Speech given by Ciara Timban at the March 19, 2016 Asian American Civic Leadership Conference
My name is Ciara Timban, and I’m currently a senior at Troy High School. I just have to say, I’m so excited to be a part of this conference, sitting alongside these wonderful women and speaking to you all today. As Mahima mentioned, I’m here today to talk about education, more specifically about the importance of promoting Asian Pacific-Islander American awareness in our education as well as having a more culturally relevant and diverse curriculum in our school systems.
However, before I go more in-depth on that subject, I figured I’d give a little more background about myself and share some of my own experiences with diversity and the importance of having a culturally relevant education.
For the past nine months, I’ve been a member of APIAVote’s Youth Leadership Core, or the YLC as we like to call it. I’ve been able to work closely with Theresa Tran, the director of APIAVote, as well as the other fabulous facilitators and college and high school students that make up the YLC. And I just have to say, my time with APIAVote and the YLC has been such a rewarding learning experience and nothing short of eye-opening. Since this past June, when we first started, the YLC has tried to meet at least twice or three times a month. While a lot of our meetings are dedicated towards accomplishing APIAVote’s mission of promoting voter education and awareness amongst the APIA community here in Michigan whether it’s through phone banking or holding conferences like this, the majority of our time is actually spent simply getting together to talk about the issues that face our Asian American community as well as larger societal issues that have been plaguing our nation, like cultural identity, racism, and the overall dangers that negative stereotypes and ignorance rooted in fear and misunderstanding have on both the national and individual level.
What I’ve really come to appreciate about our YLC meetings though is that we don’t simply get together to talk about the issues, but that we actively work together as the future generation of leaders to find solutions to these problems that we could implement within this community. As I said earlier, my experience working with the YLC truly has been eye-opening, and I think that’s partly due to the fact that it’s helped me to realize just how lucky we all are to belong to such a strong and supportive APIA community.
About a year and a half ago, I moved to Michigan from Southern New Jersey. Opposed to North Jersey, which was extremely diverse and had a large Asian American population, South Jersey was definitely more monotonous and largely Caucasian. For the first sixteen years of my life, I grew up in Medford, NJ, which was this small little town tucked away in the back of the woods with an equally small school district that had to be at least 95% caucasian. I remember going to school and having this vague sense that I was different somehow but not really understanding why. It wasn’t until 4th or 5th grade that it finally hit me, like an epiphany of sorts, when I realized that “Hey, I’m not white.” That realization served as a turning point in my life; it was the first time I grasped this sense of a cultural Asian American identity and learned to embrace it. Right up until my sophomore year, which was the year before I moved, I had grown and learned to be proud of my Korean-Filipino heritage and Asian American identity. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that that same identity oftentimes left me feeling like an outsider becuase in a community as small as mine, people could be ignorant and they could most definitely be insensitive. How could I blame them, though? They probably lacked any form of cultural or diverse education growing up and simply didn’t know any better.
When I moved to Michigan, I was actually really excited to come to Troy High, especially after hearing that the student body was close to 40% Asian. Over the past year and a half, I’ve become so grateful to be a member of such a large, diverse, and supportive APIA community both in and outside of school that has helped made my transition here so much more easier. However, one thing I’ve noticed is that even though we have this strong Asian American community and presence in our schools, I still feel out of place at times. As Tsu-Yin mentioned previously, we’re not only invisible in healthcare, but we’re also invisible in our own school systems. Although Asians make up the largest minority at my school alone, I, along with my fellow peers and friends, still feel like outsiders, largely underrepresented and ignored when it comes to school discussions or curriculums on race.
While I think it’s great that more teachers and classrooms are making an effort to include discussions on race and culture, those discussions have been largely narrow minded and two-sided, literally black and white with very little in-between. I think I speak on behalf of all of my fellow APIA peers when I say that we feel isolated from these discussions to the point where we, as Asian Americans, forget what we have to offer to our society. I’ve always been interested in politics and current events, so it continues to surprise me just how disinterested or apathetic a lot of my Asian American friends are when it comes to large social and political issues. While you could of course attribute this to typical teenage apathy or just different interests, I really do believe that part of this widespread apathy amongst Asian American youth is due to the lack of Asian American representation in our schools and governments as well as the overall lack of awareness when it comes to Asian American heroes of history to look up to. This lack of representation in everything from our governments to dialogues on race and our own school curriculum creates this misunderstanding that we as a community don’t have a voice or place in our country.
