NEW JERSEY (PIX11) — Considered an engineering marvel of its time, the Transcontinental Railroad was a game changer, connecting the east and west in the back end of the 1800s. The contribution of roughly 20,000 Chinese immigrants proved to be vital in the railway’s completion, but as New Jersey 12-year-old Bryan Zhao discovered, it was widely ignored in his social studies classes growing up.
“It just felt very weird being excluded like we weren’t part of US history and that was completely wrong,” Zhao told PIX11 News.
The sentiment has long been shared among the Asian-American and Pacific Islander population in New Jersey, which accounts for about 1 million residents.
Learning about the contributions of Asian Americans will now be part of the curriculum statewide after Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation this week requiring school districts to teach students in kindergarten through 12th grade about the contributions of the AAPI community.
The push to make it happen started with a campaign launched by the group Make Us Visible NJ. Its founder, Dr. Kani Ilangovan, was driven by her work as a child psychologist — fully grasping the impact that racial trauma has on young people.
“It robs them of their childhood,” Ilangovan explained. “Because they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel like they belong they don’t sleep well you know they lose their sense of aliveness.”
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji represents parts of Hudson County and co-sponsored the bill. He cites an influx of violence against Asian Americans in the past two years — where one in three AAPI parents reported a hate incident against their child — as playing a huge role in moving the legislation forward.
“This is the best way to fight hate: with education, with awareness, with love,” he said. “This is a common sense measure.”
For Zhao, who himself testified before a state house committee about the need for the bills, the fight is just beginning.
“I just think it’s so inspiring and I’m so grateful for it because it’s like motivation to keep going and keep pushing for more,” he said.
The new addition to the curriculum is expected to take place this Fall for the 2022-2023 school year.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story suggested that Bryan Zhao was referring to his current school for not incorporating Asian American history into its curriculum. Zhao was attending a different school at the time.