A project of love: Ethnic studies and the legacy of the Third World Liberation Front

Ethnic Studies Library/Courtesy

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“The memory of things cannot be erased.” 

This quote is scribbled in the margins of my notes on a lecture in Pablo Gonzalez’s Chicano 50 class. For me, these words echoed particularly true given the conversations I had been having about ethnic studies over the past couple of weeks. The lecture was on “the politics of trauma and memory,” a topic which feels timely in a number of ways. Traumatic events find a way to be remembered, to shape the present in subtle or overt ways, and ethnic studies itself emerged from one such event 50 years ago. The story of the Third World Liberation Front, or TWLF, student strikes at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley have been passed down reverently through generations of ethnic studies students, influencing future student activists and inspiring actions over the decades.

When I first thought about writing this piece, I conceptualized it as more of a report on the state of ethnic studies after 50 years. The more I researched, the more I realized it would be impossible for me to take a distanced, impersonal approach to writing this. There is trauma and struggle embedded in the history of ethnic studies, and that trauma and struggle, I believe, influences all of us at UC Berkeley, whether we are in the ethnic studies department or not. The past reaches far into the present, and we all feel its effects.

The Third World Liberation Front

 To understand ethnic studies today, we have to travel back to 1968 and the beginning of the original TWLF. 1968 and 1969, the years of the original TWLF strike, were both extremely charged in global and international politics. It was the Vietnam era, the height of Black Panther Party organizing, amid the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and young people around the world were creating and joining movements for the liberation of colonized peoples. At UC Berkeley, students of color were frustrated that their histories were not included in classes and felt the curriculum they were taught was irrelevant to the needs of their communities. “It’s very important to acknowledge us as a people with a culture and not to just leave us without any kind of acknowledgement,” said LaNada War Jack, one of the original members of the TWLF. “To keep us without any recognition or acknowledgement is to say that we don’t exist, and we do.” War Jack was also a leader in Native American student activism and one of the first Native American students accepted to UC Berkeley.

At UC Berkeley, students of color were frustrated that their histories were not included in classes and felt the curriculum they were taught was irrelevant to the needs of their communities.

As a result of these concerns, the UC Berkeley Afro-American Student Union proposed creating a Black studies program, a plan that was initially approved by the campus. Latinx and Asian American students expressed a desire for similar programs and formed the TWLF, advocating as a coalition for the creation of a “Third World College.” When the university refused to accept the students’ demands, the strike began.

Just hearing the facts of the strike — that the administration stood by while then-governor Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard on peacefully protesting students and then those students were arrested, some even hospitalized in cases of excessive force — is shocking to most. But it’s even more chilling to see photos of students running through a thick fog of tear gas on Sproul Plaza, a campus landmark most students walk on every day. Reflecting on some of these photos and experiences, Sine Hwang Jensen, a comparative ethnic studies librarian, said they didn’t realize the full scope of “how repressive and violent the strike was” until looking through the wealth of archives at the Ethnic Studies Library. Jensen was one of the curators of the “Whose University?” exhibit featured in Doe Memorial Library this year and searched through old TWLF materials for photos, documents and other information to include. “When you look at the pictures, the way that people are being carried off, the police brutality is very striking, you just notice that right away,” they said.

When I asked War Jack about encountering this level of violence as a student, I was surprised at her response. “For my part, it wasn’t that shocking or surprising, because I came from a reservation, and we weren’t being treated that well as it was,” she said. “We already had our prior experiences with the law and with the police,” she continued. “My great-grandfather went through the ultimate violence and the genocide, so it just wasn’t that shocking or surprising that it would happen.” Instead, she stressed, the true difficulty rested in maintaining a nonviolent protest even while the National Guard was being called in and helicopters dropped tear gas on campus. “And unfortunately, some of us got really hurt,” she added, referencing the severe beating of a fellow student protester Ysidro Macias by police.