This past summer, Theresa Tran asked me to work with her on a Fred Korematsu Day bill and give a small testimonial as a high school student on why Fred Korematsu Day should be celebrated and taught in schools. For those of you unfamiliar with Fred Korematsu, he was a true Asian American and national civil rights hero. As a Japanese American citizen during WWII, he challenged the government’s forced incarceration of Japanese Americans into internment camps and brought his case to the Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court ruled against him, his case set a precedent for government misconduct and Fred Korematsu remained an outspoken activist his entire life.
Working with Theresa [Tran] on this bill was one of the first instances where I realized just how important culturally relevant and diverse curriculum is in our school systems. Implementing such a curriculum in our schools is not difficult at all, especially in elementary and middle schools. Diverse cultural education could range anywhere from learning about Asian American heroes like Fred Korematsu, celebrating Asian American History Month, or even simply being included in dialogues about race and culture in our country. The possibilities for learning are endless, but what we as a community must make sure of is that our schools adopt these kinds of culturally relevant curriculum. As Asian Americans, and especially as Asian American youth, we need exposure to our own histories and cultures through diverse education in order to realize that we do have value to offer to our society and that we deserve a voice and place within our country to speak up.
For the first time in our history, APIAVote-Michigan has been working to turn out Michigan's APIA voters for the March 8th presidential primary. Part of that work is for a research study to learn more about messaging and motivations for turning out our voters, which means some very strict scripts. We're excited to learn some lessons to apply to the November general election. But sometimes research doesn't always go as planned.
At 8:57pm on the eve of the presidential primary, I dialed my last number after hours of phonebanking. On the other end was a man who I could hear was thinking, translating, and taking his time to make sure he was able to communicate with me in English. His accent was not too different from how my own parents speak, a cadence that hinted he was Vietnamese. So I took the liberty to go off script, mustering up and dusting off what Vietnamese language I still had in me since my grandparents passed away a few years ago. I asked, "Are you Vietnamese?". After he affirmed that he was from Vietnam, I proceed to speak, saying in my best broken Vietnamese, "I am also Vietnamese, but my Vietnamese language is very poor. I'm calling you because we are voting for President tomorrow, for the Republicans and Democrats." Yes - not entirely accurate - but the best I could do at my third grade equivalency level.
He immediately rambled off in Vietnamese, a sense of joy in his voice that he was able to communicate with someone in his first language. He shared with me that he was 85 years old, reliant on his kids who would visit him a few times a week at the nursing home to be his his ride; Tuesday was not a visiting day. He also expressed that he had no idea any voting was happening, that he was certain that voting happened at the end of the year. As I proceeded to explain to him in the best of my abilities how the primaries work, and how absentee voting works, I couldn't help but think of how important this conversation was, no matter how bad my Vietnamese was. But it was a moment to engage an eligible voter in a conversation about his right to vote that he might not have otherwise had.
In a national 2012 Post-Election Survey of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, only 31% of Asian American voters said that they had received any of communications about elections, compared to 43% of white voters, 39% of black voters, and 36% of Latino voters. The percentage is even less among Pacific Islander voters, of which only 26% had received any communication. The not so dirty little secret is that parties and candidates don't speak to Asian Americans because we don't tend to turnout. It's true. When aggregated, we don't have a really good history of voting as a community. Candidates who do want to know how to communicate with our community quickly realize the challenge of translating, finding bilingual volunteers, and so much more, that the resources in terms of time and dollars aren't always worth spending if it's more efficient to turnout English speaking, high likelihood voters. But how can we vote if no one talks to us? How can we vote if we don't have the information necessary to vote? Like the elder I spoke to on the phone, he didn't even know there was a primary election and didn't know about the absentee ballot option.
What this phone bank conversation highlighted for me was that this work to turn out voters isn't about getting someone to cast a single vote on election day. No, this work is so much more than that. It's about speaking to a community that doesn't get spoken to because we don't turn out in numbers that parties or candidates think are worthy of their time. It's about uplifting the barriers and challenges that our community members face in turning out to vote. This work is about providing solutions for our community so that they can fully participate in our democracy and I'm proud that every little action we take as APIAVote-Michigan works to be that solution.
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