The Mills College ethnic studies department has reached its 50th anniversary, and on Oct. 11 celebrated this significant milestone. The program is dedicated to social justice, community advocacy and exploring the intersectionality of race, class and gender.
The department’s origins date back to February of 1969, when the Black Student Union (BSU) published, in the then student-run newspaper, a letter first sent to then-President Robert Joseph Wert. The letter communicated the financial struggles Black students at Mills face, the low number of Black professors and included a list of remedial demands.
Less than 30 days later, the BSU led 150 students through a sit-in protest in Wert’s office. The student-organized rally included a speech by Black Panther Party (BPP) member, Kathleen Cleaver, demanding an ethnic studies program. These events led Mills College to develop the curriculum and launch an official ethnic studies department in October of that year.
The ethnic studies department celebrated the anniversary of this historic occasion in Lisser Hall. Students, faculty, and their friends and families gathered before the main events to enjoy some food and dance to a set by DJ Giant.
The evening’s highlights included speeches from ethnic studies professors, faculty and students, and performances sharing cultural traditions. Ericka Huggins, a noted human rights activist and former Black Panther leader, delivered the highly anticipated keynote address.
Towards the end of the evening, Dr. Chinyere Oparah, Mills provost and dean of faculty, moderated a panel discussion with other ethnic studies educators.
“Why ethnic studies? Why now?” Oparah asked the panel and audience.
On the Creekside Terrace, Lizbeth Tapia and Alex Garcia began the Call to Gathering with dance and Aztec Quiquizoani, meaning the musician who plays the conch.
As attendees gathered in the newly renovated Holland Theater, where the celebration continued with a performance by the Wakan Wiya (Sacred Woman) Two Spirit community drum, a Native American drum founded and led by Indigenous women in the Bay Area.
Mills Professor of Ethnic Studies Patricia St. Onge stood at the podium and began the Words of Gathering. Her “Words Before All Else” were spoken in Mohawk, an Iroquoian language, and English. She gave words of solidarity, peace and gratitude for the “gifts from the Earth.”
She then introduced Kaime-lei Fujiwara-Greyhorse, a Stanford University graduate, and Kai’ilihiwa Greig, a second-year Mills student, to perform a traditional Kanaka Maoli chant.
Greig spoke about the environmental struggle native people are currently experiencing with the mountain Mauna Kea. TMT International Observatory proposed a project to build a thirty-meter telescope on the mountain, that is sacred to the Native Hawaiians. Fujiwara-Greyhorse and Greig are both from the island of Maui, Hawaii.
“If they were to succeed it would break the water basin which would ruin the water supply for that entire island and it is also where we as Native Hawaiians believe our Gods dwell,” Greig said. “It is the place where they connect with us, where they walk with us and where they guide us… That’s a place that’s very special and sacred to us.”
The students then shared Ai ka mumu, a protocol chant done three times a day on Mauna Kea and “No kea ke Kupuna” a chant about the deities that live in the mountain.
Oparah followed with Words of Welcome. She gave a history of the birth of ethnic studies and explained how the Black students at Mills were encouraged by the solidarity of the Third World Liberation Front, Black Student Union, the Latin American student organization, the Filipino American Collegiate Endeavor and others. Their actions led the protests that occurred at San Francisco State University in 1968.
“50 years ago, Black students here at Mills came together to found the Black Student Union and to demand an end to the invisibility of our struggles and our lives in the curriculum and in the faculty,” Oparah said. “They were inspired by those students who successfully shut down San Francisco State and forced the creation of the first college of Ethnic Studies in the nation.”
She gave a moment of thanks to all the people in the audience who were the first Black students at Mills, those who were apart of the start of the Black Student Union and those who helped create the ethnic studies program.
Mills President Elizabeth Hillman joined too, sharing her own welcome and expressed thankfulness to the audience and those who were not in attendance who helped educate the leaders of Mills on what they “needed to do to move towards the future.” She expressed gratitude for the current faculty and introduced Cliff Lee, who is the new associate professor of education, affiliate professor of ethnic studies and emcee of the evening.
Now at Mills for five months, Lee leads ethnic studies focused courses “to cultivate critical secondary teachers in urban schools in and around Oakland.” He recalled his first ethnic studies class as an undergraduate where for the first time he felt his history, his life and family were seen and valued.
Ethnic studies majors feel that the courses hold great significance as they have helped shape their own ideas around American history and reflect on their own life experiences.
Mills Assistant professor of Race, Gender and Sexuality studies, Natalee Kēhualani Bauer, shared the process of planning the anniversary celebration, and that the ethnic studies faculty agreed that the students had to be involved.
“Being the community-based student-centered program that we are, we knew that students had to be at the center of the visioning. Not only to put their voices at the forefront but to create a learning opportunity for them as well,” Bauer said.
The faculty held a discussion and Bauer used the feedback to redesign “Leadership for Social Change” into a semester-long course that would give students this opportunity. The students studied several political movements and theories of social change. This course helped prepare the students to organize and plan the 50th celebration.
