“Today was honestly overwhelming.”

That was State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz’s reaction as Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed her measure called the TEAACH Act into law this morning.

The bill makes Illinois the first state in the nation to require a unit of instruction about Asian American history in public elementary and secondary schools.

TEAACH stands for Teaching Equitable Asian American History. The law was signed at Niles West High School in Skokie.

“This bill is deeply personal to me,” Gong-Gershowitz tells Evanston Now.

Gong-Gershowitz, whose district includes part of Evanston, is a third generation Chinese American. But she says her grandparents on her father’s side, who came from China, never talked about the discrimination they faced as immigrants.

“I graduated from Illinois public schools,” Gong-Gershowitz says, “and never learned anything about what would have put my family in context.” That context included a decade-long legal struggle by her grandparents to fight deportation at a time when the anti-immigrant Chinese Exclusion Act was the law of the land, a struggle the grandparents ultimately won.

“Learning about my family,” the she says, “inspired me to become an advocate for human rights and immigration.”

Gong-Gershowitz says former President Donald Trump’s “racist and xenophobic attacks, scapegoating Asians for the coronavirus pandemic” made getting the TEAACH Act passed into law even more important.

“We felt we had a responsibility to get the bill across the finish line,” she says.

The measure does not mandate specific content, although the State Board of Education will provide guidelines. The requirement to cover Asian American history takes effect in the 2022-23 school year.

Besides being of Chinese ancestry, Gong-Gershowitz is also Jewish, and is concerned as well with the recent rise in antisemitism.

The best way to fight prejudice of any type, she says, is with history, context and learning. In other words, with something like the TEAACH Act.

“Education,” Gong-Gershowitz says, “is the most important tool we have against misinformation, ignorance and bias.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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