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Breaking out of the Ivory Tower: NAES Conference 2014

(Courtesy of Linda Jones)
(Courtesy of Linda Jones)

It is Friday April 4, evening of the National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference, and the panel is about understanding ethnic studies as a discipline shaped by institutions, the lack of voices and experiences contributed as a result and ways to remedy those problems. All are gathered at the Congregational Church of Oakland where pews are packed with students, teachers, Bay Area residents and visitors. As the audience hums with anticipation, the Sistahs of the Drum Collective take the stage with the rhythms from the Congo, Ghana and Guinea, in addition to personal creations, pulling audience members to sing and dance; the energy is contagious.

This year, more than 450 people registered for the conference and 100 breakout/workshop sessions took place over three days. Beginning in 1972, the conference has been hosted all over the United States. For the 42nd year, Mills College helped facilitate and host the conference in Oakland.

Event organizers focused on the key questions: 1) how do theory and practice mesh; and 2) how are academics and community experiences brought together?

The Thursday April 3 evening panel concerned with intersectionality as a way to decolonize ethnic studies took place in Lisser Hall. Chair of the Mills Ethnic Studies Department and NAES Co-Chair Dr. Julia Oparah invited the audience to bring their “full selves” – not only minds but passions and commitments – to the conference, as well as to their scholarly and community works. She explained that oftentimes in areas of academic study, identity is checked at the door and how integration of personal identity is one way to branch out of strict academics in ethnic studies.

(Courtesy of Linda Jones)
(Courtesy of Linda Jones)

Both panels urged students to engage with surrounding communities as part of their academic experiences. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her daughter Lailan Hue held the stage on the 3rd to speak of their experiences with activism, specifically within the Bay Area. Mayor Quan stressed the necessity for academics to leave classrooms and gain knowledge from other sources.

“Doing work in the community [shows you] that you can change the world,” Quan said.

She explained that everyone has the ability to take resources from schooling and share them with others, such as helping children reach reading grade levels in Oakland public schools.

(Courtesy of Linda Jones)
(Courtesy of Linda Jones)

The Thursday panel also began with a performance by Two-Spirit Drum and a prayer by the Indigenous Grandmothers group. The Friday panel opened with music and a prayer by Corrina Gould of the Chochenyo Ohlone people and Indian People Organizing for Change. These commencements allowed for the conferences to incorporate different aspects of cultures outside of the academic realms.

At the Friday panel, a professor from Napa Valley College stated she believes white institutions own ethnic studies. She said because the department is funding-dependent, the discourse is controlled by those who run the institution, which makes it difficult for her to subvert typical practicum for fear of being fired, especially since she does not have tenure.

Mills senior and audience member Shanna Hullaby added that to understand ethnic studies, one has to understand the epistemology, or the study of knowledge, and how it is gained. To decolonize ethnic studies means to approach it in ways other than sanctioned and institutionalized methods.

(Courtesy of Linda Jones)
(Courtesy of Linda Jones)

“We live in a white supremacist power structure, and we are talking about knowledge for our people,” Hullaby said. “We’re coming at it from a white supremacist framework, and I think that’s the problem.”

To be made legitimate, the discipline of ethnic studies has had to conform to certain practices and structures within institutions. To decolonize ethnic studies is to cultivate it with that awareness, explained Hullaby.

Dr. Angela Davis, American scholar and activist, called for interdiscplinarity as a way to change ethnic studies.

“Interdiscplinarity […] is not only about traditional academic disciplines,” Davis said, “[but] acknowledges that […] knowledge is produced in venues other than the university.”

To go beyond the boundaries of the institution allows for academics to access issues currently affecting their surrounding communities, in addition to different levels of research and learning.

“We do this academic work, but we fall right into the conventional ways of which it’s done,” Davis said. “As long as we do that, we will always be beholden to the various modes of oppression that are inherent in these institutions.”

Davis also quoted Audre Lorde’s sentiment, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

The National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference hosted notable speakers and some of Mills' own. (Courtesy of Linda Jones)
The National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference hosted notable speakers and some of Mills’ own. (Courtesy of Linda Jones)

Chief Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and Tribal Chief from the Friday panel, said to the audience, “We are here to empower — each other, our kids — to do what is greater than what has been done.”

The Thursday and Friday evening panels concentrated on radicalizing the way ethnic studies is taught in institutions. To better the discipline, the experiences and voices from those outside of academia must be brought into the dialogue. Instead of the typical methods of learning, ethnic studies scholars must seek to breech the disconnect between theory and community.

When asked by the moderator if the panelists had any advice to give, Davis said, “recognize the interconnectedness of all the issues. […] My advice is to do the work in creative, innovative ways.”