More than a Detour: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
“I am from three continents,” reflects principal and New Leaders alum, Kiltae Fernando Kim. Born and raised in Argentina, Kim understands the immigrant experience—the barriers and the pressures to do better—through the dual lens of being Latino and Korean American.
His school, Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy, on the southwest side of Chicago, engages students of many backgrounds: Latino, African American, white, Asian American, and Pacific Islander. Kim and his staff work to integrate antiracism teaching throughout the school year.
“A lot of educators like to talk about being antiracist, but I need to see action. How can you be a proponent of equity if you’re not giving your students your best?”
Today, only 20 percent of school leaders are leaders of color, with about one percent identifying as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI). We asked Kim to reflect on what representation in leadership means to him and share his thoughts on AAPI Heritage month this May. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
We know research has found better school and student outcomes specifically for teachers and children of color when a principal of color is at the helm. What does representation in leadership mean to you?
The first word that comes to mind is access. You can’t be what you can’t see. My dad, who passed away last year, instilled in my brothers and me that a person has to have vision. But if you don’t see people who look like you or who have lived experiences like you, then there are going to be limitations.
There are not many principals, assistant principals, or teachers right now who are Asian American. Historically, the Asian American community has pursued more traditional career routes. Even I started my career working for an internet company. I had to convince my family that teaching was a noteworthy career when I changed course. There is a lot of pressure within the Asian American community to choose a path based on title and recognition, but not on meaning. At the very least, representation is important for opening up conversations and giving students access to people they can be curious about and roles they can inquire about.
Were there barriers you faced in pursuing the principalship?
You know, the Asian stereotype sometimes plays to my advantage. Whether I know math well or not, people assume I’m intelligent. And there’s also a certain level of privilege that comes with being a male and an Asian too. But when I first came to the United States, the Los Angeles riots were happening. We saw images of Korean Americans holding guns, trying to defend their stores. As a principal, I always think in the back of my mind: Does this student or family think I’m going to be afraid of them or actively discriminate against them? I want my students to have a positive association with a person who looks like me.
We’ve seen a tragic spike in violence against Asian Americans. How did you respond as a principal? What would you encourage other leaders to do?
For leaders, what we need to do is to provide the space and the time for educators to have what we call “the day after” conversations. The day after the presidential election, the day after the storming of the capital, the day after the killing of George Floyd. The day after the most recent attacks on Asian Americans.
We need to be explicit: You have permission to hold that space and use that time. And here are some tools to help you. Because educators feel very unequipped about how to have difficult conversations. They also feel the pressure of the scope and sequence and fear falling behind.
That’s why our morning meeting and advisory times are really important. That time is protected. We also have what’s called an Ubuntu meeting twice a month for all staff. Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu word meaning “humanity.” It is often translated to mean “I am because we are.” So when we come together, our purpose is to connect, to celebrate, to give thanks—because we know that in times of difficulty the perspective of gratitude is part of self-care—and, to provide time to cross-pollinate. So, for example, someone might say this is the conversation I had around violence toward Asian Americans and here are some resources you can use.
We also have a social justice and equity working group that plans professional development throughout the school year on how to be culturally responsive. We don’t need to wait for some calamity. We can be responsive now.
What does AAPI Heritage mean to you personally and as a school leader?
I’ll be honest, not a lot. I think this month represents the minimum of what must be done. If schools and leaders aren’t doing any multicultural teaching, then AAPI heritage or African American history month, for example, has its place and importance.
But we must go deeper. If we don’t integrate this into the curriculum all year long, then we’re only offering our students a “tourist” approach—"I’m just visiting for an hour. And I love everything!” They learn to see multiculturalism as a “detour” where they get sidetracked for a little bit and then they come back to the main road where they do not normally value different cultures or have difficult conversations about race and equity.
I am grateful that we have AAPI month, but as leaders and educators, we need to do more. We focus on Kaizen, a Japanese word that means continuous improvement. Kaizen is central to all of the interactions that take place within our community.
All of us—students, teachers, parents, myself—are committed to learning for the purpose of continued growth and improvement. We are all connected as a human community.