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The ethnic studies department 40 years later

Imagine the following scene. Students of color and their white allies march across campus and stage a sit-in occupying the office of the President of Mills College. Disgusted by classrooms and faculty that systematically ignore, marginalize and pathologize communities of color, they demand immediate radical change.

The year was 1968. Students at Mills College, San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley were fighting to transform a higher educational system that had remained largely unchanged since it was established for the sons and daughters of privileged and racially homogenous West Coast settlers. The series of sit-ins, teach-ins and confrontations with university administrators and police, among other actions referred to as the “Third World student strikes” included a strike that lasted five months – the longest student strike in US history – by thousands of San Francisco State students and community members demanding the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies.

It is testimony to the courage and passion of Mills students that, a year after these “Third World strikes,” Mills was among the first colleges to establish an Ethnic Studies program. Ethnic Studies at Mills was established in 1969, the year the discipline itself was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area and spread throughout the United States. We owe a great deal to those visionary and trail blazing students who recognized the need for a department that would serve as a central locus for radical social change based on the experiences and insights of people of colorj and who refused to settle for less.

40 years later, Ethnic Studies at Mills is thriving. After gaining full departmental status in the early 1970s, the department has become home to four tenured faculty members as well as regular visiting faculty. From a fragmented curriculum relying on offerings by faculty from other departments, the Ethnic Studies curriculum has evolved into a coherent and comprehensive program of rigorous study that equips students to become agents of change in graduate school, law school, the workplace and beyond. Embracing new developments in the field, Ethnic Studies at Mills has shifted from a race-only approach to a more comprehensive analysis that examines the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality.

Recognizing the need for an Ethnic Studies analysis that crosses borders, the department has developed cutting edge scholarship and teaching on race, gender and immigration in a transnational and diasporic context. By working closely with student affinity groups, the department coordinates an impressive calendar of vibrant cultural and scholarly events throughout the year, showcasing the contributions of people of color and building strong bonds with the Oakland and wider Bay Area community. This commitment to meaningful community engagement is also visible in the service-learning assignments carried out by our students in organizations working on issues ranging from immigrant rights to HIV/AIDS in the American Indian community.

The department has also played a central role in transforming Mills as a whole. In 1969, Paul Williams, the first director of the Ethnic Studies department, predicted: “The presence of Ethnic Studies at Mills will have a democratizing influence on the entire College community.”[i] Today, the perspectives, contributions and theorizing of people of color are considered central to Mills’ scholarly mission and can be found across the curriculum. In addition, by serving as a home away from home and hub for critical engagement for students of color as well as white anti-racism students, the department has contributed to a dramatic transformation of the student body from a predominantly racially homogenous one to what President Jan Holmgren has celebrated as a “minority-majority” community.

Yet despite its evident strengths and successes in the areas of scholarly and pedagogical innovation, as well as the recruitment and retention of students of color, Ethnic Studies as a discipline has been under attack at a national level. This assault is part of a broader attempt by conservatives to “take back” the nation’s campuses, and to rid higher education of radical and “un-American” voices.[ii] Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Area Studies and other disciplines promoting critical thinking and social justice have also come under fire. We cannot underestimate the significance of this threat. In Arizona, for example, legislators responded to conservative critiques of Raza (Chicano/a) Studies by introducing legislation that would bar public school classes that “denigrate American values and the values of Western Civilization.”[iii] The legislation reframed teaching about histories of slavery, colonization and genocide as “un-American,” as if the only legitimate pedagogical perspective were one based on willful ignorance and blind patriotism.

Attempts to defund Ethnic Studies departments, usually based on allegations that we are hotbeds of “tenured extremism,” are widespread among conservative scholars and pundits and we must be vigilant and proactive in promoting the true value and rigor of Ethnic Studies scholarship. At Mills, Ethnic Studies faculty have published books and articles mapping ecologically and socially sustainable development in Puerto Rico; exploring the connections between globalization, criminalization and women’s imprisonment; examining black women’s struggles with race, gender and identity; interrogating the politics of race and representation in literature and popular culture and uncovering the hidden history of Seminole Freedmen. This kind of socially-engaged scholarship is a model not only for Ethnic Studies departments elsewhere, but for other disciplines that also seek to build bridges between the university and the community and to produce socially relevant knowledge that inspires progressive social change.

Ethnic Studies has always had its detractors, yet it has emerged strengthened by these struggles. Here at Mills, there is a consensus that the hidden histories and “other” stories revealed in the Ethnic Studies classroom are an essential component in educating young women and men to make meaningful interventions in an ever more globally integrated world. Johnnella Butler, the keynote speaker for our 40th anniversary celebration, argues that the “matrix of Ethnic Studies – composed of the study of race and racialization, of the experiences of racialized U.S. ethnic groups, of the study of whiteness, and of the study of the expressive culture that reflects the fullness of the human experience – is (a) place of salvation for the humanities and the social sciences.”

I am proud to be a part of the bold and uncompromising Ethnic Studies tradition and I look forward to contributing to its continuing evolution.