“Let’s bring all the planes down”—Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta’s words to ground all U.S. planes on 9/11—elicited a moment of riveted silence in the audience of educators attending the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) annual conference in Austin, Texas, as they listened to Secretary Mineta’s keynote address on November 23, 2019. Upon hearing those words, many were transported back to a time when most people probably remember exactly where and what they were doing at the time that they heard of the events unfolding on September 11, 2001. However, most of their current students were not alive in 2001 and Mineta underscored the importance of teaching them about the lessons of 9/11 so that it is never forgotten.
During his address, Secretary Mineta highlighted the importance of conference themes such as informed action and decision making as he reflected upon lessons from his life, and the important role that teachers have in shaping critical attitudes of their students. In a touching moment, he shared his experience as a 10-year-old boy in 1942 who was forced from his home in San Jose, California, and incarcerated with his family in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, the location of one of the 10 major incarceration camps for people of Japanese descent during World War II. He vividly recalled his cherished baseball bat being confiscated by the Military Police as it was deemed a weapon. Mineta also shared how his experience during World War II informed one of President George W. Bush’s comments immediately following 9/11, that is, “We know what happened to Norm Mineta in the 1940s, and we’re not going to let that happen again.” A son of immigrants from Japan, Norman Mineta became the first Asian American mayor of a major city (San Jose, California). This led to a distinguished 20-year career in Congress and the first Asian American Cabinet member, having served two U.S. Presidents, a Democrat (Bill Clinton) and Republican (George W. Bush).
As Secretary Mineta spoke, one could sense that he never forgot his roots or the shame and humiliation that he and his family felt during World War II; as a congressman, he led the way for an apology from the U.S. government and redress for Japanese Americans who were interned. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation during and after 9/11, he made critical decisions that would ensure that what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II did not happen to any other group based on ethnicity or religion. His burning desire for all people to be treated equally is at the heart of a film, Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, that was co-produced by Dianne Fukami and Debra Nakatomi, who were also in the audience. The film premiered on PBS earlier this year.
Following Secretary Mineta’s keynote to an audience of hundreds who gave him a standing ovation, SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi and Jonas Edman led a more intimate discussion with Secretary Mineta and 70 educators that also included an overview of a SPICE-produced web-based curriculum unit that is titled, “What Does It Mean to Be American?” As its main author, Sekiguchi explained that the curriculum unit consists of six lessons with readings, videos, and assignments to examine key themes from Secretary Mineta’s life and career: immigration, civil liberties & equity, civic engagement, justice & reconciliation, leadership, and U.S.–Japan relations.
Sekiguchi also noted that the curriculum meets national standards for history, social studies, civics and government courses, and topics are brought to life and connected to students’ own lives through primary source documents, interactive classroom activities, and custom-created video vignettes (produced by Fukami) showcasing a diverse range of American voices—from high school youth to former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Each lesson provides a different lens through which students can examine the curriculum’s central question: What does it mean to be an American? The curriculum unit will be released in spring 2020.
Sekiguchi’s overview was followed by a discussion between Mineta and the 70 educators that was moderated by Edman. Questions from the audience ranged from Mineta’s legendary lifelong friendship with Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming to issues concerning immigrant families today. Many of the questions and Secretary Mineta’s responses touched upon the political divisiveness in U.S. society today and prompted educators to think of ways to use “What Does It Mean to Be An American?” and Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story in their classrooms. Compliments from the audience like “this was the best session of the conference” and “this was the best workshop I’ve been to” could be heard following the session.
During their work with Secretary Mineta, Sekiguchi, Fukami, and Nakatomi were especially touched when they heard why Secretary Norman Mineta wears an American flag on his lapel. Mineta has noted, “When you’re in close quarters… people will sort of give you the once over. And so, I always wear this [flag pin]. It’s something you feel when you’re doing things. Am I really being fully accepted as an American citizen? I want to make sure everyone knows I am one.”