At a virtual listening session hosted by Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) in March, Vietnamese residents from all over California responded to the question, “What do you want out of the model curriculum?”
The screen was covered in sticky notes—participants wanted “access to resources—archives, artifacts,” “to better underst[and] my family’s past,” to learn about “lived experiences, especially [of] women and youth,” and to teach future generations about “the effects of refugeeism on so many aspects of life, public health (exposure to chemical agents and bombings), lower education outcomes.”
For decades, Southeast Asian Americans have received minimal outreach from politicians at the local and state levels. Their data is also rarely disaggregated from other AAPI groups, disappearing the community’s needs and resulting in a lack of resources and support. A 2019 report published by SEARAC found that Southeast Asian-American students face language barriers, gaps in culturally relevant support, bullying, harassment, and intergenerational challenges at school, as many parents had their education disrupted by war and resettlement. Most students had never been taught about their ethnic heritage and had to explain their identities to peers.
In 2018, California state Sen. Janet Nguyen sought to remedy these disparities by introducing SB 895, a bill requiring the development and adoption of model curricula on the Vietnamese-American refugee experience, the Cambodian genocide, and Hmong history and cultural studies. The bill was passed and signed into law in 2018.
It is one of many concurrent ethnic studies bills passed through the California legislature since 2016, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring the development of a statewide Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC).
An ESMC was standardized in 2021 after years of extensive community feedback, activism, and opportunities for public comment. SB 895 also set a precedent for AB 101, which made California the first state that requires high schoolers to take an ethnic studies class before graduating, and AB 167, which allocated $1.2 million to fund the development of Southeast Asian and Native American model curricula.
The Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) was one of the county offices of education selected to lead the development of the Southeast Asian curricula, as Orange County is home to the third largest AAPI population and the largest Vietnamese population in the country. Using a participatory model, the model curricula is scheduled to be completed by September 2025.
“With the support of community organization partners, education leaders and OCDE’s Evaluation Assessment and Data Evaluation team, the department created a set of questions, processes, and training for partner organizations to assist them in conducting engagement sessions,” an OCDE spokesperson said in a statement to Prism. “The department will comb through the feedback that is generated from these sessions to assist it in developing the model curriculum.”
The Southeast Asian model curricula marks a turning point in the long fight for culturally relevant education. In recent years, the state of California has seen a growing number of Asian-American political leaders, elected officials, and AAPI advocacy groups, as well as a newly funded California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, greater data collection and transparency, and continued organizing for Asian-American studies.
“For us, the Southeast Asian-American model curriculum is a recognition of the resilience of the largest refugee community to have ever resettled in the U.S.,” said Mandy Diêc, SEARAC’s California deputy director. “The Asian-American narrative has continued to exclude this refugee legacy, and Southeast Asian Americans are hidden behind the model minority myth despite significant socioeconomic challenges and disparities.”
Ethnic studies is not currently offered at Fountain Valley High School in Orange County, where last year the student population was 54% Asian, the majority being Vietnamese. High school senior An Nguyen learned about her parents’ refugee experience through self-directed projects and conversations with her father.
“For people who have never studied it, I think [the curriculum] would be much more beneficial,” Nguyen said. “For most people my age, our parents don’t always talk to us about their experience … because we’re already in America. Why would they repeat their horrible, horrible stories about rape and pirate ships?”
Community members in SEARAC’s listening sessions also shared concerns about how students will be taught about violent and traumatic histories, emphasizing a need to provide age-appropriate materials, comprehensive training for educators, a framework that highlights the Southeast Asian perspective over popular “U.S. saviorism” narratives, and mental health and language services adjacent to the curriculum.
An OCDE spokesperson told Prism, “the department plans to lead three statewide conferences to introduce and train educators on the curricula. These conferences will provide an opportunity for educators and administrators from across the state to learn about the new curriculum and how it can be implemented in their schools.”
Some educators, such as Dieu-Quyen Khoa Nguyen, have already taken the initiative to help students build connections with their culture. Nguyen teaches three Vietnamese language classes at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, a city that is part of Southern California’s Little Saigon. She believes that learning ethnic studies takes place not only in the classroom, but also from practicing your culture. Vietnamese Americans make up the majority of her classes, and she incorporates history lessons and interactive units on food, games, tết celebrations, and traditional dress.
“I think it’s important for students to know their roots and why their parents and grandparents came from Vietnam and how much they struggled,” she said, noting that her students have become more confident speaking or texting with their parents in tiếng Việt and that most of her Vietnamese students want to take her classes without pressure from their parents “I’ve also had American students who come in and are curious about the Vietnam War, and I ask them why, and they say, ‘I have Vietnamese friends and want to learn about the country so I can talk to them.’”
Despite many students voicing their desire for ethnic studies, some Orange County parents wrote a letter opposing the ESMC and claimed the courses would teach students “left-wing political ideology.” In the U.S., 44 states have introduced bills or attempted to restrict the teaching of critical race studies since January 2021, as the upper-level academic and legal framework has been coopted as a stand-in for any K-12 lesson grappling with or responding to the harms of white supremacy. California Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a principal coauthor of SB 895, hopes these states will look to California as a leader in the education field.
“At the same time that California is moving forward with creating rich history curriculum, we have other states who are doing everything they can to ban history, ban books, and ban lessons on slavery,” Quirk-Silva said. “Since the pandemic, we’ve also seen very aggressive behavior toward API communities … and it elevated the importance of ethnic studies as a whole. We have to break down misinformation, and the best way to do that is not only through history, but people sharing their stories.”
At SEARAC’s listening sessions, the desire for young people to celebrate their families’ and communities’ stories is echoed wholeheartedly.
“We really hope that the model curriculum will help generations of Southeast Asian-American students know they matter, and that having a strong sense of ethnic identity will support meaningful self-empowerment, mental wellness, and student success,” said Diêc, “and that students can critically examine the complex history and issues that directly affect their lives.”