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Ethnic Studies programs face obstacles

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On Oct. 9, the Swarthmore Indigenous Students’ Association highlighted in their demands to the college that the school does not have an Indigenous Studies program and offers few courses in indigenous studies in general. The creation and backing of ethnic studies programs has lagged behind other departments for many years, due to structural and institutional obstacles.

Students have called for a Black Studies major since at least the 1970s, as reported in the Feb. 29,1972 issue of The Phoenix. At that time, the Student Council endorsed a Black Studies major, as proposed by the Swarthmore African-American Students’ Association (SASS), and supported SASS’ proposal to revive an Ad Hoc Committee on Black Studies to discuss the idea further. Answering faculty questions about the proposal, a member of SASS said that “Swarthmore is coming late to the black studies field.”

Another Phoenix article — this one from November 20th, 2003 — said that many students in a debate about the issue “felt that there should be a major in black or Africana studies, but opinion differed on whether or not a separate department for black/Africana studies should be created, and, if so, what the major should focus on.”

Members SASS and head of the Black Studies program Nina Johnson were not able to be reached for comment.

Black Studies is still not a major and is a interdisciplinary program rather than a department, offering honors and course minors. Latino and Latin American Studies (LALS), and Asian Studies programs are interdisciplinary programs, not departments. As detailed on the college’s website, the Black Studies program offers honors and course minors, the LALS program offers honors and course minors along with a special major, and the Asian Studies Program offers honors and course majors and minors.

Some of the college’s peer institutions have majors or departments in these or related fields, but others have only minors or concentrations. For example, while Amherst has departments and majors in Black Studies, Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Latinx and Latin American Studies, Williams has concentrations in Africana Studies and Latino Studies and a department in Asian Studies.

Provost Tom Stephenson outlined the process for creating and expanding interdisciplinary programs. He said that programs originate from faculty proposals based on the need for more curriculum in these areas. The authorization to offer a minor comes with the establishment of the program, and programs must apply to offer regular majors. Criteria to expand or establish a program include a “compelling argument” from faculty and adequate staffing to run the program.

Karen Avila ‘20, a board member of ENLACE, the college’s Latinx student group, believes that professor retention is critical for the survival of ethnic studies programs. She called Milton Machuca-Galvez, a visiting professor in Latino and Latin American Studies, “the backbone of the Latino Studies department,” and said that other students in ENLACE agreed with her.

“I still don’t understand why his position is not secured within the Latino Studies department,” Avila said. “That’s a very significant defect in sustaining the LALS department. If you can’t even keep a professor who clearly is so fundamental to the program, you’re not interested in making the program something institutionalized, because you’re not listening to students’ feedback in the first place.”

ENLACE students would also be interested in expanding the LALS program more generally, according to Avila, but she said they couldn’t do it on their own.

“I feel like we’re all on board if there was something that the institution would offer us a chance to partake in,” she said. “We can’t forefront a project; we need some support.”

Professor Edwin Mayorga, an Education professor affiliated with LALS, is offering some of that support. He has started talking with students and faculty about expanding ethnic studies and organizing the programs in a more sustainable way.

Addressing why ethnic studies programs have not become traditional departments, Stephenson said it’s largely because of “institutional culture.”

“We have chosen to look at [ethnic studies] as best taught in the context of the traditional disciplines,” Stephenson said. “I think that’s been the approach of the current faculty that we’ve had who are staffing the Black Studies interdisciplinary program; that’s not to say it won’t evolve in the future.”

As an example of how the programs could change, he cited the way the Film and Media Studies has evolved from an interdisciplinary program to a department that offers a regular major.

But Mayorga questioned the stability of interdisciplinary programs.

“The suggestion of interdisciplinary focus seems premature as a rationalization” for not having more stable programs or departments, said Mayorga. He said that the LALS program was “very fragile” and that the various ethnic studies programs often relied on visiting professors, or, in the case of indigenous studies, student-run courses. He called for more conversation across constituencies and then translating that conversation into action.

In contrast, Professor Christopher Fraga, program coordinator for LALS, said that one of the LALS program’s “greatest strengths is that it is robustly interdisciplinary,” and also pointed out the transnational perspective of the program.

“In the past three to five years, there’s been a pretty concerted effort, I think, to broaden the scope of the courses that we’re offering to include not only Latin America as a geopolitical region but also Latina/Latino/Latinx experiences in the U.S. as well,” said Fraga. He particularly mentioned Professor Désirée Díaz’s focus on Latinx studies as responding to “a felt need” of both students and faculty.

