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Ethnic studies program celebrates 40 years

The Ethnic Studies Department is celebrating 40 years at Mills College with an upcoming celebration that will feature poetry readings, alumni testimonies and dance performances.

Performances will include a Mexican folklore dance by Mujeres Unidas club members and a presentation by keynote speaker Johnnella Butler, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Spelman College. Butler was recently named one of Atlanta’s “100 Most Influential Women” by the Atlanta Business League. She is also the author of Transforming the Curriculum: Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies, and Color-Line to Borderlands: The Matrix of American Ethnic Studies.

These are just two of many other activities honoring a department that currently boasts more than 30 students majoring in the discipline. The major aims to prepare its students for social leadership and development by studying culture and diversity from the perspectives of people of color. This includes the analysis of race intersecting with gender, sexuality, economics, nationality and the experiences of women of color.

“Everything we are learning as ethnic studies majors, we are living as well,” said Jabrilla Carr, a senior double-majoring in psychology and ethnic studies. She is also helping to organize the event, which will be held Nov. 12.

Professor Julia Sudbury lectures to her Research Methods class on Nov. 4. (Nicole Vermeer)
Professor Julia Sudbury lectures to her Research Methods class on Nov. 4. (Nicole Vermeer)

The department was founded after years of struggle. Documentation of this history for social justice was compiled by Sauda L. Garrett in her spring 1991 thesis project.

“There is a deeper appreciation for the department when you learn the history and how we got to where we are,” said Carr. “The Black Student Union created the program by leading protests and rallies for the major.”

According to Garrett’s thesis, the Ethnic Studies program was created in 1969, the same year the discipline came to San Francisco State University, as an increase of students of color in universities followed the Civil Rights Era. In the 1967-1968 school year, when about 23 African Americans were enrolled at Mills, the Black Student Union was founded by students of color who realized there were few subjects taught that brought relevance to their culture and heritage.

The club sent a letter to Mills College President Robert Wert, requesting the college hire full-time black professors and a club advisor. By May of 1968, over three black faculty members were on staff, and the Black Student Union began proposing that an ethnic studies major be created.

“The BSU organized sit-ins at the president’s office, and organized pep rallies,” said Carr. “They just really exercised their rights as students.”

Over 150 students staged a 90-minute sit-in in President Wert’s office, demanding the creation of an Ethnic Studies Department, the recruitment of third world draft or international faculty, that African Americans be hired as school administrators and that the Black Student Union would be provided a voice in the hiring of African American faculty.

A program was created in the Spring of 1969 with dual faculty members from other subject areas teaching ethnic studies with their expertise in topics such as the “Psychology of Asian Americans” and the “Poetry of Black America.” Other students of color also started race-affiliate organizations on campus including a group of Latinas who formed “La Raza Unida,” a group that sought to challenge the college community about myths of the Latino community. Other race-affiliate groups soon followed as the department grew in student enrollment and achieved its educational goals in promoting cultural diversity.

“It was important that they did that at the time in ’69 because it was a new discipline and in the civil rights era,” said Carr. “It kept Mills up-to-date.”

The history of the department has little documentation of the events that helped the discipline progress into the major it is today. Jabrilla Carr and Shunkile Black Calf, another ethnic studies major, are currently compiling research for a project detailing the history of the department.

“I think we have come a long way from being just a program,” said Jean Wong, the faculty administrative assistant for the department. “We offer a few classes from a dynamic cutting-edge department with a tenure-track faculty.”

Faculty member Margo Okazawa-Rey, who is currently teaching Mixed-Race Descent in the Americas, also agrees on the importance of the discipline.

“It’s central because the discipline of Ethnic Studies looks at histories, perspectives and experiences from various peoples of color,” said Rey. “It is about saving lives and communities that have been marginalized since the beginning of this country.”

Wong and Carr hope to see more diverse classes in the future as the department encourages more students to go out into the world with the perspectives they gain in the field.

“I hope to see it continuing to prosper, and we have a really strong faculty,” said Carr. “My class of 2010 in Ethnic Studies is graduating a lot of geniuses who will do good in whatever field they go into.”