PRINCETON, N.J. — We see movements at their apex.
We rarely see them when they’re a crayon in the hand of a cautious child.
“I was one of the only brown kids in my school," said Dr. Kani Ilangovan, a psychiatry specialist in Princeton, New Jersey. "And when I would draw pictures of myself, I would draw myself with a peach crayon because I didn’t want to emphasize my differences from other children.”
Decades later, Ilangovan saw those same peach-colored portraits at her child’s school. They inspired her to type an e-mail and start a movement.
“I wrote to the people in the central New Jersey Asian-American reading group I was in," she said, "to see if anyone wanted to work with me on getting AAPI curriculum in the New Jersey public schools. And five people responded. And that's how we started.”
The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the last two years has been widely reported. Nearly 11,000 incidents have been reported to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate. We hear far less about what’s being done to stop it. Ilangovan sent her email in March 2021, the same month when a gunman in Atlanta walked into three Asian-American spas and killed eight people.
“I felt like an outsider," Ilangovan said. "Asian-Americans are treated like perpetual foreigners. And actually, we’ve helped build this country.”
What happened next is its own education on how change gets made.
Ilangovan and her reading group wrote an Open Letter for AAPI Studies in New Jersey Public Schools. They produced versions in multiple languages. In two months, they garnered 1,500 signatures.
“In New Jersey, we have 15% of Asian American students," said Ying Lu, who translated it into Chinese. "Fewer than 2% of school administrators and teachers are Asian-American. It’s not surprising you don’t see them show up in the public space. But on WeChat, I see many, many activities."
By year’s end, a community stereotyped for not speaking out was holding rallies and speaking with New Jersey legislators. Students at high schools recorded testimonials.
“People were telling us that it wasn’t going to pass this year," Ilangovan said. "They said, 'You’re going to have to wait a while, but that’s good. You got started.' But we were very insistent that it need to pass now because our kids were suffering now.”
In January, New Jersey became the second state after Illinois to sign into law a K-12 requirement for AAPI curriculum.
Many who pushed for this curriculum fear it won’t be enforced. They envision a long, drawn-out effort to ensure it is. But they also envision other states taking notice. Already, advocates in New Jersey have heard from those in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and a handful of others. Seeds have been planted … just as they once were in a cautious child holding a peach-colored crayon.
"This is important," Ilangovan said. "This is us creating our belonging in this country.”