At a recent festival, CFA Fresno Member Dr. Jenny Banh led Fresno State students, faculty, and staff in a cheer:
Banh: “Asian American Studies…”
Banh: “Asian American Studies…”
“Growing up, my mom wanted me to be proud of who I was. And proud of my identity and proud of my culture and proud of my history. And I want you to be proud of your culture and your history. Your story matters. You matter,” Banh told the group gathered for “Blossom Together” to help celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
A cultural anthropologist, Banh is an associate professor and coordinator of Asian American Studies at Fresno State. Banh says childhood experiences set her on her career path.
“I went to a predominantly white school and we had a family restaurant with a diverse customer base, so I had to code switch three times a day,” she said. “Teaching allows me to immerse in both my passions – anthropology and Asian American studies.”
Much of Banh’s work seeks to elevate experiences and resources for Asian Americans. Banh researches ways to improve the graduation rates for men of color and Southeast Asian Americans.
She also started a Southeast Asian Oral History Archive, a project that recorded over 45 local Central Valley Hmong, Mein, Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Filipinx community members.
“In their own words, they spoke about their barriers and bridges to academic success. It is important to hear it directly from these brilliant folks. There are quite a lot of Fresno local hero warriors who have been to hell and back and still reached astronomical achievements,” Banh said.
These barriers persist for CSU faculty, students, and staff. Banh urges CSU management to redefine Southeast Asian Americans as underserved and underrepresented groups since they have the same dropout rate as other marginalized students. The CSU also needs some specialty support and resource programs for students of color.
Other paths to student success include initiatives CFA members are fighting for: hiring more diverse faculty who better represent students and recognizing the cultural taxation of faculty who serve these students.
Many of Banh’s students have benefitted from having an Asian American professor.
Fresno State senior Anou Vang assisted Banh in writing Asian American Studies curriculum necessitated after the passage of 2020’s Assembly Bill 1460. The bill requires all CSU students to take an Ethnic Studies class.
“In being a part of this team, I was able to realize the importance of representation. Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of the Asian American history because we didn’t learn it in school. But why is that? Asian Americans have made tremendous contributions to the U.S. but why are we hardly mentioned? When we are, it’s short sentences that don’t justify our contributions,” said Vang, who is majoring in biology and minoring in Asian American Studies. “That is why being able to create some of these courses showed me the importance of having classes to teach not only Asian Americans but communities in general about the significance of having Asian Americans in communities as well as their historical contributions.
“It is without a doubt that Dr. Banh is an ally to student voices. And when students don’t have the ability to voice their opinions, she makes room for them to have that platform and opportunity,” Vang added.
For former student Jason Her, Banh’s impact was in linking Asian American history with today’s movement for social justice.
“(In one of Banh’s classes), I learned about the history of immigration and migration, poverty, Asian American work, mental health, model minority, food, voting, and the prison system. These topics all affected the Asian community at various stages throughout the history of the United States, such as creating the Chinese Exclusion Act, Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, and the Los Angeles riots,” said Her, who graduated from Fresno State with a bachelor’s in social work in 2019. “Actions and events like this created hate and discrimination toward the Asian community.
“These are just some examples where the importance of social justice is needed so history will not repeat itself,” Her added. “And representation is key to having someone in place who can influence and fight for justice and keep our history alive.”