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Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Calls for National Asian American Museum at Harvard IOP Forum

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao spoke with Harvard Business School senior lecturer John D. Macomber at Harvard Institute of Politics forum Tuesday.
Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao spoke with Harvard Business School senior lecturer John D. Macomber at Harvard Institute of Politics forum Tuesday. By Muskaan Arshad
By Thomas J. Mete, Crimson Staff Writer

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao called for a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture during a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Tuesday, arguing that such a museum would help combat the rise in anti-Asian hate.

During the forum Tuesday — moderated by Harvard Business School senior lecturer John D. Macomber — Chao called for the museum to be built along Washington’s National Mall, where many of the country’s Smithsonian Museums are located.

“If a national museum were to be established that would talk about the history and culture of Asians in America and Asian Americans that would develop or cultivate a greater tolerance, and a greater understanding and appreciation,” said Chao, the first Asian American woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.

“It’s got to be on the National Mall because respect is very important,” she added.

Chao said the “onslaught of violence” against Asian Americans linked to the “spillover” of poor U.S.-China relations has underscored the importance of acknowledging and celebrating Asian Americans’ contributions to American history.

“This community before has been relatively reserved, quiet, and now understands the importance of speaking up, finding their voice, and making known their concerns,” Chao said.

“This should be celebrated,” she added.

Chao — the 12-year cabinet veteran — also discussed the “incredible opportunities” artificial intelligence can provide to expand access to knowledge across class, educational background, and age. She praised innovation as “a huge part of who we are” as Americans.

“I think AI has a better potential to help even the playing field of those with different skill sets, different talents,” she said.

“A person who may not have been educated on a particular topic can speak with ease at a push of a button just by asking ChatGPT,” Chao added.

While lauding the educational benefits of AI, Chao — who is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — said she was concerned that large sectors of the labor force may be eliminated by developing technology, calling for government intervention.

“They are basically competing with a person who has spent their whole life studying a particular topic,” Chao said. “And so what does that mean to workers? Is that a plus? Is that a negative?”

“The government has a really big responsibility to try and ease that adjustment,” she added.

Chao, a Taiwanese immigrant, also discussed her family heritage and pursuit of the American dream, detailing her 37-day journey across the Pacific Ocean to New York at the age of eight with her mother and six sisters — one of whom was in attendance at Tuesday’s forum.

“My parents have a great deal of courage because they came to America armed only with their dreams and their belief in this country,” Chao said. “They knew that this country would give their daughters so much more opportunity, yet they didn’t know what these opportunities were.”

Chao recalled as a child being “so confused” by American cultural traditions like hamburgers, pizza, and children dressing as monsters “sticking these huge empty bags in our faces chanting this indecipherable chant”— which her family later realized was their first experience with Halloween trick-or-treating.

“The next year, we learned that it was a free way to get free candy, and we became the best trick-or-treaters in the neighborhood,” Chao joked.

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at Follow him on X @thomasjmete.

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