‘What if that was my grandparents?’— Berkeley students mobilize against AAPI racism, call for improved education

The organizers of a 300-strong rally held Friday in Oakland, three Berkeley High eleventh graders, think schools can do more to educate young people about Asian Americans.

On Friday, an estimated 300 people marched through Oakland’s Chinatown to protest racism and violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The march, which ended with a rally at Lake Merritt, was organized by three students at Berkeley High.

“I wanted this to not just brush off like a lot of hate crimes towards Asian people,” said Lucia Moratinos-Chu, 17, who organized the protest with Abby Lamoreaux, 16, and Mexica Greco, 17. 

The protest was a response to increasing violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In 2020, hate crimes toward Asian Americans increased by 149%, according to findings by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University. On March 17, a gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian American women, at Atlanta spas. And in Oakland, videos surfaced in recent months showing elderly Asian people being attacked, shoved, and robbed, eliciting outrage and fear from the community. 

“We’ve all seen the photos of our elders being pushed to the ground, being beaten and being bruised, and I know, like so many, the first thought that went through my mind was ‘what if that was my grandparents?’” said Lamoreaux during a speech in front of Oakland City Hall. “This protest is our way of showing support to our elders while helping educate our non-AAPI allies.”


AAPI anti-Asian hate rally in Oakland on Friday April 2, 2021 organized by Berkeley High students
AAPI anti-Asian hate protesters marched down Oakland streets on Friday April 2. Photo: Jerome Paulos

In Berkeley, young people are leading the movement against racism toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. On March 28, a group of seventh graders organized another rally that drew more than 1,200 people to Aquatic Park in West Berkeley.

Mina Fedor, 12, a seventh grader at Black Pine Circle School in Berkeley, knew that hate crimes toward Asian Americans had picked up dramatically in the last year. She knew that former President Trump’s repeated use of terms like “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu” had exacerbated and sanctioned racism toward Asian people. And she had watched her own family member endure harassment.

This spurred Fedor to action in early March. She enlisted the help of her friends — Anna Hill, Bee Norton Tsang, Juno Yu and Mila Cavagnaro — and their parents in planning the rally. She formed a group called AAPI Youth Rising and started contacting local politicians. The murder of the six Asian American women in Atlanta only added urgency to the event. 

“It was extremely gratifying to see all the people that turned out,” Fedor said. “I wanted to organize this to spread more awareness, raise youth voices, and especially to say it’s ok to speak up, and that you should be able to do that without fear.”

The march, which began at Aquatic Park and ended at the pedestrian overpass over I-80, featured speeches from city councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Rigel Robinson, and community advocates including Jane Bahk, author of Juna’s Jar, Elaine Dang of Act to Change, Lateefah Simon, president of the Akonadi Foundation and Stanley Pun of AYPAL, among others.

The Asian American and Pacific Islander Youth Rising movement holds a demonstration in the Aquatic Park to raise awareness toward prevention of hate and violence towards people of asian decent, March 28, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Berkeley middle school students were behind a 1,200-strong demonstration in Aquatic Park on March 28, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

In the week leading up to Fedor’s rally, the group of students at Berkley High formed their own group, Bay Area AAPI, and began planning a march from Oakland’s City Hall through Chinatown. Friday’s rally featured speeches from Berkeley City Auditor Jenny Wong, Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao, and Adena Ishii, the first woman of color to serve as president of a local chapter of the League of Women Voters, as well as student organizers from elsewhere in the Bay. After decades of enduring racism and harassment, Wong shared her experience with racism.

“I remember being spat on for being Asian American. We constantly heard racial slurs aimed at my parents,” Wong said. “My message is this for my AAPI community— speak out, tell your story when you are ready, let others know this has been and continues to be a dark part of the American experience.”

Students, parents push for better education as an antidote to racism

The teenagers hope to raise awareness about crimes toward Asian Americans and show support for those impacted by hate and violence. But they have another message, too— schools can do more to educate young people about Asian Americans. Students and parents say schools need to step up when it comes to anti-racist education about people of Asian-American descent. Schools should adopt a more inclusive curriculum and explicitly address interpersonal racism. 

“At Berkeley High, the things that bother me the most are microaggressions,” Moratinos-Chu said. “They are not addressed and very much swept under the rug by many students and many teachers.”

Lamoreaux described classmates making “Ching Chong” jokes and snide comments about Asian names in the hallways. “I’m sick and fed up with being the only person that has to stand up and say ‘that’s racist and here’s why.’ I’m done having to go up to people making racist comments.”

Including Asian-American voices in the curriculum could help root out white supremacy, the students say. For half a century, Berkeley High has been renowned for its progressive curriculum. In 1968, teachers went on strike to found the school’s African-American Studies Department, then called Black studies, which as of 2017 was still the only one of its kind in the nation. In 1994, the school became one of the first public schools in the nation to implement an ethnic studies curriculum.

But students and parents say the school could do more to lift the stories of Asian Americans, said Alice Wong, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1994 and is now the parent of a kindergartener and second-grader at Washington Elementary.