Ethnic Studies Library/Courtesy

The strike at UC Berkeley lasted from January to March of 1969, finally ending with the Academic Senate voting 550-4 for the instatement of a temporary ethnic studies department to allow for the eventual establishment of a Third World College. This is by no means a full account of the strike or even a fraction of the larger story of what went on during the strike. This is just, as Gonzalez would say, “the scream.” The moment of students saying “Ya basta. Enough” and resisting, the moment of rupture that reverberates into the present.

The Third World College

UC Berkeley still does not have a Third World College. The university has yet to make good on its promise for an eventual separate college for ethnic studies, instead gradually shrinking the fledgling programs until they accepted a compromise: African American studies became its own department in the College of Letters and Science with the rest of ethnic studies following soon after.

Initially, though, students believed they were laying the foundations for the Third World College they had struggled for. Harvey Dong, one of the original TWLF strikers and now a lecturer at UC Berkeley, described the student organizing that went into developing courses for the newly won interim department. “Students actually had to learn on the fly, because there weren’t professors to teach the classes,” he said. “Many of the students had to learn and become instructors themselves.”

Speaking on the records of these early ethnic studies classes, Jensen said, “In the beginning, there was much more fluidity between classes and activism.” As an example, they referenced Asian American and Asian diaspora studies students being shuttled to a class space in the Asian Pacific American Community Center to volunteer with elders at the adjacent International Hotel. Later, those students would organize a protest when the elders were threatened with eviction. Other early ethnic studies students, like War Jack, went directly from the TWLF to staging other independent protests.

Ethnic studies continued to struggle over the years. After major budget and personnel cuts, there was a second major strike in 1999. The protest culminated in five students carrying out a hunger strike outside the chancellor’s office. Public opinion turned against campus administration when it had the students arrested, pressuring UC Berkeley into negotiating with students. The resolution of the strike gained additional faculty positions for ethnic studies and saw the creation of the Multicultural Community Center and the UC Berkeley Center for Race and Gender.

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50 Years of ethnic studies

Ethnic studies at UC Berkeley now looks very different from those early classes. Although there are several ethnic studies DeCal classes taught by students, the department as a whole is far removed from the days of students working to craft course curriculum or organizers coming in from the community to teach classes.

There’s a tension within the department. Although some people would probably paint it as a scism, with two opposing views on what ethnic studies should be, there’s more subtlety to it than that. Trust has been broken. It was broken 50 years ago when UC Berkeley allowed the National Guard to be called on its own students, it was broken in the decades after that when a Third World College was never established, it was broken in 1999 when students on a hunger strike were brutally arrested in the dead of night.

Trust has been broken time and time again, and some of those moments, the moments of resistance and extreme repression, have been moments of trauma that left behind scars. Those moments are not ones you will encounter on campus tours, they are not moments UC Berkeley will describe in its newsletters, they are not moments that will be celebrated with dedicated steps or a café. Still, the memory of these things finds its way into the present. It’s from this memory, this history that ethnic studies students inherit, that the tension within the department stems. “How do you maintain integrity?” Jensen asked, reflecting on the questions the ethnic studies department faces within UC Berkeley, “What does that even mean?”

It’s from this memory, this history that ethnic studies students inherit, that the tension within the department stems.

“I think we’re used to being paranoid,” said Juana María Rodríguez, the chair of the department. “We’re used to thinking institutions are out for us.” Rodríguez also holds an ethnic studies doctorate from UC Berkeley. Despite a history of institutions being less than supportive of ethnic studies, though, Rodríguez remains “committed to hope,” saying she believes that while ethnic studies may still struggle for funding like any other department, the department no longer has to struggle to gain respect and recognition for the scholarship it produces.

But the Third World College at UC Berkeley still doesn’t exist, and to some that creates an identity crisis for a department originally created in opposition to the traditional university. “We haven’t reached our full potential,” said Geremy Lowe, a junior transfer and ethnic studies major. A Third World College, he argued, would open up the interdisciplinary possibilities of ethnic studies and help students reach outside of their comfort zones to build cross-community coalitions and understanding. With ethnic studies divided into small separate majors, he said, “You become complacent, and you don’t want to venture out.”

