ARHS junior raising awareness for Asian American community

  • Asian American & Pacific Islanders Commission Youth Council members Sea Kay Leung, an Amherst Regional High School junior, and Maria-Isabel, at the AAPI Heritage Month Celebration and Rally at the Boston Common this month. Submitted Photo

  • Asian American & Pacific Islanders Commission Youth Council members Maria-Isabel and Sea Kay Leung, an Amherst Regional High School junior, and Maria-Isabel, at the AAPI Heritage Month Celebration and Rally at the Boston Common this month. Submitted Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2022 5:06:25 PM
Modified: 5/27/2022 5:04:28 PM

AMHERST — An Amherst Regional High School junior is playing a key role in pushing for a new law that would require public schools to teach ethnic studies and racial justice. The bill, under consideration in the Legislature, also seeks to achieve a more diverse faculty.

In her role as one of the members of the state’s inaugural Asian American & Pacific Islanders Commission Youth Council — and the only teen representative from western Massachusetts — Sea Kay Leung recently went to a rally in Boston where she talked about the challenges she faces in getting enough support in a rural area where resources are geared toward college students, rather than students her own age.

“Western Massachusetts basically offers no safe space to go to,” Leung said in a phone interview this week, noting that Boston is too far to venture on a regular basis. “There needs to be a safe space, not only for young Asians, but other students of color.”

A lifelong Pioneer Valley resident who lives in Belchertown, Leung said she knows from experience how her identity as a Chinese-American has been largely absent from the school curriculum, but she also has positive feelings toward aspects of education in Amherst.

“I want people to know that when I was younger my first-grade teacher had a Chinese New Year’s festival, and that was the first time I felt accepted into the community,” Leung said. “I felt confident in my identity as a Chinese-American.”

In participating in the AAPI Heritage Month activities on the Boston Common, an event to advance unity, solidarity and belonging, and commemorate Asian victims of violence, Leung joined commissioners, staff members and other youth councilors. The event was organized by the New England Chinese American Association, Coalition for Anti-Racism and Equity and the Asian Community Fund of the Boston Foundation.

Organizers wrote on the commission’s Facebook page thanking Leung and another youth council member “for powerfully speaking about their own experiences and struggles growing up as Asian Americans. We are so proud of them and it was inspirational to see them speak their truth up on stage.”

Leung said she will also work with Richard Chu, a Five College professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, and Leo Hwang, assistant academic dean, CNS Advising, at UMass, who were named as two of AAPI commissioners from western Massachusetts earlier this year. Her hope is to give a voice to Asian youth in the region so they can be better represented in legislative actions.

Chu wrote in an email that the support he and Hwang can offer will come in myriad ways, such as providing funding for related activities or programs, or, working with town or state officials to promote the teaching of AAPI history in K-12 classrooms. Chu said he will listen to what Leung and other members of the AAPI community see as important issues facing them.

“In terms of specific areas where she can make a difference, one example she and her cohort can do is to advocate for a more inclusive curriculum and environment in their schools by hiring more AAPI faculty, adding classes that promote a critical understanding and awareness of AAPI history and issues, or creating programs recognizing and celebrating AAPI heritage,” Chu said.

Superintendent Michael Morris mentioned Leung’s role to the Amherst Regional School Committee, noting it as an example of impacting lives beyond Amherst.

“(She’s) a great ambassador for our school district as well as across the state,” Morris said.

On May 16, Leung was among youths who met with two members of the Asian House Caucus, Rep. Tackey Chan, D-Quincy, and Rep. Vanna Howard, D-Lowell, for a conversation about Asian American identity, with the youth councilors able to share their struggles with growing up Asian American.

They heard stories from both representatives about their own journeys in politics and how they overcame their personal experiences to advocate for their communities. After about two hours of discussion, Chan took the Youth Council members on a mini-tour around the State House.

In Amherst, the Town Council issued a proclamation, similar to one issued by Gov. Charlie Baker, proclaiming May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, with the local resolution noting that 18% of the town’s population identifies in those groups and they should be celebrated. The resolution also acknowledges racism and xenophobia they face, and how they are consistently overlooked and undervalued in the teaching and study of American history.

As part of the town’s work, a virtual celebration was held earlier this week in which local Asian Americans recounted their own time in town, including from the family of the first Cambodians who came in 1981. While Leung didn’t take part in that, she appreciates that such a forum took place.

Next, she’s hoping to form an AAPI club at the school, observing that it should go a ways toward improving identity for Asian Americans.

“Celebrating identity helps so people feel accepted,” Leung said. “I believe every Asian American child should be celebrated.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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