Still, Fraga acknowledged the program’s instability.

“I think it’s fair to see the program as being in a moment of transition or transformation right now,” he said, largely because the faculty associated with it were predominantly junior faculty, although many of them are on tenure track.

Although the proposals to expand interdisciplinary programs have to come from faculty, Fraga pointed out the value of student voices in influencing the expansion of LALS.

“Student interest has been very powerful in our case, and I would also just take a moment to say that student interest in other kinds of ethnic studies programs is also going to be a really important thing for our institution; I’m thinking of, for example, Asian-American Studies,” Fraga said.

That student interest is definitely present from members of ENLACE, the college’s Latinx group and the Swarthmore Asian Organization (SAO).

“What we want to do is kind of different from Asian Studies, what we want to do is Asian-American Studies,” said co-president of SAO Josie Hung.

She highlighted the dearth of Asian-American studies courses, which have been largely supported by Bakirathi Mani, a Professor of English who teaches an Asian American Literature course. According to Hung, members of SAO have talked to Professor Mani about possible barriers to expanding the courses on Asian-American studies.

“What admin like to see is numbers. That’s super hard because sometimes [Mani’s] classes would be really popular, sometimes they wouldn’t have that many people, and you have to show people that there’s interest,” said Hung. “But we’ve also talked about how there’s this cycle that’s going on: if you don’t have any courses that are offered about your identity, sometimes you don’t know you need it, or you don’t know there’s these issues that exist, or you might have other interests and it’s nice to not always have to address only your identity.”

She called for faculty members teaching courses that discuss race and ethnicity to go beyond the black/white binary and to work in other ways to support Asian-American studies.

“I think the push has to come from faculty members, because I think they’re the ones that suggest inviting or hiring other faculty members,” said Hung.

William Gardner, the program coordinator for Asian Studies, also highlighted Professor Mani’s role.

[Professor Mani] is clearly an important faculty member and has been responsible to a large extent for holding up the Asian-American part of the curriculum at Swarthmore, together with different visiting faculty over the years, but I think it’s still something where we’d like to see more permanent faculty,” said Gardner.

He also mentioned Professor Lei Ouyang Bryant and her new course on Taiko and the Asian American Experience as an important addition to the program. But Hung said there was pushback to having Bryant’s Taiko and the Asian American Experience course under Asian Studies. Regardless, Gardner emphasized the program’s support of Asian-American studies and work on the Asian diaspora.

“My sense from the faculty [in Asian Studies] is that we’re open to see how Asian American Studies and ethnic studies at the college evolve,” said Gardner, “We think it’s a really important part of what Swarthmore should be teaching, and what students should be learning.”

Similarly to Asian Studies’ attempt to include Asian-American Studies, LALS faculty members have tried to include indigenous studies, according to Fraga.

“I think particularly Professor Machuca and myself as the two anthropologists contributing to the program have tried to ensure that indigenous perspectives and indigenous history in the region are featuring in our courses,” said Fraga. “If there were dedicated positions for people doing indigenous studies, absolutely LALS would be the kind of program to write letters of support, to include courses as being cross-listed, assuming that they’re relevant. In principle I think that there’s a great opportunity for allyship there, and a great opportunity for collaboration. I’m not aware of any specific opportunities that are currently on the table, but I wouldn’t preclude that from being the case in the future.”

Fraga emphasized the limitations of these opportunities, saying that “there’s not a blank check to just bring in all of the different kinds of scholars that everyone in the college would like to have present.”

Members of SISA also could not be reached for comment.

Despite efforts from students and faculty to expand and stabilize ethnic studies programs, changes are likely to take a long time and a great deal of work.

Students examine Cuba in Black Studies

in Around Campus/Around Higher Education/News by

On Monday, March 13th, Social Sciences Associate Professor and Department Chair at the State University of New York Empire State College Nadine Fernandez spoke in McCabe Library to community members about race in Cuba. Her speech focused on the history of race among Cuban populations in relation to the family unit and relationships. In the audience were students taking Professor Nina Johnson’s Blacks in Diaspora, the directed reading course of the Black studies department this spring semester. This course also participates in the college’s Experiential Learning Program this semester as it culminates with a trip to the island. The course explores Black identity in Cuba in relation to the migration of Black people and their social movements.

