by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
For 17-year-old Alysha Lee a typical day in Marin County, California, is jampacked with schoolwork, student government responsibilities and ballet rehearsals. But next Monday, September 18, she’ll be in Washington D.C., receiving the Surgeon General’s Medallion from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Lee, a senior at Novato High School, has been awarded the medallion for her work with Beyond Differences, a student-led social justice organization based in the Bay Area. The non-profit produces and distributes Social-Emotional learning (SEL) curriculums meant to “end social isolation and create cultures of belonging.” Lee’s curriculum focuses on anti-Asian hate.
“As an Asian American Girl, I knew that I wanted to make a difference since COVID when anti-Asian hate crimes were high,” Lee said in an interview with AsAmNews.
When Lee was younger, she moved from San Francisco, a city with a large Asian population, to a predominantly white community in San Raphael. She joined Beyond Differences through her middle school. Now, she is a National Teen Board Member at the non-profit.
“I knew that I had a voice and I wanted to make a change and find my people,” Lee said.
During the pandemic, Lee and the Stand Up for AAPI Youth Committee at Beyond Differences created an online Stand Up for AAPI Youth curriculum. Her art-based portion of the curriculum is a twist on the traditional 1,000 cranes project.
“In my childhood, I spent many days making the paper origami cranes with my grandparents, and that was just like, a very significant memory of my childhood,” Lee said.
Lee’s curriculum provides statistics and information about hate crimes against the AAPI community before teaching students to make paper cranes.
After the paper cranes are made, students attach small “wish” banners to the cranes with their answers to one of two prompts: “What is one thing our community could do to support AAPI youth? What is one thing we could do to make you feel seen and safe?”
Beyond Differences published the curriculum online for any instructor to access. Lee presented the art project in February 2023 at the San Francisco Lunar New Year festival. Since her presentation, the curriculum has reached over 10,000 schools.
“I am so proud of Alysha and her ongoing dedication to addressing social isolation and mental health through her work on our Stand Up for AAPI Youth Project,” Laura Talmus, founder and executive director of Beyond Differences, said in a statement. “Her powerful art-based curriculum helps heal AAPI children and teens who were negatively impacted by the pandemic and lifts up all students with messages of hope and connection.”
Lee’s project will soon be honored by the Surgeon General.
“I am honored to present the Surgeon General’s Medallion to Alysha Lee, a National Teen Board Member at Beyond Differences where she inspires students to create cultures of belonging in middle school,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said in a press release. “Since the pandemic began, there have been precious few opportunities to process what we’ve been through, grieve what we’ve lost, and recognize individuals who have gone above and beyond for others.
The Surgeon General’s Medallion recipients will be recognized during a special concert, “Songs for Hope,” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It will be Lee’s first visit to Washington D.C. The teenager says she is grateful for all of the support she has received.
“It’s just been very exciting and I can’t believe I’m going to meet him in just a few weeks.”
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