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Ethnic Studies: Its legacy, immediacy and future

October 5, 2009 -- This month the College of Ethnic Studies celebrates its 40th anniversary and the birth of ethnic studies as an academic discipline. From Oct. 7 to 10, the College will host an international conference, "Ethnic Studies 40 Years Later: Race, Resistance and Relevance." On the eve of this important event Kenneth Monteiro, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies, addressed some questions on the influence, accomplishments and future of the college and the field of study.

Photo of Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies Kenneth P. Monteiro

Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies Kenneth P. Monteiro

Q: What is Ethnic Studies?
Kenneth P. Monteiro: First, it is a critical resistance to approaches to knowledge, which oppress others. It is also an approach to the range of knowledge, which respects traditions of all people and demands that academies include the literature, philosophies, social sciences, histories, sciences and other studies of people who were previously not traditionally represented in the American academia. Forty years ago there were virtually no courses in Black, Asian, Raza or Native American literature, art, culture and politics, and what was taught about us was pejorative.
Q: How is SF State unique? 
KM: We have the distinction of being the only multi-ethnic, multi-disciplinary college in the country. We have been engaged in both inter-cultural and ethnic specific scholarship longer than most and have one of the largest cohorts of experts in the field of ethnic studies. The majority of universities have smaller parts of ethnic studies -- like a set of separate courses or programs about one or two ethnic groups. Few have woven together the range of ethnic academic disciplines necessary for the kind of serious dialogue that is needed about race, culture and power.
The value of a college such as ours is that it has the potential to provide the lens through which new approaches to learning will emerge. In addition to offering a full range of courses in all areas of ethnic studies, we offer courses that examine the borders between ethnicities, like Health in American Ethnic Communities, between ethnicity and other human experiences, such as Coloring Queer, between ethnicity and other pressing social justice issues, AIDS and People of Color. We also continue to expand the range of ethnicities we address, for example Arab-American History, Community and Activism.
Q: Why is ethnic studies as important as the three R's or the ABCs?
KM: Higher education should prepare us to engage the entire range of humanity. It should not simply serve the world’s power elite. The world hasn’t become more diverse; we have all always been here.  It is just that more of us are being able to demand an audible voice on the world’s power stage. 
Q: What areas of study are currently offered by the College of Ethnic Studies? 
KM: The College of Ethnic Studies includes departments of Africana, American Indian, Asian American and Raza Studies, and a program in Race and Resistance Studies. We study the range of these cultures in America and in their Diasporas (how these people came to leave their homelands). Since it was founded, the College has also become home to the Cesar Chavez Institute for community-based participatory research and is soon to add a new program in Arab Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas.
Q:  What is the extent of the College's influence?
KM: People here developed a significant portion of the original ethnic studies curriculum, which we've openly shared with many other universities. In addition, community service learning was an integral part of ethnic studies curricula here and elsewhere from the start.  Students must apply their work to the issues of the relevant communities so that their knowledge will be relevant to answering to the needs of the community.
The College of Ethnic Studies became a model for other programs. Our work has informed the approaches to studying other disciplines like women or gender studies, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual studies, and disability studies. The founding of the College at SF State was one of the flashpoints for ethnic studies programs all over the country, sparking and inspiring those in other areas. 
Q: What can ethnic studies help us understand about the world today?
KM: When I was in school, academic discussions of race were rare, or when they occurred they were harmful. My discussions on the topic were with others in my community, not my teachers. I believe that the discipline of ethnic studies provides a way to address racial issues in a safe and productive manner.
The level of racial chatter, including the media that surrounded the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, or the outburst of “You lie!” by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, have been missed opportunities for authentic discussions about race and power in America. These tangential discussions about race will continue to permeate the political airwaves until the mass media turns to more experts in the field, who can provide philosophical, theoretical and practical discourse aimed at framing the evolving conversations about race, culture and power in the 21st century. The College of Ethnic Studies at SF State stands in the forefront of these discussions, and this conference has attracted hundreds of impressive colleagues from around the world.  This week’s events provide a unique opportunity for anyone seriously interested in race, ethnicity and culture.
Q: What careers do SF State ethnic studies majors pursue?
KM: The same careers that all liberal arts students pursue. Many graduates seek public education careers, some positions in the private sector. Others go into health education or community activism. Some go on to doctoral degrees, which allow them to teach at the college level. We are already seeing second-generation educators -- the sons and daughters of educators who were studying in the College of Ethnic Studies when it was new. Many of our graduates also go on to law and medical careers that will allow them the opportunity to positively impact the legal protections and health of their communities.
Q: How has the teaching of ethnic studies affected your own life? 
KM: I benefited from the ethnic studies movement directly. I grew up in an immigrant community of Cape Verdean Americans -- West Africans in the U.S. -- and my parents and most everyone else of their generation did not attend college. In fact, high school degrees were dear, as many of my parents’ generation, especially women, had not been afforded that opportunity. It was common for young men to enlist in the armed forces or become laborers in local businesses, like construction or picking and processing cranberries. If I had been born 10 years earlier and civil rights advances had not been made, these would have been my most likely options as well -- honorable work, but few choices. If it were not for what happened at SF State in 1968 and 1969 and other universities around the country, I, and millions like me, would have never even considered college. Moreover, if we had considered college, it would not have considered us.
Q: The conference is open to the campus community.  What do you expect to be the highlights?
KM: Stimulating and reasoned, yet difficult conversations. Attendees will engage in dialogue around the evolution of race, cultural and global socio-economic politics. I believe we will have an intellectually honest discourse about the impact and evolution of politics of ethnicity, race and culture in the nation and across the globe in ways that will assist participants in better engaging society’s major issues. This is a fitting commemoration of the College’s 40 years of multi-ethnic scholarship and social justice advocacy. The voices that will be heard will be those of alumni, faculty, students and ethnic scholars from seven countries around the world.

The conference is free to students and $40 for the public. For a full schedule of presenters and sessions, visit http://www.sfsu.edu/~ethnicst/

Kenneth P. Monteiro joined the Psychology faculty at SF State in 1987 and became chair of that department in 1994. He became dean of the College of Ethnic Studies in 2006. He earned an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a doctoral degree in experimental human psychology from Stanford University.

-- Denize Springer


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