Fernandez’s talk framed the construction of race in Cuban circles through the island’s history. She began with describing the island’s colonial plantation economy that imported enslaved people from Africa, led the audience through the Cuban Revolution, and concluded with commentary on the present day. The talk traced how “the sexual economy of race” in Cuba — explained in Cuba’s Racial Crucible by University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Karen Morrison as how different sexual actors; their relationships; their children, if they are present; and their histories are defined by race — influenced perceptions of race on the island. Further, it defined how race mixing, or people of different races coming together in sexual relationships and in interracial relationships, helped to form the island’s layered organization of race.

Blacks in Diaspora dissects the African experience in different societies that are historically related to the African diaspora, defined by late Nigerian historian J. F. Ade Ajayi in his Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s as “the migration of Africans to the outside world under the auspices of the trans-Atlantic and other forms of slave trade.” This semester, the course considers Cuba as a society with a stratified construction and classification of Black, brown, and white people. Coleman Powell ’20 detailed how the talk helped to parse the racial system we work within in the U.S. versus that of Cuba.

“The concepts of one Cuban race clash bitterly with my own understanding of a country [the U.S.] still reeling from the legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and other institutionalized forms of racism,” Powell said. “Cuba has a history of mixing between races and this is helpful when one is trying to understand the stratification of Cuban society [such as] the racial categories of White, Black, Indigenous peoples, and Mulatto/Mestizo.”

Part of the experiential learning course is the participation in research on the particular aspects of the Cuban experience in relation to race. Prospective Black studies major Brandon Ekweonu ’20 outlined his research intentions.

“I am very interested in studying the different ways in which different Black people around the world understand their own identities,” Ekweonu said. “I want to … gather data as part of my research on the different ways in which people understand ‘race’ and its implications if they even believe that it has implications. Again, I am most interested in who might identify themselves as Black, Black Cuban, or Afro-Cuban and how their narratives may differ from those of white Cubans.”

Powell, who is studying Afro-Cuban social movements and whether there are connections between Afro-Cubans and other people throughout the African diaspora, stated that Fernandez’s talk provided perspective into how to better approach differing encounters with race.

“The talk was helpful in helping me to think about race from the standpoint of Cubans rather than as an American,” Powell said. “I will have to be very meticulous with my word choice in interviews [for my research] because my perception of race related questions may be completely different than someone of Afro-Cuban descent.”

A key component to the course is the trip to Cuba following the Spring 2017 semester. The trip will allow students to continue research ingrained in the culture and environment they were studying. Ekweonu highlighted how the trip will provide new opportunities.

“For a while now, I’ve been particularly interested in the way race is constructed in Latin America,” Ekweonu said. “For me, [the trip] is going to be my first time ever being in Latin America, and therefore the first time I will ever have an opportunity to witness race within a Latin American context apart from experiences in Latinx communities in the United States. It is also a trip that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to make on my own.”

Powell did note that the trip, although exciting, is the product of a semester’s worth of exploration, study, and research. The trip will be contextualized by the work performed and produced by the students.

“The trip will be a culmination of this [semester’s] learning. There is a research component to this class, and before I even think about the itinerary of the trip, I must first have this research done.”

Powell then detailed his motivations for understanding the Cuban history of race.

“As a member of the African-Diaspora myself, I am deeply interested in the political implications of a group that is linked based on a shared cultural memory of slavery because the nature of our struggles for liberation have been inherently political,” he said.

Powell also made note of how the course had extensive connections to other social science fields, and he highlighted links to historical power structures in relation to the African diaspora.

“I entered the course with the expectation that I would find linkages between the diaspora and the field of international relations as well as sociology in general, and I have not been disappointed,” Powell said. “There is a clear link between imperialism, colonialism, and the scattering of the peoples of the diaspora. Imperialism and colonialism have to do with how empires were administered, and this represents some of the earliest manifestations of the field of international relations.”

In sum, Powell described his goals of connecting his academic motivations to understandings of history, contemporary politics, and intercultural relationships.

“The trip is important in fostering engaged scholarship across international borders. What I learn in the classroom will always be applicable in the real world, or at least that is my goal. The trip will also be helpful in fostering dialogue between people of the diaspora,” Powell said.

Ekweonu went on to say how the trip will provide important context in the study of Black experiences and demonstrates the importance of racial and ethnic study programs at Swarthmore and beyond.

