Florida to begin teaching Asian American History in Public Schools

Make Us Visible Florida hosted a celebration ceremony at the Wah Lum Kung Fu Temple
Make Us Visible Florida hosted a celebration ceremony at the Wah Lum Kung Fu Temple. Photo credit: Laura Elliott Monroe

On May 9 2023, Florida became the first Southern State to sign an Asian American history in K12 education bill into law. Today we explore the journey of Make Us Visible Florida, the community coalition that brought this dream to reality.

The Journey

The COVID19 pandemic was an era of great struggle to the international community on multiple fronts encompassing nearly every aspect of life. In western countries however, it also marked a resurgence of Anti-Asian sentiments and xenophobia leading to a spike in Anti-Asian hate crimes in this period targeting predominantly East and Southeast Asian individuals, families and businesses.

Make Us Visible Florida

Global events have long led to stereotyping and discrimination of minority groups within the United States with the concepts of the “Perpetual Foreigner” or “The Yellow Peril” often being applied to Asian communities amidst National anxieties in the face of unfamiliar events. Unfortunately these fears are often politically capitalized on via fearmongering with phrases such as “Kungflu” and “China Virus” making their way into mainstream sociopolitical discourse.

For community leader and Wah Lum Kung Fu instructor Mimi Chan, this collective adversity drove her to start a petition during Spring 2021 to include Asian American history to Florida K-12 education. Being a long time educator herself, she has seen the impact of education in shaping long term change and its potential in remedying the poisons of ignorance. The petition garnered 15,130 signatures and support from dozens of community and collegiate organizations. That year Make Us Visible Florida was established in network with similar nationwide campaigns and soon after Senator Linda Stewart and Representative Anna Eskamani sponsored House Bill 281 and Senate Bill 490 for Asian American history in Florida K12 education. Over the next two years the newly founded team worked tirelessly in concert with the legislative branch in bringing this dream to a reality.

An uphill battle

It is not uncommon for any great endeavor to meet failure, MUVFL’s fight was no exception as in February 2022, several tiring months after House Bill 281 and Senate Bill 490 were filed, neither bill was placed on the agenda and unfortunately meant the Asian American history studies bill would not come to fruition that legislative session. However the MUVFL team was quick to regroup and reorganize and begin preparing for the next legislative session with newfound experience and knowledge of the task ahead.

This period also coincided with a sort of uneasiness as the national debate regarding the censorship of education and diversity programs in Florida began to pickup. Additionally no Southern State had passed an AAPI legislation bill and the hostile political climate did not provide reassurance that Florida of all states would succeed in their endeavor. With a cautious optimism and sense of resilience, the new Asian Studies bills HB287 and SB294 were filed during the Celebration of the Lunar New Year 2023.

Over the coming months, MUVFL volunteers and community members resumed their efforts with countless hours of calling, mailing and visiting the offices of elected officials statewide with volunteer groups from across all of Florida. These initiatives included trips to Tallahassee and South Florida where MUVFL volunteers held countless meetings with elected officials seeking to gain support and traction for their bill.

Legislation signed into law

After months of advocacy, an opportunity arose within the legislative process. A concurrent large-package education bill in the works for some time was set to pass, however seeing that the Asian American history Studies bill had unanimous bipartisan support, it was ultimately decided that language from SB294 was added to SB1430 and language from HB287 has been amended to HB1537, in this way Asian American history studies in Florida K12 education was enthusiastically ushered into the bill, passed unanimously and sent to the Governor’s desk for signing. On May 9 2023, Florida had become the first Southern State to require the education of Asian American History in Florida public schools.

The celebration

On Saturday June 24 2023, Make Us Visible Florida hosted a celebration ceremony at the Wah Lum Kung Fu Temple. The celebration featured performances from the temple including traditional Chinese Lion Dance. The event also featured shows of gratitude towards the community and elected officials from Thai/Lao and Samoan cultures both of which were presented by MUVFL volunteers. This celebration also featured a show of support from community non-profits, high school and collegiate student groups, local businesses including restaurants and cafes, as well as the officials who assisted with this legislation at the governmental level.

Elected officials at the event included Senators: Stewart(D), Torres(D); Representatives: Arrington(D), Bracy Davis(D), Eskamani(D), Harris(D), and delegations from the offices of Plasencia(R), Plakon(R), and D.Smith(R). Also in attendance were Deputy Tom Lin + OCSO AAPI liaisons and Mayor Demings’ Deputy Chief of Staff Carol Burkett.

Being held at the Wah Lum Kung Fu temple, for many attendees this event also invoked a heartwarming nostalgia, as in December 2021 it was also the site of the MUVFL Day of Action where for the first time the community sat down with elected officials to discuss AAPI Studies in K12 education and the logistics of the challenges ahead. Now the community had gathered to celebrate the fruits of our labor and use the progress made as a springboard and motivation for tackling the next challenges to come.

Make Us Visible Florida Celebration

Going forward

For the Make Us Visible Florida Team, the battle for Asian American history studies in K12 education is far from over. While the bill was signed into law, the work now continues in partnering with the Florida Department of Education and local school boards in designing the curriculum then implementing it.

Being the first Southern State in the nation to pass legislation of this nature, MUVFL will also serve a model and guide in assisting neighboring states similar to how the MUV Chapter in Connecticut being first in the nation to pass its bill served as a model for the success of the chapters in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida. However being a Southern state with unique sociocultural and sociopolitical challenges, the group out of Florida is confident that the rest of the South can follow suit and is enthusiastic to help our neighbors establish and maintain their own Make Us Visible chapters with organizers out of Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma being well on their way.

The current political climate is tumultuous for anyone engaged with advocacy, activism or community organizing – and the journey of MUVFL over the past two years is another testimony to that. Many community members from across the political spectrum have applauded Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for signing this education bill, however some are also skeptical citing the Governor’s 2022 “Stop WOKE Act” and ban against teaching AP African American Studies in Florida high schools. Once more a sense of cautious optimism prevails, and for many community members serves as a reminder that the Florida AAPI communities must remain engaged in the writing of this curriculum and helping it been seen through to completion, in this way nobody’s narratives are white washed, watered down or misrepresented and that the soul of this legislation remains true to promoting authentic representation.

The term “Asian American” arose in the 1960’s from Asian American activists seeking to reclaim their narratives away from the outdated colonial term “Orientals” – even the concept of pan-ethnic and pan-cultural solidarity amongst Asians living in the United States is a testimony to the inherently political nature of the struggle for representation, equity and justice. And work in this field has always involved collaboration with communities of other backgrounds. Asian American history is a story of resilience, in this next chapter we look to our past for optimism amid caution and an impassioned drive to fight for the changes we believe in.

If you are interested in being part of this next chapter in bringing AAPI studies to Florida K12 Education, visit MUVFL’s website to learn more.

Make Us Visible Florida Day in Miami on July 29

Make Us Visible Florida Celebration
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Khaled Itani
Khaled is an active member in the Central Florida Asian-American and Muslim-American community where he spent several years volunteering for and planning local cultural events. He often hosts workshops throughout Florida on the Asian-American identity and experience and always seeks means to integrate the diverse perspectives of the Asian-American experience into a united voice, following the phrase "Unity in Diversity". Khaled enjoys ink painting/drawing, kayaking and reading anything ranging from magical realism to politics. Khaled graduated from the University of Central Florida as Cum Laude in Health Sciences in 2020.