by this interview with principal Victor Tam from the Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School in San Francisco. He talks movingly about how school leaders can respond to anti-Asian bullying and violence, in addition to his own experience with bullying.

These are stories that our school communities must know. It would take a whole other blog post to mention all the wonderful resources available on Colorín Colorado, but I want to finish by pointing out these beautiful literacy tip sheets and resources for parents of kids in grades K-3 in 16 languages Being Bilingual Is a Superpower!: Tip Sheet in 16 Languages.

And there are also these tip sheets in 13 languages for families of babies, toddlers and kids in preK-3, including Tagalog: Reading Tips in 13 Languages.

Resources and information like this help all our AAPI communities feel seen, valued and heard — whether they just arrived or have been part of this country for generations.

Shortly after becoming president of the BTU, I met a young AAPI woman at a BTU conference. She was a new building rep and came up to me to introduce herself. When she shared that she was really proud that I was the president, tears started streaming down her face. She was embarrassed and seemed confused about why it was so emotional to share that and apologized profusely.

I understood completely and, of course, knew the feeling and let her know that. AAPIs are often so invisible that just knowing that others exist and came before us is moving in and of itself. We have a long way to go, but the history is there and we do exist. Our stories just need to be told, and we as educators have the duty and responsibility to do just that.