“In this course, students learned about the history of community organizing across the globe and the history of the ongoing fight for ethnic studies that was centered right here in the Bay. They explored what it means to be a leader, specifically outside of the traditional bounds of the image we have of the charismatic male,” Bauer said. “They studied movements like the Black Panther Party, generations of activists in Hawaii, Standing Rock, the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter and more.”
Mills Sophomore Mel Miguel and alum Socorro Montaño were two students who took the course and shared that they felt empowered by experiences in Ethnic studies classrooms, especially in Bauer’s “Leadership for Social Change” course.
Due to their experiences in learning about the struggle of communities of color, they “could only imagine” the impact of ethnic studies curriculums in communities from kindergarten to high school.
The Black Student Collective (BSC, formerly BSU) Communications Chair Alexis Coleman introduced the keynote speaker, Huggins. She is a human rights activist, poet, educator, advocate, former Black Panther leader and former political prisoner. From a young age, she sought ways to serve humanity. For instance, at age 13, she attended the March on Washington for Jobs of Freedom. When she was 18 years old, she was one of the leaders of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party.
As Huggins entered the stage from behind the curtains, the audience met her with a standing ovation. She thanked everyone for their welcome and specifically mentioned Daphne Muse, former professor and former director of the Women’s Leadership Institute program that was canceled in 2009. Huggins named Muse a trailblazer for ethnic studies at Mills.
“It is such a welcoming and inviting place… I want to thank all of the students who are here and have been and the students who will come to Mills because it is such a welcoming and inviting place for women and now, women of color,” Huggins said. “I hope that that’s true.”
Huggins expressed her appreciation for the Mills community because she has seen college campuses where students of color were not acknowledged or valued. There were BPP members who completed their education at Mills. Conveying her gratitude, she acknowledged that the land the community inhabits is native land before beginning her address.
“I want to give thanks to the land on which we stand and the land on which we live,” Huggins said. “I cannot begin anything without acknowledging that we all eat and sleep and breathe on native land.”
She went on to praise the Mills ethnic studies department as a program that “highlights transnationality, intersectionality, and community activism.”
In 1966, Huggins was one of the first 15 women to be accepted into Lincoln University, a historically Black men’s college in Pennsylvania. It was one of three historically Black colleges open during slavery. Her experience at the college taught her about the combination of race and gender. This was not the last time she would have this experience in an academic environment.
“Forty years later, at Cal State University East Bay, 2007, I was studying for a master’s degree in sociology. And I learned very quickly that due to the Eurocentric and male paradigm that is the academy, and particularly in the field of sociology, the study of women and people of color was not wanted. In fact, it was dismissed,” Huggins said.
She discussed the origins of the Eurocentric focused American history and how the economy was built on the enslavement of Black people. History created a structure for racism and sexism in the country. Huggins believes that for this reason, ethnic studies is important not only in college but in grade school, especially elementary.
“It is a fallacy that they are too young for something,” she said.
Infants as young as two years old can start to recognize race and use it to understand people’s behaviors.
Huggins mentioned that in September, children at Chabot elementary found a noose on school grounds, an incident identical to one a couple of weeks earlier. She connected this occurrence to emphasize the significance of ethnic studies because of the current political climate and the questioning of the identities and intelligence of women of color.
“Ethnic studies is not the domain of one or two leaders,” Huggins said. “The sapling ethnic studies tree sprouted to include Chicano studies, Latin American studies, Black studies, and later African diaspora studies, Asian-Pacific Rim studies, South Asian studies, Afro-Brit studies, Afro Brazilian studies, and on and on and on. It’s endless.”
The panel that followed Huggins’ address and Q&A session hosted multiple ethnic studies educators moderated by Oparah. She asked them the question “Why ethnic studies?” and they answered and shared their educational backgrounds.
The panelists included Leah Aguilera, second-grade teacher at Sequoia Elementary in Oakland; Dr. Nabine Naber, professor in the gender and women’s studies program and the global Asian Studies program at the University of Illinois; Marisa Villegas-Ramirez, an ethnic studies teacher at Madison Park Academy in East Oakland; Dr. Amy Sueyoshi, dean of the college of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, and Dr. David Ga’oupu Matthew Palaita, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies, critical Pacific Islands & Oceana studies, ethnic studies, and diversity and social justice at City College of San Francisco.
Aguilera is a Mills alumna and recounted feeling seen as a native student at Mills by recently retired Professor of Ethnic Studies Melissa Micco as an undergraduate. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies and ethnic studies.
As the panel ended, Lee gave more information about the ethnic studies fund and its financial support for ethnic studies students to receive awards and carry out research for their senior thesis.
The event was also a fundraiser for the department as T-shirts were for sale in the lobby. All of the funds made during the evening would support ethnic studies students in receiving awards and scholarships.
Provost Oparah thanked attendees, students and the ethnic studies faculty as she stood with her daughter for Words of Gratitude.
To close the event, Sistahs of the Drum, an African musical group, performed a song for the audience and led everyone back into the lobby for dessert, tea and reflective conversation as the music continued.