PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung stood proudly in front of her colleagues in the House chamber Tuesday, passionately explaining why she believes all Rhode Island schools should teach Asian-American history.
“Asian Americans over the past two years have really suffered from a lot of anti-Asian bias and anti-Asian hate,” Fenton-Fung said. “While this is not going to cure that overnight, this is the first step in improving that culture.”
The House passed legislation Tuesday, sponsored by Fenton-Fung, that would require all public elementary and secondary schools in Rhode Island to provide students with at least one unit of instruction on Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander history and culture.
Fenton-Fung said there’s been an uptick in Asian hate crimes reported nationwide since the start of the pandemic. She hopes this legislation will address that and educate the state’s future generations.
She tells 12 News she’s heard from a number of Asian-Americans who claim they’ve never had a chance to learn more about their backgrounds in school.
“A lot of people here don’t know that the Chinese Exclusion Act … for 60 years, the Chinese weren’t allowed to immigrate [to America],” Fenton-Fung explained. “They weren’t allowed to become citizens [at the time].”
The legislation passed the House 66-1. Rep. John Edwards was the only lawmaker to vote against it.
“There’s a lot of amazing Asian-Americans out there, but their stories don’t get told and they don’t become part of this big melting pot,” Fenton-Fung said. “That was the inspiration [for this bill] … it’s now becoming a national movement.”
Fenton-Fung said Rhode Island joins New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois in requiring Asian-American studies in the public school curriculum.
While the goal is to educate students of the hardships these communities face, Fenton-Fung said it’s also about highlighting their successes as well.
“We don’t always want to talk just about the bad stuff, we really want to show that positive side as well,” she said.
This bill is huge for Fenton-Fung’s family in particular, especially for her husband Allan Fung, who was the first Chinese-American to serve as a Rhode Island mayor.
Fenton-Fung said the legislation offers schools different options, including field trips and online lessons, for teaching Asian-American history and culture.
Each school district will be allowed to decide the amount of instructional time, so long as it satisfies the state’s requirements.
The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) previously testified in favor of the bill, according to a spokesperson. The spokesperson said since the legislation would only require the addition of a unit and not an entire course, RIDE isn’t concerned about schools needing additional staff to teach the material.
The Senate unanimously passed its version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Sandra Cano, back in May.
“In Rhode Island, Chinese-Americans have been and continue to be important contributors in our local communities as small business owners, artists, developers, professionals, community activists and every day residents who have been here for generations, along with other Asian communities, to make Rhode Island a great place to live,” Cano said.
The bill now heads to Gov. Dan McKee’s desk for consideration. Fenton-Fung hopes that there will be a ceremonial bill signing in the near future.
Once signed into law, school districts will have until the 2023-2024 school year to add it to the curriculum.