Faculty, staff, students, and members of the community celebrated the 30th anniversary of UW’s Department of American Ethnic Studies during an open house on October 12, 2015. • Courtesy Photos
Faculty, staff, students, and members of the community celebrated the 30th anniversary of UW’s Department of American Ethnic Studies during an open house on October 12, 2015. • Courtesy Photos

The story is passed down from student to student. It has become more than just our history; it has become a symbol of who we are. Even when we had nothing to do with it the event that gave birth to the start of our department, because we weren’t yet alive, our hearts swell to bursting with pride, and we feel a sense of responsibility to continue the work of those before us. The event, our story, our legacy, is the 1968 incident in which BSU members scaled the Administration Building (Gerberding Hall) and demanded that they have faculty and educational representation in the University of Washington, amongst other, equally important, requests. 18 years later, AES became a department.

According to an interview with Professor Steven Sumida of the AES department, having a department is of monumental importance because it allows faculty members to be hired, receive rank and, tenure. Additionally, it allows the department to make judgments on what is most important to teach and research. It’s faculty members do not have to seek permission from administrators who may not understand the importance and validity of Ethnic Studies, who may even want to remove such programs from their schools. We see these attacks against Ethnic Studies happening in Texas and Arizona. We hear rumblings and rumors of this here, in our own University of Washington, as individuals suggest we come under the jurisdiction of other departments, or drop the word Ethnic from our title, or withhold support for the program and/or the graduate program that was promised 30 years ago which amounts to a war of attrition.

Faculty members understand the continued relevance for departments like American Ethnic Studies. Professor Terry A. Scott responded that she knows AES is still relevant because students come to her at the end of every quarter and tell her “they had no idea” that living conditions for African Americans during Jim Crow were so terrible. These students report that with this newfound knowledge they are better able to understand the source of inequalities today, and the importance of movements that address these inequalities. Professor Connie So recalled her own experiences with connecting to her Asian American heritage in an AES class, and the continued need for such classes because of the confidence and empowerment they give to students. Professor So stated that communities of color feel pressure to give up their cultural identity from a society, which calls itself open-minded. AES empowers students to resist this pressure and to have pride in themselves.

Professors in AES all understand the importance of keeping AES alive, and cite different reasons for its continued relevance today. Together these reasons form a system of resistance and oppression towards AES. However, these AES professors also have hope for the future, and all shared in their desire for the continuation or expansion of the program. Some, like Professor Rick Bonus, wishes to see the department flourish “despite resistance from the powers that be.”

Professor Erasmo Gamboa, would also like to see a growth of the program, both for undergraduates and graduates, and more interdisciplinary course offerings that allowed a greater number of students from different focuses to learn about American Ethnic Studies. He also wishes for continued stability in the department. The common understanding between faculty members of the importance of AES, the commitment to the community, and the dedication to resistance against oppression is what has bound AES together even when, as Professor Gamboa stated, many believed in the beginning that it would fail. They didn’t believe that the program was academic in nature. Perhaps they still do not, and this is a reason for resistance to the graduate program.

Our commitment to the community might make us seem un-academic, but it is our greatest strength. It allows us to apply our understanding to the real world. It gives us the strength to oppose the resistance we face. It gives us a responsibility to the future. And it gave us our beginnings. Professor Sumida said it best when he told me that those that worked to create this program were not the first, but had built their work on the work of activists who came before them. Our department was not just founded by the actions of BSU in 1968, but also by the actions of Delores Huerta, and Ida B Wells, and Crazy Horse, and Wong Chin Foo, and by those that came before them.

The department’s recognition of the contributions from the community in the past and dedication to return that support back to community is one of the reasons our professors are such great mentors and educators to their students. Among their achievements, they cite the ones where they helped students make connections back to the community as the ones they were most proud of. As AES moves past its 30th anniversary, we hope, along with our instructors, that the program will grow with us; that as we seek graduate degrees, AES will be there to provide them to us. We hope that as older professor retire (even though we will miss them and wish they would never leave), new ones that are just as passionate and knowledgeable will be there to fill the need. We hope that new professors will be able to relate to us like our old ones did, understanding the ableism, classism, racism, sexism and all other forms of oppression we face because they faced these things too (although above this we wish these forms of oppressions would be finally eradicated). We know these things to be fair and right to ask for, and so we hope that we may be granted these things without resistance. If not, we can still climb walls.

For more opinions, click here

Previous articleOpinion: The Elephant is still in the Room—Race and the Backlash Against Ethnic Studies
Next articleOpinion: What are we Asian Americans to do in the heated climate of China-bashing?