Annual Symposium in Washington DC — More than Just Meeting

The 1882 Foundation organizes a gathering of Chinese American museums, historical societies and public and private agencies once a year in Washington DC. The annual events are called the “1882 Symposium.” They are not conferences in the same sense as events organized by the Association of Asian American Studies, or APIAHiP and similar associations in which scholarly research and academic ideas are exchanged. They are not “workshops” either  –there is a broader purpose to the 1882 Symposium than to promote certain techniques or settled theories.  Rather, the 1882 Symposium seeks to build collaborations among educators and public and private agencies.  The purpose is to strengthen collective capabilities to broaden public awareness of the history of Chinese and Asians in the United States and their contributions to the American nation.  The focus is on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 but the Foundation views its program in the broadest sense of understanding the Act’s historical background and political-social consequences, as well as its continuing significance to all Americans.

Each Symposium builds on the previous one.  We want to set measurable milestones in a collegiate manner that encourages participants to return the following year.  In the first symposium in 2013, a handful of representatives from museums and historical societies from across the United States joined with DC-based agencies that deal with resources and information related to the Asian American experience. Museums and historical societies included Chinese Historical Society of America and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation from San Francisco, Chinese American Museum from Los Angeles, Wing Luke Museum from Seattle, Museum of Chinese America from New York, Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, and Asian American Association of New Mexico.  From Washington DC, participants included the Asian Pacific American Programs of the Smithsonian Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, National Endowment for Arts,U.S. Immigration Services Library, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, and Institute of Museum and Library Services, Association for Asian American Studies.  Other participants included representatives from Chinese American Citizens Alliance, OCA, Committee of 100, the National Council of Chinese Americans and Asian Pacific American Islander Public Affairs Association.  Since the first session, the list of of participants has grown to include historical societies from Boston, Chicago and Atlanta.

The symposium themes have moved from building trust to learning of best practices to demonstrating capabilities.  Our next steps are to further solidify the network of collaboration and to expand it.  We want to visualize the network’s potential and how it can be made operational, primarily through electronics and digital exchanges.  Insights can be derived from three examples of projects underway or completed –lesson plans, heritage tours, and a commemorative program with the Alexandria Black History Museum.

Regarding lesson plans, Symposium IV will dedicate major time to understanding how the National Archives has worked with individual educators to create lesson plans utilizing its resources and primary documents. The National Park Services’s history and places programs offer other examples and collaborative opportunities.  The Chinese American Citizens Alliance plans to form a national project within its Education Committee to catalog lesson plans and teacher guides.  Its goal is to create an “electronic bank of lesson plans” to be freely available to all educators and interested persons.

Heritage Tours require the collaborations the 1882 Foundation wants to promote.  They were demonstrated in guided bus tours through Pacific Northwest Chinatown and mining and railroad sites undertaken by the U.S. Forest Service working with the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle several years ago.  These tours provided the model for tours now being planned for California and Nevada with the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. Beyond establishing a collaborative relationship with a government entity (U.S. Forest Service) and the nonprofit organization (CHSA) and subject-matter experts (scholars from the University of Nevada and Southern California), heritage tours involve collaborations with commercial entities such as tourist and transportation companies. Chambers of Commerce at tour sites can be enlisted.  State and National tourist promotion entities can be approached to produce information material that both advertises tours to fulfill their mission goals and provides accurate historical content to fulfill educational goals.  At the same time, commercial collaborations can provide a revenue stream to supplement preservation and educational programs.

Recent programs with the Alexandria Black History Museum and the short documentary about the DC riots and Chinatown illustrate collaborations extended beyond the Chinese and Asian American community.  Our message of understanding and appreciating American civil rights through the Chinese exclusion experience is enhanced by collaborating with organizations telling their stories of exclusion and efforts to combat them.  This was demonstrated clearly in the 1882 Foundation’s partnership with the Alexandria Black History Museum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Celler) and the Voting Rights Act, both parts of the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties.

Cross community discussions and teacher workshops emerging from screening the 28 minute film April 1968 satisfied terms of a DC Humanities Council grant that helped us acquire funds needed to record parts our oral histories.The strong positive public response affirmed an approach to fund our projects and, more importantly, it demonstrated the educational effectiveness of designing projects that attract collaborations with other ethnic organizations.

Finally, collaborations extend beyond the U.S.  The 1882 Symposium intends to invite museums and historical societies from other countries that have historical connections to the Chinese American experience or have had similar experiences with Chinese migrating there.  Historical societies in Canada come immediately to mind, as well as those based in Australia, Mexico and Central America. The Overseas Chinese experience and legacies in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, provide comparative histories to observe.  And, museums and university programs in in China must be linked into the collaborative network for the resources they offer and to fully understand the history and culture of Chinese Americans.