Critical importance of ethnic studies — from activism to academia
Born out of protest, it was just 50 years ago that the idea of an ethnic studies curricula emerged at UC Davis — which, at the time, was revolutionary.
With a political climate of anti-war, civil rights and women’s liberation movements, the 1960s embodied a time where change was being called for on all fronts. In academia, many students feared their universities were disconnected from real-world concerns and, even worse, complacent in the perpetuation of systems of oppression.
In those years, California colleges and universities played a fundamental role in the inception of ethnic studies programs, specifically at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. The student group Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) organized multiple strikes in 1968 to advocate for the necessity of curriculum reform and increased diversity.
At UC Davis, students organized their own TWLF chapter. It was also at this time that several cultural groups emerged, such as the Black Student Union, the Native American Student Association, Asian American Concern and the United Mexican American Students. From protests, newsletters, symposiums and more, these groups aimed to make their communities a priority for the university.
It was not long after the 1968 strikes that the first ethnic studies department was established on March 7, 1969 at San Francisco State University, sending a signal for other California colleges to continue mobilizing and push even harder.
Just two months later, students organized a UC-wide strike on May 23. Several UC Davis student groups used the opportunity to present their demand for ethnic studies to then-Chancellor James Meyer. The demands were not mere lists of wants, but included detailed proposals with budgets and potential classes.
“A number of 13 measures were put up and, at the basis, were asking for an intellectual agenda and a community agenda,” recalled Dr. Bettina Ng’Weno about the African and African American Studies program in particular.
Notably, many of the first ethnic studies courses were offered at the School of Agriculture rather than the College of Letters and Science because they were seen as a fulfillment of the university’s land-grant mission to “pursue science and knowledge in service of the public.”
Some of the first instances of ethnic study on campus were about studying the farming and surrounding communities. The Asian American Studies Department in its early stages, for instance, shared close ties with the Applied Behavioral Sciences Department.
Today, there are four ethnic studies departments on campus. Although much has changed since 1969, the university still has a long way to go.
African and African-American (AAS) studies became the first ethnic studies major at UC Davis, with AAS classes appearing in the course catalog starting in 1971. It took until 2016, however, until the department was officially established.
A similar struggle rings true for the other ethnic studies departments as well — for many years, academics questioned the legitimacy of ethnic studies programs.
With fewer resources, high faculty turnover rates and departmental conflict, instability persisted until the late 1980s. Then, the Academic Senate voted to allocate six full-time employment positions for all ethnic studies departments, legitimizing the departments and ensuring perpetuity.
The Native American Studies Department came to fruition in 1993 and the program began offering graduate degrees in 1999. The department is unique in that it makes UC Davis the second of only three institutions nationwide to offer doctorates in the field along with the University of Arizona and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Many students and faculty think that this department is especially necessary given that UC Davis was built on the Patwin tribe’s land.
Chicano and Chicana Studies and Asian American Studies became departments in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but courses had been established before then.
Unfortunately, even today several of the departments do not have the promised six full-time faculty members. For instance, African and African American Studies only has four. What’s more, many of the issues that catalyzed the creation of these departments are still ongoing today, making the continuation of these programs all the more necessary.
Beyond their symbolism, these departments have come to embody vibrant pillars of the UC Davis community both academically and beyond.
“I feel like its grounding, it gave me opportunities,” said Monica Valazquez, a fourth-year Chicana/o Studies and international relations double major.
Many of these programs and their related classes represent some of the first academic opportunities for Black, Chicanx, Native American and Asian American students to learn about their cultures and histories. Cynthia Johnson, a UC Davis alumna who studied Human Development and African and African-American Studies, said that that is a big reason she came to the major.
“My high school curriculum didn’t have that, but going into freshman year, I heard a lot of upper-classmen say, ‘Make sure you take AAS 10,’” Johnson said. “It was very informative, so it kind of brought me on the path of being more inquisitive about the department.”
Throughout the quarter, several of these departments will have events commemorating their 50 year history with and look toward the future.
The Native American Studies is holding its 50th anniversary alumni reunion and 20th anniversary graduate program reunion Nov. 8 and 9 at the UC Davis Conference Center; the African and African American Studies Department will be having a 50th anniversary commemoration “Visioning 50 Years Forward” on Nov. 15 at the Student Community Center and the Asian American Studies’ “The Field and Its Future Symposium” will be held on Nov. 16 in California Hall.
The culminating celebration of all the departments will be held in May 2020. More information can be found on each department’s website.
Written by: Nahima Shaffer — firstname.lastname@example.org