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Asian American oral history projects highlight importance of student representation

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Green Hope High School student Akshara Venkatesa wanted to do her final AP United States History (APUSH) class project last school year on the history of Indian Americans like her, but she ran into a problem.

After searching through her textbook for the topic, she found zero entries on Indian American history. She eventually broadened her search to include all of Asian American history, but still only found two entries in the entire book. This lack of representation disappointed her, she said. 

Now Venkatesa — joined by other students and faculty at the Cary high school — is working toward change. Thanks to a partnership with the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, students got the chance to collect and curate stories and histories from Asian Americans in their community. 

The project culminated on May 21, with an exhibit where students presented their findings. The exhibition was followed by a collaborative student concert featuring the school’s orchestra and choir, along with excerpts from the oral histories.

Venkatesa’s final APUSH project ended up being her own “textbook,” in order to demonstrate how Indian American history could be incorporated in the curriculum. She said her teacher, Colin Richardson, loved the idea, and the two worked together to help lead the Asian American oral history project.  

“It’s just nice to see that something I’ve worked towards — I worked a lot last year on — is actually being implemented at school,” Venkatesa said. “And it’s actually being seen. Because it was just shocking to not see anything about someone like me.”

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, almost 21% of Cary’s population is Asian.

Roughly 38% of the students at Green Hope High School identify as Asian American, Richardson said. He wanted his class to reflect and represent the demographics of the school and the wider community. 

“Those students deserve to have a chance to see themselves in the classroom,” Richardson said.

Students at Green Hope High School present their Asian American Oral History projects. Laura Browne/EdNC

Students interviewed various Asian Americans throughout the community and compiled their stories for the exhibit. They also worked with the school to integrate the things that they learned into their curriculum across subjects like art and science. 

Richardson said when students see themselves represented in history, “a light goes off,” and they can see themselves as part of the narrative. 

“I really, really strongly believe that when we see ourselves in the world around us, we feel empowered to actually make change within that world,” Richardson said.

Venkatesa said it remains important to uplift the stories of everyday people to remember what they endured for the sake of future generations.

“I would not be able to live in peace if I didn’t know how much people have done for me to live in peace here,” Venkatesa said.

Below, you can watch a short video documenting the oral history exhibit.