Congresswoman Grace Meng (’93) Speaks to Writing to Make Change Class
Reading Time: 5 minutes
English teacher Annie Thoms virtually hosted guest speaker Congresswoman Grace Meng (’93) on April 12 in her Writing to Make Change class. Meng, who represents New York’s 6th Congressional District of Queens, New York, discussed her Stuyvesant experiences, how she developed her political interests and her activism toward the Asian American community.
Writing to Make Change is an English elective offered to juniors and seniors to explore writing with real-life applications. “The aim is for the writing to go out into the world to make change of some kind on issues [students] care about. We explore many kinds of genres from op-ed writing to graphic novels to memoirs to poetry to podcasting,” Thoms said in an e-mail interview.
Because the class revolves around public writing, Thoms structured the class with invitations to guest speakers who actively use writing in their professional lives to inspire students to use their writing as a form of advocacy. Meng, who was a former classmate of Thoms, was chosen because of the work she does. “Meng is an extraordinary human being and politician and speaker. In the last few years, her voice has just become nationally more prominent and she has been so extraordinary in her work in Congress,” Thoms said.
Students were provided with some of Meng’s work to familiarize themselves. One piece was a testimony of hers regarding the recent rise in violence against the Asian American community. This testimony was conducted before the House Judiciary Committee and contributed to the success of Meng’s Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Bill, which was passed on April 22 with a vote of 94 to 1. Students were also provided with legislation promoting Asian Pacific American history in schools, which Meng strives to emphasize.
Part of Meng’s motivation in her work comes from the lack of Asian American representation in her education growing up. “As a kid growing [up] in New York City, I realized that I didn’t have enough opportunities to learn about the contributions of Asian Americans to this country,” Meng said. “This discrimination against Asian Americans has really made me realize how we need to create more opportunities for our students, from K through 12 and beyond to learn about the history of different people’s contributions to this country.”
Though Meng did not follow a traditional path into politics, she grew an interest in politics and government work in her desire to help her community. That interest developed into a deep awareness of how politics could be used as a medium to help said communities and bring more representation into the field. “When I was a student at Stuy, I was a pretty shy kid, I was really quiet,” she said. “I knew I wanted to try to do something to help my community and to help people around me [...] During college, I had some internships in various government agencies and really became fascinated with how the government worked. [...] It was also a cool place because there weren't a lot of minorities and there weren’t a lot of women in these internships. I realized that politics, when used correctly, can be a really good way to help people.”
Meng uses writing to aid her political work and spoke of its importance while also highlighting its difficulty. “Writing skills are really important to formulating a clear argument, whether that be writing legislation, the bills that you read about, or just writing notes or questions when I am listening to a hearing or when I am participating in a meeting,” Meng said. “And I will tell you that writing doesn’t necessarily come easy to many of us. And that includes me, who actually liked it.”
A lot of the work she does is inspired by everyday people, who highlight issues for politicians like her to implement change. One such example is how one of Meng’s bills was inspired by a seventh grader’s letter highlighting the issue of period poverty and menstrual inequity. “I learned about this issue [from] a seventh-grader, who wrote a letter to me about how homeless people could not get pads and tampons in New York City from the homeless shelters, and I was shocked,” Meng said. “We have been able to work with the mayor to get these products in all New York City public schools. We have been able to get these products into our federal prisons because that wasn’t true like two years ago. The homeless shelters are now allowed to give out these products where they weren’t allowed to before. I just wanted to give you an example of how one letter, one short letter, one piece of writing can make a difference in people’s lives.”
With Meng’s accomplishments in mind, students also became cognizant of the struggles she faces as a person of color in politics. “At the end of her testimony, I could visibly see how upset she was and I realized how hard it can be for her to stand up for Asian Americans and other minorities in America when people continuously disregard her voice and the voices of minorities,” junior Erica Zhou said.
However, many also understood the motivation and confidence that Meng draws from the public’s support for the Asian American community. “When Grace Meng noticed that people outside the Asian American community and younger people in America were speaking out and standing up for Asians, she was surprised and became much more encouraged and motivated to continue fighting.”
Others were inspired by Meng’s worldview. “I really liked it because I learned a lot about her work and what her thought process is,” junior Kartik Vanjani said in an e-mail interview. “Grace Meng had a unique thought process in changing people’s negative views on topics. She believed that people are naive and the bad things they say are not an accurate representation of who they are. This was powerful and serves to be very true.”
Overall, many felt that the guest speaker event provided them with a unique opportunity to have a conversation with a member of Congress. “This event was successful and everything went smoothly,” Zhou said. “It felt surreal being able to meet Grace Meng, even if it’s over Zoom, especially because she represents my district. I knew this event was kind of a big deal when I noticed that a few other teachers were there and even Principal [Seung] Yu.
The event ultimately allowed students to widen their knowledge. “One important lesson I learned was to never think bad about somebody who says bad stuff because Grace Meng said that they are naive or were not brought up in the right way. To be able to hear from a Congresswoman in these times was just cool and I cannot appreciate Grace Meng’s time enough,” Vanjani said.