Although the strike didn’t result in the Third World College he demanded, Dong remains optimistic about the role ethnic studies has to play and the potential for the future of ethnic studies. Speaking about the immediate future, Dong mentioned the “Protect Mauna Kea Rally” against the building of a telescope on Mauna Kea as an example of the relevance of ethnic studies, saying, “There’s so many struggles that are happening at many different levels that it’s important for ethnic studies to have some kind of a role in terms of studying, analyzing, providing the tools for students to take part in changing and improving the world.” Ultimately, though, he said, “It’s up to the next generation as far as where they want to take it, how they would like to establish and develop ethnic studies.”

Angela Muñoz, a Chicano studies major who was a part of the still-developing ethnic studies program at Chabot College before transferring to UC Berkeley, has thought a lot about what ethnic studies should look like. While she feels that ethnic studies is no longer as connected to its roots in community engagement and organizing, she realizes that it will take a lot of support and resources to make community-based classrooms and similar programs possible. For now, ethnic studies provides a space for students to think critically about the world. “Ethnic studies is the way we live,” she said. “It’s having that mindset and looking at the world from a different point of view where you take into account a bunch of different aspects.”

I heard possibly the most critical viewpoint on ethnic studies that I have encountered last year at a 50th anniversary panel of TWLF strikers. Each striker held a sheet of paper and, at one point during the panel, took a turn reading off lines of new demands to the campus, a continuation of their initial five demands 50 years ago. Stating that “Berkeley has failed to provide full diversity on campus with respect to the hiring of faculty of color and student representation” and describing ethnic studies at UC Berkeley as “in a very weak state.” The demands included a renewed call for the establishment of a Third World College and a commitment to diversity on campus.

The heart project of ethnic studies

To some people within ethnic studies, the evolution of the department into one more focused on academic research is grounds for caution, signaling an institutionalization of a department that was created to challenge the traditional western university. To others, ethnic studies is just changing with the times, adapting to a world where the problems marginalized people of color face are often less overt and working from within systems of power, which is a necessary strategy. Most people within the ethnic studies department at UC Berkeley, I think, fall between these two viewpoints.

I believe that the ethnic studies department does necessary work. As a comparative ethnic studies major, I care deeply about the project of ethnic studies and the sacrifices that students throughout the years have made to fight for the program and keep it alive. And it should be alive — as Dong said, ethnic studies is what students make of it.

As a comparative ethnic studies major, I care deeply about the project of ethnic studies and the sacrifices that students throughout the years have made to fight for the program and keep it alive.

I am still cautious, though. One quote scrawled at the bottom of my notes from last year came from a guest lecture by Kim Tran, who holds a doctorate in African American and ethnic studies from UC Berkeley, “Guard your heart project of ethnic studies, and hold it close, but don’t expect too much from this place.” While it may be pessimistic, this statement sums up a lot of the more cautious feelings in the department.

 Even with misgivings about whether to trust the institution that houses ethnic studies, the study itself is a project of love, and one that will continue to exist as long as there are students who need it. If you’ve ever taken an ethnic studies class, an African American studies class or an American cultures class, or if you’ve ever hung out in the Multicultural Community Center or the Ethnic Studies Library to study, you’ve felt the influence of the Third World Liberation Front and the project of ethnic studies. 

I asked Dong what he thought the ultimate goal of ethnic studies should be. He responded, “I think it should help provide students with the tools to understand and change the world.”

The struggle for the department is an often brushed-over part of UC Berkeley’s history, but one that truly made the campus a better place and is close to many people’s hearts. The ethnic studies department today is not the Third World College the TWLF envisioned, but it is still carrying on the legacy of that struggle with each student who uses the knowledge they gain to challenge and seek to improve the world around them.

Contact Saya Abney at [email protected].