10 Leaders Fighting For Change This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
We’re honoring TFA alumni from the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities who are working to expand opportunities for all children.
Every May, we celebrate the diversity of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community. It’s a time to honor the culture, traditions, history, and contributions of AANHPI leaders who have enriched our country and increasingly interconnected global society.
Even in the face of discrimination and exclusion—from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II to present-day bias and hate incidents against immigrant, undocumented, refugee, indigenous, Muslim, LGBTQ+, and South Asian Americans and other communities of color—AANHPIs share a history of resilience and power. This month, and the months ahead, present an opportunity to mobilize and unify all people as we strive to amplify voices in the social and racial justice movements.
This month, we’re acknowledging Teach For America alumni who are leading in their communities and meaningfully expanding opportunities for students.
Hanseul Kang (New Mexico ’04) D.C. State Superintendent of Education
Hanseul has been a leader in education for more than a decade, implementing policies and building systems in an effort to put students first. Prior to assuming her position as D.C.’s state superintendent, she served as chief of staff for Tennessee’s Department of Education, helping the state become one of the fastest improving for student achievement outcomes. Hanseul got her start as a high school teacher in Thoreau, New Mexico, and later led program directors as part of TFA’s D.C. regional staff.
Hanseul has taken a specific interest in immigrant students, having grown up as an undocumented student herself. In an op-ed on the Washington Post, she reflected on her experience and the fears immigrant students face:
“Educators can be an important source of support for students and their families. They were for me. But it should not fall on an individual principal or teacher to protect a child or a family from immigration enforcement, and no parent should have to ask them to. We have to do better for our students and for our nation.”
Rupa Ramadurai (Miami-Dade ’09) Assistant General Counsel, Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE)
Rupa supports special education, nutrition, safe climates, and a variety of other systems within the Illinois State Board of Education. She recently had the opportunity to serve on a three-person team that led the first ever state-initiated public inquiry into special education. They looked into systemic issues in the policies and procedures of special education in Chicago Public Schools. Rupa also dedicates her free time to working directly with disadvantaged Chicago Public School students through a program called Minds Matter.
“To think of how much injustice [special education] students can endure in their education, without the necessary accommodations, without the requisite additional support, without a teacher who tailored her curriculum and teaching to specialize her instruction just for them, is incredibly disheartening for me.”
Manoj Kowshik (Houston ’15) Teacher, Austin High School
As a third year teacher in Houston, Manoj has inspired his students to become active community members who fight their beliefs. After one of his students was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement due to the student’s undocumented status, Manoj connected his students to United We Dream, who gave them guidance fighting for the student’s release. Since then, Manoj has consistently provided his students opportunities for getting involved in their community, such as attending school board forums and organizing a school-wide walk out that garnered national attention. Outside of the classroom, Manoj does community organizing with ONE Houston, a political and social action organization that hopes to spark educational change.
“My job is not only to educate. It is to nurture, to love, and to connect. To connect students to opportunities that expand their world view and help them understand their place in it.”
Ahnna Smith (Miami-Dade ’04) Interim D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education
As the Washington, D.C., Interim Deputy Mayor for Education, Ahnna serves as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s top education aide, working to provide excellent educational opportunities for all public school students in the District. Ahnna previously served in the Obama Administration, helping lead policy and programs within the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the US Department of Education. Before her work in policy, Ahnna was an elementary school teacher in Miami. She later led TFA’s D.C. Region as executive director.
Lord Ryan Lizardo (Hawai‘i ’14) Teacher, James Campbell High School
Lord Ryan served as a corps member at his alma mater in Hawai‘i and continues to teach social studies there today. He’s been featured in the local news on multiple occasions as an advocate for LGBTQ students and is founder of the Rainbow Sabers Club, the school’s first gay-straight alliance. He also helps lead inclusivity trainings and heads the school’s Academy of Public and Human Services. Lord Ryan also works with teachers to develop their identity and affinity toward culturally responsive pedagogy, in hopes of helping to liberate students from systemic inequity.
