Ethnic Studies is 50!

Ethnic Studies is an interdisciplinary study focused on the history and current context of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity. This program explores the varied experiences of people of color in the U.S. while critiquing the systems put into place that continue to oppress and marginalize. Today, higher educational institutions across the country are celebrating 50 years of Ethnic Studies. But the road to establishing programs around addressing issues of race and ethnicity wasn’t an easy one. Student strikes, student activism, and student labor became the catalyst for the Ethnic Studies movement in higher education.

Edmund Fong, chair of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah, discusses the conception of Ethnic studies nationally and the hopes for its future at the U.

Could you give me a little background on the history of Ethnic Studies at a national level?

In the United States, the field of Ethnic Studies evolved out of the Civil Rights Movement and protests over the Vietnam War. At San Francisco State University in 1968, students with the Black Student Union, Latin American Students Organization, Asian American Political Alliance, Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, and Native American Students Union joined together into the Third World Liberation Front and launched the nation’s longest student strike in American history, calling for the creation of a “School of Ethnic Studies.” Over the course of the winter of 1968-69 and spreading to UC Berkeley as well, the student coalitions achieved the creation of the first Ethnic Studies Department nationally at UC Berkeley on March 7, 1969 followed by the nation’s first College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State on March 20, 1969. Since then, Ethnic Studies departments have continued to spread and evolve across the country providing critical insight, knowledge and scholarship into the experiences and structures of power that shape communities of color both nationally and globally.

Meanwhile, how did this play out at the U?

At the University of Utah, the first programs encompassing Black Studies, Chicano/a Studies and Native American Studies began coalescing in 1968 as separate entities. In 1973, the Ethnic Studies Program was officially established on an interdisciplinary/interdepartmental basis with separate programs for Black, Chicano/a, and Native American Studies. The Ethnic Studies Program began offering a minor degree in 1982 and in order to continue to grow and raise its visibility, the Ethnic Studies Program in 1983 was moved under the supervision of the Office for Equity and Diversity. An Asian Pacific American Studies program was added in 1989, an Ethnic Studies major degree was approved in 2011, and in 2016, the Ethnic Studies Program became the Division of Ethnic Studies now housed within the newly created School for Cultural and Social Transformation. These changes have continued to reflect student driven needs and the dedicated labor over decades of community partners, staff and faculty at the U.

While the Ethnic Studies Program and now the Division of Ethnic Studies at the U did not arise out of student protests, we honor the 50th anniversary of these landmark events that provided crucial momentum and emphatically stamped the student and community-centered spirit of Ethnic Studies as a field.

So, what’s unique about the Ethnic Studies program/department at the U today?

We are the only degree and tenure granting Ethnic Studies Division in the intermountain west, giving us a newly gained national prominence across the country. Whereas other Ethnic Studies departments and programs have faced political and institutional challenges, the Ethnic Studies Division is experiencing a renaissance, thanks to the support of University Administration and a felt commitment to serve and represent the growing diversity of the state and on-campus. Our expertise as a field lies in forging critical awareness and knowledge of racial and ethnic differences and how these have shaped the landscapes we live in. We hope to equip our students with the ability to be lifelong learners and leaders wherever group differences, including other significant intersecting vectors of difference, vitally shape the landscapes they inhabit. We hope to provide transformative experiences for our students, to enable them to be worldly and wise, so they in turn can transform the world towards a more just and equitable future. From building a sustainable environment to crafting policies that shape communities to elevating the understanding of the human condition, our majors have a unique perspective to contribute in their future endeavors.

Tell me about your theme and why it was chosen.

Our theme for our celebration is “Insurgent Knowledge: 50 years of Ethnic Studies.” We chose the theme “Insurgent Knowledge” to foreground the driving spirit of Ethnic Studies as a field. The field gained national prominence out of student driven needs and demands in response to an academia that had chronically marginalized the role of race in constructing the world we inhabit and was institutionally, not very representative of their experiences. The knowledge they called for was therefore insurgent, arising in revolt against a traditional establishment. We foreground this theme in multiple ways, not just because we still inhabit a world structured by injustice and inequity, but also because we take to heart that Ethnic Studies as a field must always critically question its own established orthodoxies, remain critically aware of its own assumptions, especially as they come to marginalize other important dynamics and experiences. We must be alive to our own insurgencies from within, that is the driving spirit we honor in our celebration.

How do you envision Ethnic Studies evolving in the future? What’s the hope?

Now that we are housed within the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, this offers Ethnic Studies new dynamic synergies that can take our students to another level of transformative experiences and intersectional knowledge. We have been blessed with a whole new generation of leading scholars, scholars who can forge connections between Ethnic Studies and some of the most pressing and vital issues of the day, from migration and human trafficking, to sustainable practices and workers movements around the world, to the unacknowledged wisdom of community experiences. Alongside our existing faculty, we all feel the wind behind our back and the inspiration to take flight in new directions. We hope to globalize our curriculum, to offer robust internships with community partners who can help our students imagine transformative praxis in new ways, and develop our own graduate program so that the Division of Ethnic Studies at the U is seen as a leading program nationally. The School itself is a wonderful cauldron of ferment and imagination and we are proud to be partners with the developing Pacific Island Studies Initiative, with Disability Studies, and with Gender Studies.

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