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The Longue Durée of Ethnic Studies: Race, Education and the Struggle for Self-Determination


In 1968, the students, faculty, staff and community members of color at San Francisco State University (SFSU) initiated the first Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) movement for Ethnic Studies in the United States. After carrying out the longest student strike our nation had seen at that time, the SFSU TWLF movement successfully created the first and only College of Ethnic Studies in the United States. This radical victory represented a culmination for historically oppressed communities in their effort to achieve liberation in one area of their lives - education. The impact of this achievement reverberated throughout higher education, beginning with neighboring Bay Area universities and spreading across the country. Not only did the SFSU TWLF lead the way and inspire other young revolutionaries and activists to fight for culturally and politically relevant curriculum; this achievement represented a moment of victory for the historically marginalized in the longue durée of American oppression and resistance.

In my dissertation I analyze the historical foundation and theoretical framework of the 1969 Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) movement, which resulted in the creation of an Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley. I examine the TWLF as a campaign for self-determination that introduced politically relevant curriculum and pedagogy at UC Berkeley. The new course context was more than just culturally relevant: the study of Native Americans, Chicano/Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans added a new study of the life, experiences, and culture of communities previously omitted from course curriculum. However, my definition of politically relevant includes the elements of culturally relevant and goes a step further, arguing that a strong radical political framework influenced every aspect of the newly formed field of ethnic studies and black studies.

My research fills a gap in the literature because I analyze the social, historical, and theoretical foundations of the TWLF at UC Berkeley rather than simply documenting the movement. Utilizing this interdisciplinary approach, I weave together literary analysis, historical archives, qualitative interviews, and social theory. Most uniquely, I conduct an analysis of the educational implications of this historic moment to engender a holistic examination of the link between education and liberation for historically oppressed communities of color. My project contributes a new perspective to the role of student activism and, importantly, the role of women of color in fomenting change in university curriculum and pedagogy.

Most notably, what distinguishes my research is the analysis of the TWLF as one of many pivotal moments in the longue durée of historically oppressed people fighting for their self-determination. The emphasis of this approach is dialectical: it is about how the history of the past informs the present. It refers to an interdisciplinary method of examining the long-term political, social, and economic structures and their impact on our social reality (Lee, 2012). Therefore, in my research I use this concept and methodology as a tool to analyze the impact of the historical system, and social construction, known as race. I focus on selected moments in United States history that were catalysts in the racial formation and oppression of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Chican@/Latin@s. Utilizing a longue durée framework, I trace the experiences of historically marginalized communities and their struggle for freedom against the systems of white supremacy and capitalism. Within this movement, cartography education was employed - first by African Americans, and later by other racialized groups - as a crucial tool with which the oppressed could achieve their liberation.

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