I am a Lao-American woman. Saying it makes me smile — it gives me a sense of pride.
That was not always the case growing up. My identity was something I struggled to learn about and own. My race or ethnicity was not part of conversations in my education. The only time I became relevant was during a one-page reading on the Vietnam War, or a lesson on Pearl Harbor. Even in those discussions, my perspective as a Lao-American was not represented.
Whenever something remotely Asian came up, I would be looked at, as if I could represent the voices of an entire group of people of different ethnicities, traditions, history, and stories.
The need for a more inclusive curriculum in Minnesota schools is why I work for Equity Alliance MN, which seeks to develop stronger learning systems for all students. I am the Youth Executive Board (YEB) Co- Facilitator, which means I hear regularly from students who wish to learn more about their own history in the textbooks. Students want to be connected to what they learn, to share their personal stories through their own experience uncovering absent narratives in history, and they want to reconnect with the stories of their ancestors.
Each year in March during Youth Day at the Capitol, we have had students meet with their local and state representatives to advocate for curriculum that offers greater racial and cultural understanding. Two years ago, YEB collaborated with a local artist to put on a performance around absent narratives: Untold Stories from the Secret War and Civil Rights Movement Project. They worked with local teachers to build lesson plans for educators to use in their classrooms.
Our identities are collections of what we know of our history, our family traditions, our teachings from elders, and the values we were raised with. To see ourselves reflected in a classroom curriculum offers acceptance and understanding — it gives us a foundation of knowing who we are.
As Equity Alliance MN’s program manager for Professional Learning and Program Evaluation, Mary Bussman has said, “We need to retrain our social studies teachers to know multiple perspectives, and rewrite our history books to have those multiple perspectives. That’s the vision we need to have in the state of Minnesota.”
I’m proud to be a Lao-American living in Minnesota. I’ll be even prouder when there is commitment and connectedness to learn from one another.
Cathryn Nakhornsak, originally from Worthington, lives on the east side of St. Paul. She works as the Communications Coordinator of Equity Alliance MN and inspires youth to engage in systems change.