Polaris, Martin Wong. In the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Rethinking education as Mia celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

By Alyssa Machida

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time…. So any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to ‘go for broke.’ Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.”

—James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers (1963)


Over the past few weeks and months, we have all been adjusting and adapting to extraordinary circumstances. We have been processing overwhelming feelings, including uncertainty, fear, stress, and grief. I hope that this finds you and your loved ones in good health and good spirits. I sincerely hope that you are doing okay.

Since the fall of 2018, I have led the development of a new K-12 curriculum and digital learning resource at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, using the museum’s significant Asian art collection to deepen students’ understanding of Asian arts and culture. The museum has long offered robust programming and resources to support K-12 learning, inside classrooms as well as the museum. As educational practices have evolved over time, so too has Mia’s role in the ecosystem of education in our society. Now, with our galleries currently closed and nearly all classroom instruction being conducted remotely, it’s an interesting moment to consider the future of Mia’s contributions to [museum] education.

The new Arts of Asia curriculum has been envisioned and developed in collaboration with more than 30 local artists, educators, and community partners. It includes more than 30 new lessons, highlighting more than 90 historical and contemporary artworks from Mia’s collection as well as the work of established and emerging visual and performance artists based in the Twin Cities. We created more than 10 new videos with artists, including interviews and performances. The resource is dedicated to K-12 educators, and aims to inspire and support the integration of Asian and diasporic arts, cultures, and narratives into classroom instruction across grade levels and subject areas—in critical, holistic, and humanizing ways.

We have continued to develop this new resource while working remotely, and we are still on track to launch this fall. But the pandemic has been weighing heavily on my mind, not just personally but as an educator. The spread of the virus is exposing systemic inequities in our society, in its disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, and it has been truly disheartening to see an escalation in racist acts, xenophobia, and violent hate crimes against Asian communities.

May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and as we begin the month in the midst of a pandemic and rising anti-Asian sentiment, I find myself wondering what it means to celebrate Asian heritage. How can we show up for our Asian communities and neighbors? How can we let them know that we see them as human and want them to feel safe, even though the world feels so unsafe right now?

Whenever I’m seeking solace and guidance, I turn to my favorite author, James Baldwin. Over the past few weeks and months, I have been revisiting his essay A Talk to Teachers. First published in 1963, it remains as resonant and relevant as ever. In the essay, he asks his reader to consider the purpose of education. He writes, “… the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.” Baldwin argues that the true purpose of education is to counteract such forces, and to raise critical thinkers who will examine society and fight to change it for the better.

So what is the society we want to build? The pandemic has shown us just how interconnected our global community has become, and, as we face a future of global humanitarian and environmental challenges, we need to prepare for unprecedented problems and realities. But in educating brilliant minds to tackle the trickiest challenges, we also need to nurture compassionate and empathetic beings who recognize each other’s humanity. Otherwise we will perpetuate and exacerbate inequity and ignorance, and cannot truly progress and evolve.

Educating for Inclusion

Asian Americans have a long history of being depicted and constructed as “the other,” as exotic, terrorists, and “forever foreigners.” Some of the first Chinese emigrants to the United States were called filthy and dirty, and were accused of spreading diseases by white communities—similar to the backlash in response to the spread of COVID-19. In addition to this historical legacy, Asian American communities continue to struggle with a lack of representation, their histories and experiences absent from textbooks, classroom curriculum, and cultural media. As educators, it is more important than ever to be inclusive of Asian American and Pacific Islander narratives in our classrooms—throughout the year, not just in May. We are now seeing what happens when we consistently fail to do this and reinforce existing ignorance and racism in our societies.

This past week, I reconnected with Heewon Lee, a genetic counselor, a parent to two children and two cats, and a recent convert to all things sourdough. She lives in the Twin Cities and is a co-author of the book HERE: A Visual History of Adopted Koreans in Minnesota. Heewon was hugely supportive of Mia’s new Arts of Asia curriculum when we first met and I wanted to better understand her perspective as someone who grew up Asian American in the K-12 education system and is now raising her kids in that same system. I wondered what she hopes for their future. She wrote this powerful response:

“I grew up in a smallish, almost all-White town as one of a handful of Korean adoptees. Art education was mostly relegated to reading about ancient, moldering paintings and ceramics from European artists. In terms of Asian Americans, I didn’t even learn about the U.S. imprisoning Japanese Americans until I was a junior in high school. I recall being appalled that I had never before encountered this history. I remember my friends turning to look at me during our social studies class after we watched a video about the internment and I felt suddenly exposed as an Asian foreigner.

When you grow up without seeing yourself portrayed authentically, and only see Asians as an embarrassing sidekick, a sexual fetish, or a karate master there is a strange sense of invisibility and shame. The lack of curriculum about non-White races, especially Asians and Asian Americans, served to erase us even more. I can’t even imagine the impact the kind of curriculum you have developed would have had on our past selves—instead of tackling these issues in college, it could have given us a jumpstart on the formation of our Asian American identities.

One of the primary goals for me as a parent is to raise children who are proud of being Asian American, proud of their Korean heritage. A curriculum looking back as well as celebrating the present roster of transformative Asian American artists is a dream come true. Instead of being at the fringes, it places Asian Americans in the center, a powerful message to children that our history as Asian and Asian Americans matter, are important, have worth.”

My vision for this new learning resource—the heartbeat of the project—has always been to build a curriculum that promotes and models critical, anti-oppressive, decolonizing, humanizing, and transformative education around Asian art. It may sound terribly hokey, but I’ve been thinking about this curriculum as a love letter to humanity. I’m finding that there is no way I can write a curriculum for transformative education if not from a place of hope and love and genuine care for the future. I hope that we take some time during this month to reflect on the current state of education. When we emerge from this, what will be the future we build together?

Top image: Polaris by Martin Wong, 1987. In the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.