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Amid critical race theory fight, Laotian American senator pushes Asian American studies in Ohio

Tina Maharath is co-sponsoring a new bill that would make Ohio the second state to incorporate Asian American history into public school curriculums.

When Tina Maharath became the first Asian American woman elected to the Ohio Senate in 2018, she vowed to fight for greater representation for her community in a state that’s more than 80 percent white. 

Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic bringing unprecedented attention to anti-Asian racism, the Democrat from Canal Winchester is sponsoring a bill that would make Ohio the second state to incorporate Asian American history into public school curriculums. In addition to seminal moments such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the legislation would require educators to cover the history of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Ohio and the Midwest.

“This is an opportunity for Asian American students in Ohio to learn about stories that are more reflective of their own life experience,” Maharath, 30, told NBC Asian America. “Oftentimes, we’re an untold story.”

Image: Tina Maharath
Tina Maharath.Tina Maharath's Office

The bill is modeled after Illinois’ historic legislation, which was signed into law in July and mandates that schools teach one unit of Asian American history beginning next school year. The law allows the state superintendent of education to provide guidelines for the curriculum, but school boards get to determine the minimum amount of time required to qualify as a unit of instruction.

The movement to integrate AAPI history into K-12 classrooms has steadily gained momentum over the past year, also spurring legislative efforts in New York and Wisconsin. For Maharath, the campaign is deeply personal. As a daughter of Laotian refugees, she was often told to go back where she came from. Years later, when she began campaigning for the Senate, she said she was frequently mistaken as a staffer and told she didn’t resemble a “typical politician.”

Learning about U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia and the secret war in Laos, she said, would have helped children like herself better understand their own migration stories.

“My family came here as refugees, not immigrants,” she said. “Our journey to America was not as pleasant as an immigrant’s journey.”

Maharath’s bill, which is cosponsored by Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, will not be an easy sell. In Ohio, Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature and have, in recent months, mounted a campaign against the teaching of critical race theory, which centers on the idea that systemic racism is etched into American laws and institutions.

Maharath has beaten long odds before. As a financial analyst with no political experience, she faced more than ​​$1 million in attack ad spending in the race for Ohio’s third senate district, a former Republican stronghold. Her own party endorsed a write-in candidate over her in the primary. For a year and a half leading up the election, she knocked on hundreds of doors and made personal appeals to her constituents, ultimately flipping the seat by just 705 votes.

Since then, she’s become her party’s minority whip and introduced a handful of progressive bills with bipartisan backing, including one that combats pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace and another that funds Medicaid coverage for doula services. Building interpersonal relationships with her colleagues, she said, is key to her work as a lawmaker.

“People like me, other AAPI women, are people they did not know existed in Ohio,” she said. “Having these conversations with them, sharing my life experiences with them, allowed me to bridge these gaps.”

Maharath, who grew up in foster homes, said she ran for office to create policies that benefit people from marginalized groups who, for too long, have been exploited by a capitalistic system that’s rigged against them. She considered herself a member of that cohort: despite earning a college degree and working at JPMorgan, she said she was still living paycheck to paycheck while raising a young child alone. 

A few years ago, she had to file for bankruptcy after fighting a custody battle.

“I didn’t have the best upbringing,” she said. “I didn’t have generational wealth. I was doing everything society was telling me to and yet I could barely afford diapers for my son.”

On a personal level too, tragedies of the past year have brought more urgency to her work of advocating for Asian Americans. At a funeral of a close relative last August, Maharath and 33 family members contracted Covid-19. Four people died.

To address the rise in anti-Asian violence, Maharath introduced legislation in March to establish a Asian American state commission that would collect data on the Ohio’s AAPI population and assist grassroots groups in providing culturally appropriate resources and language services to community members. (Asians, who make up 3 percent of Ohio’s population, are the only racial group without a commission to advocate for their needs.)

Maharath said she’s focused on rallying support for her new bill, which is awaiting debate in the Senate’s Primary and Secondary Education Committee. The key, she said, will be showing her colleagues that the stories of Asian Americans, on both a local and national scale, can provide “a fuller picture of what America truly looks like.”

“This perception that we’re outsiders in our own state and our own country is what fuels a lot of the violence and hate crimes against us,” she said. “Having this education will highlight the contributions we brought to this country culturally and economically.”