The decline of American Ethnic Studies (AES) is a structural, institutional and personal issue. Universities must seriously address the throttling of ethnic studies and with it, the particular impact it has upon students and faculty of color. Ethnic studies as a field centers the narratives of marginalized peoples.
The STEAM Collective points to the “immensely downsized and depleted” AES department in their original Petition of Demands. Additionally, STEAMers seek justice for faculty of color who are “overburdened, underpaid and excluded from tenure-track positions.”
Currently offered at Willamette is the American Ethnic Studies minor. However, lesser known to the student body is the history of student activism surrounding AES. According to an interview with Professor Emily Drew of the Sociology Department, five years ago, students of color spearheaded efforts advocating to bolster the AES Department and to hire faculty of color.
In 2014, three women of color faculty left their professorships at Willamette, removing one-third (33 percent) of professors from the AES cohort, according to Drew. In the same year, Willamette lost six administrators of color. In response, students demanded institutional support to prioritize ethnic studies through efforts including a town hall and the creation of yellow buttons reading, “We Need Professors of Color.”
The lack of support for ethnic studies is not abnormal; just over a week ago at Yale University, 13 professors stepped down from their positions in the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ERM) program. This resulted in zero tenured faculty left in the department. The professors are protesting Yale’s inability to support the program with basic resources.
According to the Nonprofit Quarterly, Yale Professor Daniel Martinez HoSang said, “[the program] has essentially been sustained by voluntary labor for the past 20 years,” referencing professors of colors “unseen” and unpaid labor, like serving on committees and mentoring students of color.
Willamette’s Intro to American Ethnic Studies course has not been offered for three semesters. On the significance of ethnic studies, Professor Drew highlighted that “it really is to help change the society you live in.” On her Black Lives Matter class, Professor Drew noted, “I actually learn alongside you [all] as you expose and articulate the structures of the world. I’m a ‘co-learner.’ In none of my other classes am I [like] a student.”
One member of the STEAM Collective, Michelle Hicks (’19), shed light on the importance of representation. Hicks stated, “I need to be able to see myself in academia.” At times, when Hicks tries to relate her own personal experiences as a student of color to white professors, she said, “You don’t know if they’re going to get it or validate [those experiences].”
The dismantling and underfunding of ethnic studies represents a widespread lack of institutional support for students of color, who consistently need to carve out and maintain our own spaces — usually without recognition, resources and funding. Hiring faculty and staff of color for an abstract version of diversity does not get at the deeper cultural aspects that adequately retain people of color in academia. Ethnic studies is not only about a syllabus written by those who look like me; it fosters, empowers, and validates connections between students and faculty.
A quote from Fannie Lou Hamer (a Black civil rights activist) on a tactic to suppress Black voter turnout reads: “Go ahead and register, and then you’ll starve.” Relating this quote to the decline of ethnic studies, Professor Drew asked, “If you slowly strangle it [and] make it not able to eat, what’s it for?”
Perhaps ethnic studies paints an image of inclusion, but, as of right now, the University’s lack of support for the AES department fails to serve its most marginalized students.
Photo Credit : Kate Carpenter
Caption: AES focuses on cultural and sociological issues in the U.S., centering narratives of marginalized people