Diverse Voices: Cherry Hill High School West Celebrates 4th Annual AAPI Heritage Month Festival


BY DANIEL WINNER | Front Runner New Jersey Correspondent

CHERRY HILL — This weekend saw the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, with Cherry Hill High School West (CHW) celebrating diversity within the school district and throughout the city. This year, Cherry Hill Public Schools teamed up with the Asian American Alliance In South Jersey (AAASJ) to bring the AAPI Heritage Month Festival to the larger community, featuring food, crafts, music and live performances. The event took place indoors on Sunday, May 5 from 12:30-3 p.m.

It was the fourth annual festival hosted by AASJ and the first to be held at the public high school. The first celebration was held in 2021 at the Gibson House in Marlton, the second at Cherry Hill Public Library and the third at Pennsauken Free Public Library.

A busy crowd enjoys traditional food and crafts inside CHW’s gymnasium.

Front Runner New Jersey spoke with the organizers of the event to learn a little more about what the festival was all about and how it impacts students and families of Asian and Pacific Island backgrounds.

Nina Gao, president of AAASJ gladly told us about her organization and the leaps and bounds it has made for the Asian Americans in South Jersey. “We were founded primarily because we saw the Asian American population growing in the community. So there were many needs. Some were new immigrants who needed help to get to know the school system, [some] needed to know where their services are, [etc.]. 

“Initially, we were more like a mutual-aid-kind-of-organization, just providing services to our members. Then we realized, as COVID was brought on, if you remember, in 2020, there were a lot of incidents about Asian hate, as well as xenophobia. Politicians also made some discriminatory comments about the virus, calling it ‘kung flu.’ 

“There was a need for us to get together as a group to advocate for our own community to combat hate. So our first event actually was a demonstration in Cherry Hill against Asian hate. That happened in 2020 sort of in the middle of the height of the pandemic. It was our way to engage the community. We got tremendous support. We must have had thousands of people that marched. Congressman Kim, our mayor; it was really nice to see the community come together. So ever since then, we made a commitment to do this once a year as a way to connect with the larger community.”

Cherry Hill High School West was quick to recognize the need to enhance students’ awareness of the cultures their fellow students hail from. This year was also a first for the school, as staff implemented a new course focusing on issues that have historically impacted Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

“[I was] part of the curriculum office and a former assistant principal at Make Us Visible New Jersey, which has then led me to the Asian American Alliance of South Jersey, in connecting AAPI studies into our curriculum,” said Allison Staffin, District Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction for Cherry Hill. “When Governor Murphy mandated it as a requirement in our curriculum and in social studies, we actually went beyond that and solicited members of our English department and created an actual course in AAPI studies.”

The class was initially requested by students, who wished to see a better representation of themselves amid the misinformation that plagued their communities. The goal is to demonstrate the contributions the AAPI community has made to society, while recognizing that they exist within a living tradition.

“We made sure in our social studies units of study, that we’re celebrating the AAPI community, that we’re not just looking at the negative things that have happened to them, said Staffin. “We are looking at them throughout our curriculum in very authentic and important spaces of where they have contributed to our society in very positive ways.

“This is the very first time Cherry Hill Public Schools has partnered with the Asian American Alliance of South Jersey. So it’s the very first time that we’ve been asked to partner, and that’s because one of our AAPI studies teachers is very much a part of the community.”

That teacher is Christy Lee, an English and AP Literature teacher at CHW. She was eager to tell us all about her new class, and especially how it came to be. 

“So it really started because of a grassroots organization,” Lee began. “A little bit after the AAPI movement started … and the violence towards the community … our community members decided to organize and hold a rally at Route 70. A lot of our District officials were there and our Congress members were there as well. When they saw just how much the community cared and wanted to see AAPI studies happen, they basically expedited the bill and it was able to pass. Then Governor Murphy passed the bill mandating Asian American Pacific Islander studies to be taught in all New Jersey schools K-12. So we were a part of that.

