When considering Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) focused classes at Berkeley High School (BHS), it’s crucial to take into account that BHS had a semester-long Asian American studies class about 20 years ago. It was taught for four years by Dana Moran, a current ethnic studies teacher at BHS, followed by two now-retired teachers for a few semesters. Then, by the early 2000s, it was removed from the course catalog altogether.
“As an Asian teacher, I thought that class had a sense of family to me, and that doesn’t happen in other classes. To have a class where … teachers and students talk about the curriculum and say ‘we’,” said Moran.
The class was brought about by a particularly determined group of students who attended BHS in the late ’90s and were members of Asian Pacific Student Union (APSU) — the predecessor to BHS’s current Asian Pacific Islander Club — and the Asian Graduation Committee.
One of these students was Nina Ichikawa, who graduated from BHS in 1996. She helped lobby for Asian American studies along with her peers throughout her high school career, before returning to BHS while in college to guest-teach lectures and help lead field trips.
Ichikawa said students in APSU were inspired by the multitude of ethnic studies courses offered at BHS at the time, and wanted to make a similar class for Asian American students. These students sent out a survey on paper to their peers, asking what kind of APIA course they would be interested in, and found that students wanted an Asian American history course.
They brought the idea to Moran, who then helped them create a curriculum inspired by pre-existing college courses, present it to the School Board, and get it approved by the University of California system. After that, they encouraged students to sign up for the course, which Moran said was not difficult due to the high level of demand for the class at the time. This whole process took four years.
“It was super fun. I really do miss it in a lot of ways,” said Moran, regarding Asian American studies. According to Moran, the class was packed with activities, making it quite laborious to teach. The students went on a multitude of field trips, which included Oakland Chinatowan, San Francisco Japantown, and the Asian American Film Festival.
Although Ichikawa and her peers spent a large portion of their high school years forming the course and getting it approved, none of them were able to take it, seeing as the first year the class was taught in 1997 — a year after their graduation. Nonetheless, Ichikawa said that finding the motivation was not difficult for her and the rest of the students who organized the class.
“High school students have a lot of motivation if they want to do something … I think it’s harder to de-motivate,” said Ichikawa. “Our having the enthusiasm or the energy to get something done is not the surprise. I think the surprise is that other people try to stand in the way.”
According to Ichikawa, creating the course wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Even back then, there was a fair amount of opposition on the School Board. Plenty of people thought we shouldn’t have Asian American Studies.” She said this resistance from a couple staff and School Board members about the creation of the course, along with the eventual cancellation of the class, showed ignorance and disregard for the importance of Asian American history. “It’s discrediting Asian American studies as not a serious field of study, and I think that showed a lot of ignorance. And unfortunately, perhaps that ignorance persists to this day, because people haven’t thought [Asian American Studies] is important enough to preserve.”
Eventually, Moran’s schedule could no longer accommodate the class, so it was discontinued. But did the class truly need to get cut? Couldn’t there be some other way to continue the course?
Ichikawa said that these are questions for Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) to ask itself. “I know running a public high school is really not easy,” Ichikawa reasoned. “But I think we have to do some self-examination about why we decided these [ethnic studies courses] were expendable.”
Ichikawa is a strong supporter of ethnic studies, and especially noticed how ethnic studies can help APIA students at BHS. Asian American Studies “acknowledged the contradictions in American society,” said Ichikawa. She noted that parts of American history regarding APIA, like the Japanese internment camps, are often not mentioned. She said this can make one feel crazy for noticing that contradiction, between the way American history is described and the reality of it.
Ichikawa also mentioned another reason for ethnic studies: Eurocentrism, the belief that great invention and thought started in Europe. “I think [Eurocentrism] still is a big problem for the city of Berkeley. Despite the liberalism, I think a lot of people who are well educated and kind still believe in the myth of Eurocentrism. That’s why we need African American and Asian American [and] other types of study and research more than ever,” said Ichikawa.
It seems that current Asian American teachers at BHS see similar value in ethnic studies — particularly APIA studies. BIHS English Teacher, Sakiko Muranaka, said that she’s always noticed a lack of focus on APIA topics at BHS. “It occurred to me pretty early on, and also just my own personal experience of being at Berkeley High, I kind of felt like, as an Asian American educator … there’s often just not space made for Asian Americans,” said Muranaka.
She explained that it’s important for people to be able to make sense of their existence and history, and ethnic studies is a good way to do that. According to Muranaka, seeing yourself represented in a curriculum is a source of empowerment and self knowledge.
If BHS students wanted to recreate the Asian American studies program, they would only need to collect student sign ups and find a teacher. As the course is already approved by the School Board and the UC system, Moran believes that, if it has a teacher and students, it can start up again. “I actually don’t think the process is super difficult, because all the hard work has already been done. It’s just sort of on the backburner, but I don’t think it would be that hard to bring it back.”
However, Moran said she hasn’t noticed as much of a demand for classes like Asian American Studies recently. “It’s not like there’s been a giant swelling of energy or … a huge group of people going, ‘Why don’t we have this?’” she said. In terms of the students who helped her create BHS’s Asian American studies program 20 years ago, she said they were just an extraordinarily motivated group of students.
Additionally, in order for the class to have enough sign ups, Moran said that non-Asian students must demonstrate strong interest as well. “The population of Asian students at Berkeley High is relatively small,” she said, “so other students have to be interested in it, also.”
Ichikawa explained the benefit of ethnic studies courses for white students as well. “There was always a misconception, even when I was there, that African American Studies was just for the Black students. That’s so ridiculous. It’s for everyone,” said Ichikawa. “I saw the white students that went through African American Studies, and they came out so much stronger. I think they became empowered to navigate the world in a position of more strength and knowledge, as opposed to insecurity and guilt.”
Both Moran and Ichikawa seem confident in the resurfacing of Asian American studies. “I think there’s a lot of potential to get people excited about it again, but there has to be support from the top,” stated Ichikawa. “I would hope that the administration would recognize how important it is to keep these classes for all students.”
There is no doubt that courses directed towards APIA heritage and history can directly benefit not only APIA students, but the BHS community in general. When students feel represented in the curriculum, great change can be made — as shown in the previous articles of this series.
“[Asian American Studies] gave us a view of succeeding in life without feeling like we had to give up on our cultural identity,” said Ichikawa.