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Tina Maharath is the first Asian-American woman elected to the Ohio Senate. Photo: Tina Maharath Facebook

The Laotian-American Senator trying to get AAPI history in Ohio classrooms

Ohio may be only 3% Asian, but that’s not stopping Tina Maharath from fighting for representation.

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Tina Maharath became the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the Ohio Senate in 2018. According to the U.S. Census, the state of Ohio is 80% white, but Maharath vowed to increase representation for her community. 

Maharath is now co-sponsoring a bill that would make Ohio the second state to incorporate Asian American history into public school curriculums. 

In July, Illinois became the first state to mandate Asian American studies in public school curriculums, with the signing of the TEAACH Act

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented attention to anti-Asian racism, as well as the glaring lack of representation of Asian-Americans in politics, popular culture, and history books. 

In addition to vital points in history such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the bill would also require teachers to cover the history of noteworthy Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in Ohio and the Midwest. 

In an interview with NBC News, Maharath said that the legislation is a long overdue chance for Asian-American students in her state to learn about people and stories that better reflect their own life experience. 

“Oftentimes, we’re an untold story,” she said. 

The movement to incorporate AAPI history into K-12 classrooms has increasingly gained traction over the past year, sparking legislative efforts in New York and Wisconsin

As a daughter of Laotian refugees, Maharath said she has often been told to “go back” to where she came from, and when she began campaigning for the Senate, she recalled being frequently mistaken as a staffer, and being told she did not resemble a “typical politician.” 

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, will most likely be a hard sell, as Republicans in Ohio currently control both chambers of the state Legislature.

In recent months, Ohio Republicans have been building a campaign against the teaching of critical race theory, which focuses on the concept that systemic racism is embedded into American laws and institutions. 

But Maharath is no stranger to beating the odds stacked against her. She began her career in politics with no experience and faced more than $1 million in attack ad spending in the race for Ohio’s third senate district. Her own district endorsed a write-in candidate over her in the primary. 

For a year and a half leading up to the election, she went door to door and made personal appeals to her constituents, and flipped the seat by just 705 votes. 

Since this major victory, Maharath has become the Democratic minority whip and introduced bills with bipartisan support, including one that fights back against pregnancy-related workplace discrimination, and one that funds Medicaid coverage for doula services. 

Making personal connections with colleagues and community members has proven to be crucial in her work as a lawmaker. 

“People like me, other AAPI women, are people they did not know existed in Ohio. Having these conversations with them, sharing my life experiences with them, allowed me to bridge these gaps,” she told NBC News

To address the rise in anti-Asian violence, Maharath introduced legislation in March to establish an Asian-American state commission that would collect data on the state’s AAPI population and help grassroots organizations in offering culturally appropriate resources and language services. 

Asians only make up 3% of Ohio's population, and are the only racial group without a commission to advocate for their needs. 

Maharath is now focused on gaining support for her new bill, which is awaiting debate in the Senate’s Primary and Secondary Education Committee. 

She told NBC News that she is hoping to show colleagues that the stories of Asian Americans, on national and local levels can provide a “fuller picture of what America truly looks like.”

“Teaching Asian American history is important for a variety of reasons. Asian Americans are too often treated as "perpetual foreigners." This perception of being outsiders is a large part of what fuels hate against Asian Americans. We can correct this by teaching AAPI history,” Maharath wrote on Twitter.

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