“Our district took it a step forward. Not only do we incorporate that into our existing curriculum, but we created the first Asian American Pacific Islanders studies course, which is offered as an elective in our English departments both at High School West and High School East.

Lee continued, focusing more on what exactly students have the opportunity to learn in the brand new course.  

“We spend a lot of time with discriminatory laws. We learn that the history actually starts in the 1500s, [how] the Spanish expeditions came through with Filipino sailors. And then after that, we learn about the mass migration of the 1800s. We cover all the different laws about immigration, and we cover a couple of major Supreme Court cases.

“Then we fast forward to 1965 with immigration, large populations of Asians coming in for the first time in a long time for diversity. That’s why we’re talking about what’s happened (regarding violence toward Asian Americans). There’s a big unit on scapegoating as well. So we look at it thematically. Students do research on different instances where Asians have been the scapegoat to a lot of economic and social issues. We focus a lot on the ‘Yellow Peril,’ model minority myths and just overall Asian American erasure within our history. Who gets to tell the story? Why is it important for everybody’s story to be represented?”

And the AAPI Heritage Month Festival offered a lot of representation, with vendors handing out foods and crafts from a slew of different cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and more. Performances lasted in the school’s theater for the duration of the event, including music, dance, and martial arts demonstrations from both East Asian and South Asian traditions.

The program of performances were thanks to the efforts of many student-led groups and local organizations representing an array of diverse cultures.

“Other districts are starting to follow suit in designing their courses,” Lee said. “I’m a part of AAPI. It’s a nonprofit, in Montclair, and it used to be called AAPI Montclair. But now it’s called AAPI New Jersey. And they had their first iteration of training educators to basically train other educators about the new mandate. So I was able to be a fellow with them this past year, and worked with them to help design the course a little bit. I was able to connect with other teachers and help them to see what we’re doing in Cherry Hill.”

Dr. Kwame Morton, Superintendent of Cherry Hill Public Schools and Bryant Feld, chief instructor at Warrior Wisdom Ving Tsun Kung Fu stood out in the crowd as among the few African American leaders present. Feld was a prime example of how non-Asians can participate in Asian culture in a positive way, being able to share a great deal of wisdom he learned from martial arts traditions. His many training styles include those of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino origin, with a focus on “Wu Shen Kung Fu.”

“This is my first engagement with the organization and it has been great,” Feld said before giving his advice on the health benefits of martial arts practice. “In today’s society, with things being the way that they are and everything being so stressful, I highly recommend some sort of martial arts discipline, not only to be able to defend yourself, but just to have better mental and physical health. And even if it’s not me, find a really good teacher and get started. It’s one of the best decisions you could ever make.”

Other attendees included Cherry Hill Mayor David Fleisher and U.S. Rep. Congressman Andy Kim, who made visit to support his own Korean heritage. Kim reminded the crowd that if elected to sit in the U.S. Senate, he would become the first Korean American in the country to do so, as well as being the first Asian American elected to serve in the Senate on the East Coast. He found it amazing to see how vibrant the AAPI community was in the area and stated that he was proud to be a part of it growing up and attending school in Cherry Hill.

“There’s a lot of positivity out there that we are excited about,” Kim told the audience. “This year is 50 years since my parents immigrated from South Korea to the United States. For 50 years, most of my family has been experiencing that kind of history and that kind of connection to this country.

“I just have to say, it’s really been incredible to see how far and how much the Asian American community has grown here in this country. I know there are challenges that we face and things that I’ve tried to work on to address in Congress … Hopefully, they can really showcase what the community is capable of and has contributed.”

Sponsors for the event included M&T Bank, Raku Buffet, Umi Buffet, Jefferson Health Plans, The Renfrew Center, Hung Vuong Food Market, Sun Seng Supermarket, Heng Fa Supermarket, and Megu Sushi & Hibachi.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Winner has a double major in Religious Studies and Japanese from Penn State University and has traveled internationally to the Far East on several occasions. His insights on religious traditions and Asian culture give a unique view of historical and modern trends. He will be serving as a contributor for Front Runner New Jersey.





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