“I got to learn a very different and alternative history of the United States by growing up in Berkeley, but notably missing was the Asian-American experience,” she said. As a high school student, Wong joined the Asian Student Union, which put on cultural events for the student body, campaigned for Asian-American school board members, and provided an important social community.

“There is an overwhelming amount of Euro-centrism in the curriculum and in the community.” — Mexica Greco

Today, students say they learn about the internment of Japanese Americans and the Chinese Exclusion Act, but other histories are glossed over.

“We learn our own history through family, but never in our schools. We’re often pushed into a Chinese New Year box. That’s all Asian Americans are,” said Lamoreaux.

“There is an overwhelming amount of Euro-centrism in the curriculum and in the community,” said Greco, who is part of the small school BIHS, home to Berkeley High’s IB program, which students sometimes refer to as “the white school.”

Students have called attention to the gap in education about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Students and teachers would like to see classes devoted to the study of these communities, and Lamoreaux and Greco are working with a student leadership group called BIPOC Support Committee within BIHS Leadership to incorporate more AAPI history into the small school’s history classes. A three-part investigation by The Jacket, Berkeley High’s student newspaper, reported that there are currently no classes devoted to the study of these communities at the high school, though they have existed in the past.

The students are clear on what they would like to see: more education about Asian Americans, written by people of Asian descent, that tells the stories of their successes and their struggles. “There’s no success stories, but there’s hardship hardship hardship,” Lamoreux said. “If I’m learning Asian history, I want it to be written by a person of Asian descent or someone that has a connection to that history and understands it,” Moratinos-Chu said. The three high-school students, all of whom are mixed-race, said that they would like to see the challenges of multiracial students elevated as well. 

Berkeley High’s Asian Student Union in 1991. Courtesy: Alice Wong

But progress has been slow. The students started with 11th and 12th-grade history. When they faced roadblocks, they turned their attention to 10th-grade history and a class called “Comparative Values.” Now, the students feel they are finally making some headway.

Among the topics the teenagers would like to see schools address are interracial relations. “The model minority myth was devised to put a rift between Black and Asian communities,” said Anna Hill, one of the seventh graders behind last Saturday’s rally in Berkeley. “Some schools don’t do very much to teach about that and what’s wrong with systems like that. I feel like that’s something that needs to be taught about.”

Now, Wong, along with a group of parents that formed in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, are joining the effort to push the district to make curricular changes across the board, including a comprehensive ethnic studies curriculum for kindergarten through twelfth grade.

“It’s clear that schools, school districts, and educational institutions are the key answer to make sure the next generation doesn’t become a generation of adults that is vast majority ignorant about anti-Asian racism and Asian American history,” said Sharline Chiang, the parent of an elementary schooler at Rosa Parks. Last week, the group of parents met with Superintendent Stephens and school board members to press their issue. “We want to urge district leaders to use this moment to encourage increasing education.”

Concern that BUSD’s initial response to AAPI violence was insufficient

Part of that education is what the school district leadership communicates in the face of tragedy. On March 19, two days after news broke about the shootings in Atlanta, Superintendent Brent Stephens sent a letter to the community about school reopening with a brief note about standing in solidarity with Asian Americans. Chiang, along with other parents, found the response deeply insufficient and wrote a letter signed by over 400 community members indicating so.

“The lack of a standalone statement of solidarity was inexcusable,” Chiang said. “The district has had a long history of treating Asian Americans as unimportant and invisible. In that respect, the damage has been done. They had a year to do something, they had a chance to say something and they didn’t.”

The poor response rubbed salt in the wound for families that have long felt ignored by the district. Earlier in the year, parents felt pushed to the side when town halls and other events were planned on major holidays like Lunar New Year. “That was very telling of this concept of invisibility that the Asian community can feel,” Wong said.

A description of the Asian Student Union in the Berkeley High Yearbook. Credit: Courtesy

The letter motivated the parents to mobilize: now, they have a working group that is committed to making long-term change happen, said Gavin Tachibana, the parent of a fourth-grader at Ruth Acty and eighth-grader at King Middle School, who has been active in highlighting Asian American experiences in the district. Last year, when Jefferson Elementary was being renamed, Tachibana nominated Yoshika Uchida, a renowned author who was born and raised in Berkeley. The name was one of seven finalists. Tachibana also spoke in his son’s class about his father’s imprisonment at the Manzanar internment camp.

On March 24, the school board introduced a resolution condemning anti-Asian hate crimes and the superintendent held a meeting with the group of parents, who shared their personal stories of trauma and voiced their specific concerns. In response, the district promptly issued a standalone statement of solidarity and committed to working with the parents on long-term solutions, such as making the curriculum more inclusive.

After the meeting, Chiang feels “optimistic albeit cautiously optimistic” about the possibility of real change. With students and parents working together to elevate Asian American experiences, the advocates hope the momentum leads to long-term change, including more involvement from allies. “I feel like we’re making progress. I encourage anyone who is moved by this to get involved because now is the time to do it,” Tachibana said.

Ally Markovich is a freelance journalist covering schools for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: allymarkovich.