“I’m someone who has, for a long time, been having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to pursue Black studies because of the way it seems to be undervalued by a lot of the academic community. A trip like this reassures me, first of all, that there are professors that are extremely invested in Black studies work in the world and here on campus,” he said. “Second, it reminds and reassures me that so many of my fellow students see just as much value in Black studies as I do. This goes, just as well, for areas like the Latin American and Latino studies program … It reminds me that the work I and so many others want to do is valuable. So, I think this trip means a whole lot for every single person involved.”

Powell echoed this sentiment, explaining the multifaceted nature of the program.

“It is also important to note that this is Black Studies course! The importance of Black Studies as an interdisciplinary field cannot be ignored, especially when it is contributing new and dynamic research to academia,” he said. “Black studies provides a space for discussions on identity, culture, and politics that would not be had otherwise. These discussions and the opportunities, like trip, that discussions produce are necessary if progress towards a more socially conscious state is actually what anyone really wants.”

The Blacks in Diaspora course offers students an opportunity to explore race in Cuba through research and an immersive trip. Students largely see this trip as a way to understand race in another societal context and as reason to support racial and ethnic studies on campus.

Moving resources beyond Swarthmore

in Campus Journal by

Although Professor of Sociology/Anthropology and Black Studies Nina Johnson is engaged with issues like race, equality, and justice … she does not consider herself an “activist.”

“I don’t know what that term means,” Johnson says. “I think that the way I tend to think about all aspects of my life is that, as a human being, I have time, I have talents, and I have resources, and for me, it’s about using all of those to structure my life around the things that I care about, and for me, I care about justice.”

In order to enact her commitment to justice, Johnson, who teaches “Introduction to Race and Ethnicity at Swarthmore,” supports a specific approach to teaching policy — a consideration of vulnerability.

“Part of how I think about policy has to do with how we tend to the most vulnerable,” she says. “I think, if we build out from that kind of agenda, we’ll tackle everything eventually, and part of that is making sure that we don’t believe there’s a way that human beings don’t deserve food or clothing or shelter. We have to think about the fact that we’re all a part of the human family, and we should provide for one another as best we can with all the resources we have.”

As part of her belief in providing for one another, Johnson is a supporter of policies that are redistributive.

“[Redistributive policy] is a term most people would shy away from, but I think that is the only way to kind of move this project of justice forward.”

Johnson teaches an “inside-out” exchange program course called “Urban Crime and Punishment” at the Chester State Correctional Institution, and says she does so simply because she wants to teach the “best and brightest students.”

“Some of the best and brightest people are incarcerated, and if we’re going to see education as a right, then we can’t wait for everyone to walk onto this campus — we’ve got to take education to where everyone is,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s work regarding incarceration is not limited to teaching at Chester. She is also works at a think tank at Graterford Prison, facilitates trainings for teaching inside prisons, and researches mass incarceration. Johnson does not see mass incarceration as a criminal justice or criminal legal project; instead, she views it as an ongoing issue of personhood.

“I see it as a project of equality, a continuing struggle for how we decide who deserves to live or die. It’s less housed in the criminal legal system than it is a fight for us to treat each other humanely,” she says.

When it comes to student-involvement, Johnson gets a lot of questions about how to best get involved.

“When students say there are things that anger me, or I’m upset about, or I have to do something, often students feel like they have to come up with a great idea,” Johnson says.

Johnson believes that equating getting involved to creating an idea of one’s own is a misguided mindset.

“The great thing is, lots of people have already had great ideas, and part of justice means that we listen to those who are doing the work, and that we don’t have to go into a community and come with an idea — that people in communities already have ideas, and that part of our job is to listen and to support that work, particularly when we have certain levels of class, race, gender, sexuality privilege, and that means that we don’t just sit around and talk about that privilege, but we leverage it to move resources from one place to another,” she said.

For Johnson, the most important thing is about aligning every aspect of her life in a way that honors her commitment to justice.

“Justice can look like any number of things, from a macro level of how I do my research, how I do my work, what kind of things I focus on, what kind of questions I ask, thinking about where my research is going to go, how it will be received, and how it can be used to drive a particular policy agenda,” Johnson says.

However, she believes justice plays a role in actions on a smaller scale as well.

“Then, I think about how I treat people, how I treat the earth,” Johnson says, “how I move in the world, the kinds of things that I purchase, how can I align as many aspects of how I move in the world with the things that I believe in.”

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