When we delve into the realm of history, our thoughts naturally steer toward pivotal events and iconic figures; we often overlook the treasure trove of personal histories that we carry within ourselves. These untold stories of personal growth can be every bit as inspiring — as grand narratives and the legends that grace the pages of books. Tracy Lai, a history instructor with nearly four decades of experience at Seattle Central College, is a living testament to the interconnectedness of history and humanity.
The Power of Education
Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Lai has always seen schools as doors to new opportunities. She completed her undergraduate degree in Third World Women’s Literature at Brown University and the University of California, Berkeley. There, she became involved in the Asian American studies program and worked as a tutor. Her journey continued with a Multicultural Studies master’s program at the University of Washington, where she became a teaching assistant, fostering her passion for education. She says schools “can be such a great place for people to grow, develop, and explore. I guess you could say I haven’t left, still growing.”
The Teacher As Curator
Fresh out of graduate school, Lai stepped into teaching at Seattle Central as an adjunct instructor in 1984; she started teaching only 25% of a class. Lai’s first task was to teach a section of the History of American Minorities, a course where classes were taught by instructors knowledgeable about the experiences they represented. For Lai, that meant delving into Asian American history. After eight years of dedication, in 1992, she became a full-time instructor in the college, cementing her place as an essential figure in Seattle Central’s educational landscape.
As a dedicated full-time history instructor, Lai’s primary responsibilities involve teaching three five-credit courses each quarter. While her teaching portfolio often centers on U.S. History, she has also passionately delved into instructing courses like American Ethnic Studies and Women and Gender Studies. Lai describes her pedagogical role as akin to that of a curator, carefully selecting and presenting diverse sources for her students to explore, ones that will engage and enlighten them.
Plurality and Inclusivity of History
Making history come alive for students with preconceived notions of the subject is challenging but interesting, Lai says. Students initially express disinterest or boredom with history, but upon deeper exploration, discover that the sentiment arose from feeling excluded from the narrative. As traditionally taught, history seems to revolve around people who are not like them, making them and their communities feel insignificant. By bridging the gap and enabling students to explore the history of their communities and families, a newfound sense of engagement and curiosity emerges, igniting a desire to delve deeper into the subject.
“When we are studying history — really its plural — histories, that are more inclusive of experiences.” Lai asserts. When students express surprise discovering the rich history of women and people of color in U.S. history, challenging the misconception that history predominantly revolved around men and those not of color, she sees it as a positive sign. Lai believes history reveals a tapestry of individuals and genders who have shaped our present. She encourages a curious and open-minded approach to historical inquiry, suggesting that asking questions and remaining inquisitive can unveil the hidden facets of our past. “I hope that people find that the study of history, not just U.S. history, can uncover so many things if we ask the questions and if we are curious.”
Lai recalls a thought-provoking poster she once encountered, bearing the words: Know History, Know Oneself. This succinct adage shows that studying history helps people know more about themselves and their society as a whole. Engaging with history, she explains, not only deepens someone’s understanding of themselves but also offers profound insights into the broader fabric of society. While the cliché that “History repeats itself” persists, she explains that it is essential to acknowledge the unique nuances in each historical recurrence. Moreover, learning history improves our ability to discern the context surrounding contemporary events, empowering us to approach problem-solving with greater insight and, potentially, to steer clear of past mistakes.
Lai also states that history can be about more than the distant past. “I think that historians can offer skills and knowledge about how we approach more recent experiences as well… we are in a constant mode of processing, and we can use some of those moments to help us remember,” Lai said.
A Mission Beyond the Classroom
Lai’s unwavering commitment to academia transcends the boundaries of the conventional classroom.
“Seattle Central started as a community college. Right now, the word “community” might not be in its title anymore, but it was when it first started, and it was for most of my career… I have always wanted to keep the community in community college. That means working closely with community organizations and encouraging students to seek that out,” Lai said.
Lai actively participates in committees, the Faculty Union, the Asian American & Native American Pacific-Islander (AANAPISI) Program, and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA).
In 2022, the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies awarded Lai a community college fellowship. This grant enabled her to research the Supreme Court case, Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio, a class action suit of cannery workers that contested employment discrimination in the 1980s. Lai emphasized that while this may be a significant yet lesser-known court case, it is indispensable for understanding the historical experiences of Filipino Americans. It is essential to acknowledge that Chinese, Japanese Americans, and Native Alaskan cannery workers were also significantly affected by the racial disparities in these canneries.
In a passionate statement, she underscored that a lot of her work as a historian has been participating in the community. Lai has established a profound and personal connection with her research. Although her own family was not directly involved in the canneries, the experiences of cannery workers closely mirrored the challenges encountered by the elders of her family, who were immigrants. They struggled to find employment due to their limited English language skills and often faced disinterest from employers. This shared experience of marginalization profoundly motivates her, driving a commitment to amplify the voices of frequently overlooked individuals.
Looking to the Future
While looking to the future of the world’s history, Lai envisions the field adapting to new technologies. She anticipates historians increasingly engaging with social media and technology to enhance accessibility to historical information. She also conveys, “I’d like to think that historians will continue to be relevant in that they [will continue to be] caretakers or facilitators of tracking our experiences.”
In her own history, Lai plans to retire, transitioning from full-time teaching to self-paced courses at Seattle Central. As she embarks on future endeavors, Lai acknowledges, “I am leaving in one sense, but I am not going away in another,” perhaps a testament to her enduring impact as a human being, etching her name into the annals of humanity’s history.
Lai concludes her research on the Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio case Fall quarter, culminating in a public community program scheduled for Oct. 26 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in person in the Broadway Edison building room 4106, and online over Zoom. The event will feature individuals involved in the original court case and former cannery workers, providing firsthand insights. It will also include collaborators who contributed to the research throughout its course.