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'Fight for it': Campus ethnic studies department traces roots in student activism, liberation

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The ethnic studies department can trace its roots back to student activism on campus decades prior.


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APRIL 14, 2023

Tucked away just east of Sather Tower sits Stephens Hall, a space that is home to the ethnic studies department and the departmental library, both of which play an integral part in UC Berkeley’s history of civil disobedience. 

The Third World Liberation Front, formally established in 1969, came at the cusp of the tumultuous 1960s. While the movement grew from the political upheaval characteristic of the decade, its difference lay in underlying ideas of self-determination and student activism from underrepresented ethnic groups on campus. 

“You could say that the Free Speech movement paved the way for this idea of speaking out, and the Third World movement was of third world people of color seeking self-determination,” said Harvey Dong, campus ethnic studies lecturer who teaches Asian American and diaspora studies. “You had the main speakers being third-world people — African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos … that was a big difference, in terms of leadership.” 

Dong attributed the roots of the liberation movement to African American activism already brewing on campus and beyond, taking particular inspiration from the “Black power” phase of the national Civil Rights Movement. 

As noted by the Berkeley Revolution, a digital archive of the East Bay’s history during the 1960s and 1970s, the Afro-American Student Union had first advocated for a Black Studies program in 1968 with the goals of developing it into its own department. 

Other ethnic groups on campus were also organizing into coalitions and advocating for community-specific issues, Dong added. The Mexican American Student Confederation was rallying in support for the United Farm Workers movement, and prominent Native American leaders such as LaNada War Jack were “instrumental” in pulling together Native American students on campus. 

Dong himself joined the Asian American Political Alliance in 1969. He cited his own experience growing up as a second generation Chinese American in California and the racism and exclusion he faced as influencing his decision to be involved with the liberation movement coming onto campus. 

“So you have a confluence of these things happening in the world (and) my own personal life experience, and then the fact that there was a momentum taking place for people of color to find out about their own history and culture, not just for self knowledge, but for changing the world,” Dong said. 

Lillian Castillo-Speed, head and Chicano studies librarian for the ethnic studies library, stated that this very need for collective momentum spurred the different groups to come together and form the Third World Liberation Front as a coalition with the common goal to communicate their demands to campus, the prominent one being the establishment of a Third World College within the university. 

Establishing a separate college, Castillo-Speed said, would allow for more autonomy in hiring faculty, designing courses and allocating funds. 

“There was a strike, they tried to shut down the university, and there was tear gas, there were people arrested and people injured. It was a big mess for the administrators and for the administration,” Castillo-Speed said. “And eventually, they wanted to come to the table and say, let’s figure this out, let’s come to a compromise.” 

The resulting negotiation was not a college, but the ethnic studies department, which contained four programs: African American, Asian American, Chicano and Native American studies. 

A key part of this new department was the establishment of “reading rooms.” According to Castillo-Speed, these rooms were developed by students to gather and formally collect works that fit into this new idea of ethnic studies. 

“There weren’t books about ethnic studies, there wasn’t a scholarship, there was no such thing as ethnic studies at the time,” Castillo-Speed said. “So (students) found a lot of newspapers about what was going on around the world and in the country, other political movements … they found magazines, newspapers, posters, flyers, and artwork.”

Over time, the reading rooms grew; originally run by students, library staff were hired in the 1970s. Shelves and storage spaces were added to create, as Castillo-Speed called it, “little libraries.” 

In 1974, the African American studies program split from the ethnic studies department and established its own department, with works within its reading room going separate ways than the other three programs. 

Castillo-Speed joined the Chicano studies reading room in 1981, and in 1997, the three remaining rooms merged to form the ethnic studies library due to resource and space constraints.

The library now occupies the first floor of Stephens Hall and is separated into four collections, three hailing from the original Asian American, Native American and Chicano studies programs, and a new comparative ethnic studies collection established soon after the merge. 

“Comparative ethnic studies is a field that focuses on looking at different ethnic communities and drawing parallels and comparisons between them,” said Sine Hwang Jensen, Asian American and comparative ethnic studies librarian. “As far as the library collection, usually what we include there is like things about multiracial coalitions and the organizing of social movements (and) any kind of core books that might lend itself to understanding racial dynamics in the United States.” 

Castillo-Speed added that the field sprang up as a “practical solution” for overlap in content was common to all of the collections and works that may not fall into either. 

Jensen did admit, however, that the lines between what falls into specific ethnic collections and that of comparative ethnic studies are “blurry.” They drew this ambiguity back towards the definition of terms like “Asian American” and how such terms tie to ideas of collective identity and representation. 

“Having a shared identity and a common cause, that was the attempt in terms of creating the term Asian American, to say that we each have our unique experience, but we need to come together because we’re all kind of victims of, in their perspective, capitalism and imperialism,” Jensen said. “Today, that has changed.” 

They cited the importance of remembering the “diaspora” and the different experiences and challenges faced by various groups of people within the broad Asian American umbrella. Part of their work thus includes reaching out to these community members and educating themselves. 

Yet, ideas of collective identity are important, they noted. After all, it is the “collective” that formed the Third World Liberation front to establish the department itself, and ameliorated the notion of “third world,” an often negative term of exclusion, into an identity. 

“Part of it is because internationally, all of these countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America were fighting for decolonization and it was incredibly inspiring to the people here,” Jensen said. “And so they started to make connections between their neighborhoods. So that’s why the ‘third world’ sort of inspired them so much because they felt like they were part of an international struggle.” 

Dong noted how comparative ethnic studies also drew on this idea of commonality, while also studying intersectionalities such as class and socioeconomic make up; many classes in Asian American studies play along these nuances, including comparative and “ethnic specific” classes. 

Its addition to the department is one of many changes Dong has seen in his long career in ethnic studies, during which he has observed generations of students and activists come and go. 

“The power and strength of ethnic studies has always been in the students, among the students themselves,” Dong said. “We would not have been able to establish ethnic studies in the beginning if we were just passive… and wished that the university would give us a curriculum. We definitely had to fight for it.”

Contact Ananya Rupanagunta at 


APRIL 14, 2023