“When I was a student at James Campbell, we didn’t have a gay-straight alliance. As someone who is in the LGBTQ community myself, and being a teacher here now, I created Rainbow Sabers. I think it’s really important to make sure all our students feel safe, comfortable, and cared for.”
David Miyashiro (Hawai‘i ’08) Founding Executive Director, HawaiiKidsCAN
As a teacher, David taught special education English at Wahiawā Middle School. The frustration he felt as a corps member during “Furlough Fridays,” when schools closed for 17 Fridays due to budget issues, led him to focus on public policy after the corps. He went on to receive a graduate degree in education policy from Harvard and worked in the U.S. Senate for political campaigns and on TFA Hawai‘i’s staff before launching HawaiiKidsCAN in 2017. The nonprofit advocacy organization that works to elevate the voices of students and communities at the policy level to promote educational equity.
“I saw firsthand how important it is for students, the most important stakeholders in our schools, to have a seat at the table when it comes to the decisions that impact their opportunity to attain an excellent and equitable education. With HawaiiKidsCAN, I feel privileged to keep pushing for change in the state where I was raised and want to have a lifelong impact.”
Sarah Kern (Hawai‘i ’13) Teacher, Wai‘anae High School
Now in her fifth school year of teaching at her placement school, Sarah works as a science educator and co-department head. In 2015, she revived the AP Biology Program at Wai‘anae, a course that had not previously been offered for 10 years. The course has provided students with opportunities to explore STEM and think about the role biotechnology will play in society. Sarah’s efforts earned her a National Milken Educator Awards annual “Teacher of Promise” award for her complex area in 2016.
“It is an honor to wake up every morning and spend the day working with my kids, who are full of energy, curiosity, determination, and potential. Biotechnology is going to have huge impacts on our lives in the coming years, and I hope to empower students to learn about new issues and then use their voices to advocate for themselves and their communities.”
Meilan Akaka Manfre (Hawai‘i ’08) School & System Leadership Director, Teach For America
Meilan grew up in Hawai‘i and began her education career as a special educator at James Campbell High School. While teaching, she became head of the school's special education department, the largest in the state. She currently serves on TFA’s Native Alliance Initiative Advisory Council and the board of the Rev. Kahu Abraham Akaka Ministries Foundation, a local philanthropy organization. She is also a founding board member and vice president of DreamHouse, Inc., the nonprofit that supports the DreamHouse ‘Ewa Beach charter school, which focuses on developing leaders for the island community.
“My AANHPI identity working in my home community of Hawai‘i affords me kuleana (responsibility and privilege) to partner with teacher leaders in a predominantly AANHPI community to explore how we each can play a role in systemic change for our keiki and the education ecosystem.”
Tim Tran (Houston ’10) Dean of Students, YES Prep Southwest
Tim is a dean of students at the same school where he worked as a corps member. Last May, he teamed up with two other TFA alumni, Roland Wang (Houston ’15) and Seeta Menon (Houston ’10), to host the district’s first Asian American Pacific Islander Student Summit. The conference brought together 80 students throughout the YES Prep district. Looking forward, Tim aspires to lead his own school and continue to be an inspiration to Asian American and Pacific Islander students in Texas—and beyond.
“[At the Asian American Pacific Islander Student Summit], I had the opportunity to lead a session on the model minority myth. It was pretty incredible to see students realize how they’ve experienced the model minority myth in their own lives and then feel compelled to speak up to dispel the myth.”
Chingcha Vang (Milwaukee ’16) Teacher, Hmong American Peace Academy (HAPA)
Chingcha serves as an instructional coach at HAPA in Milwaukee, where the student body is 98 percent Hmong American students and more than 95 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. He encourages his high school students to interview family members about their experiences and learn more about their hardship, displacement, and Hmong identity. Chingcha not only impacts the lives of his students but also teachers’ instructional practices. He serves as a teacher coach, bringing awareness about student identity and culturally relevant pedagogy into all teachers’ instruction.
“My passion to serve an AANHPI community similar to the one I grew up in means the world to me. Watching students succeed in small or large feats brings me so much joy and also motivates me to be the best version of myself everyday.”