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A Vibrant, Living History: Honoring the Legacy of 50 Years of Ethnic Studies at Mills

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On October 11, 2019, the Ethnic Studies Department celebrated its 50th anniversary with a student-programmed evening of music, dance, and discussion at Lisser Hall. Here, Assistant Adjunct Professor Natalee Kehaulani Bauer ’97, MA ’07, and former adjunct professor and Women’s Leadership Institute director Daphne Muse share their reflections:

Across the Bay Area in 1968, students of color and their white allies fought to transform a system of higher education that erased the voices and histories of communities of color. Although the story of resistance at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State is now well known, the struggle for ethnic studies at Mills College has been overshadowed. Mills was the first independent college to establish an ethnic studies program and did so in 1969, the year the discipline was founded.

While most program histories focus on the local Third World Liberation Front strikes, students at Mills—led by the Black Student Union—staged an equally powerful 150-student sit-in at then-president Robert Wert’s office. Students were supported and mentored by women from the Black Panther Party, including Kathleen Cleaver, to create a list of struggles faced by students of color and their demands for remediation. Out of this fight, the Ethnic Studies Program at Mills College was born just six months later (in October 1969). The program subsequently grew into a department with a rigorous program of study specializing in intersectionality, community engagement, and research justice.

In 2017, recognizing the shared theoretical and political commitments to intersectional and transnational analysis across Ethnic Studies, Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, and Queer Studies, all three programs were combined into a new Department of Race, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. This new structure brought together an extraordinary cadre of activist scholars into a dynamic intellectual community and expanded course offerings available to students. Each program retained its own identity and majors while also enjoying the affiliation with a wider community of learning and social change.

The 50th-anniversary celebration held in October was the culmination of a semester’s worth of student work to uncover and make public our history and to position Mills rightfully within that historical struggle for ethnic studies in the Bay. Students studied social movements around the world; they then spent countless hours in the archives at Mills and the Oakland Public Library, interviewing faculty past and present, and hearing firsthand accounts of the movement from members of the Alumnae of Color Committee, part of the Alumnae Association of Mills College. The result of their hard work was an amazing evening highlighting the program’s past, present, and future—including a panel exploring ethnic studies across nonacademic sites of learning and taught to students as young as preschoolers—and a website including an interactive timeline of the history of the Mills program.

I am honored to be a part of this program and its rich and powerful history, and am excited to a part of the future imagined by students and faculty over the past 50 years. I’d like to thank my students in ETHS 111 for their work in making this history public, the students who in 1969 took up space and demanded to be heard and valued, and all of the other students and faculty who built ethnic studies at Mills into what it is today—a living, vibrant discipline. –N. Bauer

Congratulations on 50 years of ethnic studies at Mills College. Many nationally and world-renowned scholars, artists, writers, and educators forged heady battles related to diversity, pedagogy, and curricula as they worked diligently in a highly charged racial climate to create the program we know today. Those who first chaired Ethnic Studies fought relentlessly for courses to be approved by deans and faculty who often did not have the empirical knowledge of the disciplines. Thank you to the pioneering scholars, artists, and educators who established and developed the program— especially former heads Herman Blake, Joyce King, Francille Wilson, Clyde Taylor, Robert Allen, Linda Goodrich, Melinda Micco, Vivian Chin, and Déborah Berman Santana, and current program head Chinyere Oparah. –D. Muse