We’re excited to announce that Generation Citizen has a brand new New York Executive Director: Khin Mai Aung!
Khin Mai Aung is the former Executive Director and Assistant Counsel at the Office of Bilingual Education & World Languages in the New York State Education Department, former Director of the Educational Equity Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and an accomplished civil rights attorney. She also brings her experience as the Director of Policy and Civic Engagement at the Youth Leadership institute, and other projects focused on young people and education. Learn more in her own words below, including what inspires her to do this work, what she’s reading, and how she spends her time beyond GC. Welcome to the team!
Tell us about your new role as Generation Citizen’s NY Executive Director and your vision for the role.
I’m excited about this opportunity, as I’ve been working with young people advocating for change in their communities and to pursue quality education throughout my career.
For Generation Citizen’s New York State programming, I’ve been thinking about how we can move beyond the pandemic and integrate some good things we’ve learned over the past year – like retaining aspects of digital learning to broaden our reach and capacity, while reintroducing in-person elements for individual connection when it’s safe to do so.
Longer term, I’d also love to think about how we can truly serve all of New York State, particularly in upstate cities with higher needs populations, including lower income communities of color and immigrants or refugees for whom the public education system may be the first contact to our civil society and democracy. Action Civics – and civic education more generally – is much needed throughout our state.
Tell us more about your background and how you arrived at this point in your career.
I was born in Myanmar and moved to the United States as a child. As a law student and young lawyer, I became interested in immigrant rights and racial justice, and of how I could leverage my education to make a difference for other immigrants, refugees, and people of color.
Early in my career, as a Staff Attorney at Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco (now Advancing Justice-ALC), I launched a Youth Pilot Program that provided youth organizing support, and advocated for youth and families in direct service legal cases. After September 11, I moved to New York City to launch the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s (AALDEF) Educational Equity Program, which initially addressed post-9/11 profiling of South Asian and Muslim youth, and later expanded to more broadly cover educational equity challenges for lower income immigrant Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth. This included providing support to community organizing campaigns across the country through AALDEF’s National Asian American Education Advocates Network.
For the past several years, I’ve been a policy maker at the New York State Education Department enforcing the rights of immigrant students and English Language Learners, and ran a program that leveraged school improvement funds to incentivize school integration in districts. It was amazing to learn the inner workings of policy making, and I’m thrilled to apply that learning back in the nonprofit sector.
What does Action Civics mean to you?
Project-based learning more generally is critical to prevent curricula from becoming dry, and to connect students’ learning to their day to day lives. In social studies, it’s especially important to not just learn raw historical facts, but to engage in how historical trends play out in our lives. Civics education at its best will help students understand the way that current events are part of ongoing historical trends, and help engage them with issues and policies that improve their lives.
Today, we live in an extraordinarily politically charged moment. After the reckoning last summer about our criminal justice system due to George Floyd’s killing, the terrifying storming of our capital on January 6th of this year, and the recent surge of anti-Asian violence, we’re collectively grappling with these events. Action Civics can help us understand them and collectively pursue positive social change on macro and micro levels. This year, some Generation Citizen New York students studied school use of metal detectors, and looked at how school security policy relates to broader issues around gun access and violence in their community. That’s Action Civics playing out in a way that I hope will have a tangible impact on students’ day to day lives.
What is a challenge that you see in this work right now that you’re excited to tackle?
Right now, this country is very polarized, and we know we need to figure out how to get on the same page – or at least closer to that. We need to seek a common understanding of both the dynamics at play and facts of what’s happening. Everyone’s contexts and communities are different, and we need to understand how people are feeling in those divergent contexts.
I really appreciate that GC is working not just in large urban areas, but in many other places where people are marginalized and living within diverse cross-sections of our community at large. That’s also why I’m excited to potentially expand beyond New York City and the downstate region to upstate, central and western New York.
What is something new you learned in the last few weeks?
As you can imagine, many things! It’s been great learning about GC, and it’s such a warm and supportive company culture. But with the pandemic, it’s been harder to have casual conversations getting to know colleagues over lunch at our desks, or around the water cooler. I’m not immersed in an office environment and culture. Getting to know people virtually is definitely a bit of a challenge, but we’re getting there.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Thurgood Marshall, because I’m a lawyer (laughs). Even though our model of integration and multiracial equity has evolved since his time, he was somebody who was always focused on where we wanted to collectively go as a society. He worked hard to move toward that goal, using law and policy in the most powerful way possible, while taking into account where we were in reality. He had such a strategic vision of how we could reach an inclusive, multiracial society. I’d love to pick his brain on how to address our current challenges.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
When I first started at New York State Education Department, we’d just amended our regulations to boost educational requirements for English Language Learners. That was really exciting, but we had a lot of work ahead and we knew it was going to be difficult. But a colleague said to our team: Let’s think about how you eat a piece of pizza. You don’t eat it all at once, you eat it one bite at a time. What are the steps you need to get from point A to point B? We just go one step at a time, no matter how far. I thought that advice resonated.
Have you read any excellent books or articles lately?
My friend, Justin Deabler, a colleague from when I worked for the state – he was my counterpart in the Office of the Attorney General – just wrote a wonderful book called Lone Stars, which is the main thing I’ve been reading. It’s based on characters loosely based on his Texan family and how they’ve come to terms with who they are, and who he is, against the backdrop of their history and their current selves. In particular, and I haven’t gotten to this point in the book yet, I’m looking forward to meeting my friend’s alter ego as I understand it’s a coming of age story for that character, as a young person learning about and actualizing himself.
Can you describe what a typical (but good!) weekend day would look like for you?
First of all, sleeping in a bit as my kids help themselves to breakfast. Then, especially as the weather has warmed up, being out in my yard or going for a walk with a friend. I also do a lot of cooking with my husband and three kids, and love cooking classes when we’re able to do them. Although the scope of our social lives has contracted in the pandemic and I miss going out, I’ve also enjoyed having more unscripted time with my family. Our weekends aren’t full of birthday parties and activities, and I’ve really appreciated our quiet time together.