“Holding space” in history, The Kitchen Table Stories Project sheds light on the ASPA experience in Evanston


Daily file illustration by Jordan Mangi

In response to the TEAACH Act, the Kitchen Table Stories Project and the Evanston History Center teamed up to create an archive of ASPA histories in Evanston to combat cultural erasure and “perpetual foreigness.”

Nixie Strazza, Reporter

Signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in July, the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act made Illinois the first state to mandate Asian American history be taught in public schools. 

Following the passage of the bill, the Kitchen Table Stories Project teamed up with the Evanston History Center to create an archive of Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander American histories from the Evanston community. 

Established in light of the legislation and increased violence against Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kitchen Table Stories Project is a multimedia healing- and justice-based art project meant to foster collective power and “claim space” by showcasing ASPA stories in a creative fashion. 

The ongoing archive project — a combination of oral history and historical data — can be used as a resource by teachers looking to bolster ASPA representation in K-12 curricula by spotlighting overlooked identities in American history, Founder Melissa Raman Molitor said.  

Molitor said she wanted to give others the opportunity to combat the feeling of unbelonging, which she has experienced herself. After struggling with her inability to share personal experiences based on her Filipino and Indian heritage, Molitor saw a gap in historical resources related to her identity. She said this lack of representation in academia and the arts amplified her feelings of “perpetual foreigness” and “outsider” stereotypes used to uphold systemic racism. 

“The ASPA community have been considered foreigners in the U.S. regardless of how long they’ve been here,” Molitor said. “This placemaking project is one way for us to disrupt that narrative.”

The curriculum requirements under the TEAACH Act will go into effect for the 2022-23 school year with curriculum guidelines left largely up to the individual districts. 

Molitor said the archive is a way to help ASPA-identifying students and community members feel seen in a learning environment often dominated by the stories of white figures. She said emphasizing the diversity of the Evanston community to students from an early age is a vital aspect of creating a culture of equitable and anti-racist education within the city’s schools. 

English Prof. Michelle Huang said the TEAACH Act emphasizes the integral role ASPA contributions played in the formation of the nation’s art, culture and history — which she’s excited to see translated into the classroom.

Accurately depicting the experiences of Asian Americans at a time when children are developing their understanding of cultural identity helps combat bias and feelings of exclusion early on, Huang said. 

She said the Kitchen Table Stories Project’s focus on documenting ASPA stories in the Midwest will specifically help expand the expectation of Asian Americans being primarily relegated to the coastal regions or industrial cities. 

“The Midwest is seen as predominantly white in our imaginations,” Huang said. “It is a particular site of importance for working-class Asian Americans rather than the populations concentrated in the financial sector or engineering on the coasts.”

For Evanston History Center Director of Education Jenny Thompson, the project is more than a collection of information — it’s a way to spark dialogue between a variety of perspectives and sources. 

“We are starting to build relationships and collaborations with residents, other organizations, archives and historical societies,” Thompson said. “This is only the beginning.” 

When collecting material for the archive, Thompson first looked at primary sources like census data, student records and newspaper clippings from the 1800s. The information led her to learn a lot about the stories of specific individuals throughout history. Thompson said she hopes to publish their narratives as a learning tool to combat ASPA erasure in the historical sphere. 

Thompson said the organization is eager to continue collaborating with the community. She said she hopes residents will reach out with their own stories and family histories, which could be added to the archive. 

In addition to historical endeavors, the Kitchen Table Stories Project also promotes community connection through social gatherings, including the upcoming Umbrella Arts Festival at Fountain Square on Saturday. The free event celebrating ASPA Heritage Month will feature art, food, performances, local vendors and guest speakers — including State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview), a member of the Asian American Caucus. 

Molitor said both the archive and the organization’s events are part of her mission to solidify a sense of belonging for ASPA students from the classroom to the general Evanston community. Between contributing information for a new unit in AP United States History or introducing residents to Afro-Indian fusion band Funkadesi at the Umbrella Arts Festival, the Kitchen Table Stories Project is carving out spaces for critical conversations to occur. 

“The stories we as a nation chose to tell formulate our notions of identity and possibility,” Thompson said. “Especially for younger generations, we need to be willing to talk to them about everyone.”

This article has been updated to include the acronym ASPA instead of ASAPIA in reference to Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, in accordance with the preference of a source. In addition, a previous version of this article misidentified the Evanston History Center as the Evanston Historical Society in the photo caption. The Daily regrets this error.

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Twitter: @NixieStrazza

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