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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.

Group of indigenous students speak on protests of injustice

in Op-Eds/Open Letter/Opinions by

Swarthmore is often referred to as a bubble, separate from the outside world, but for many marginalized groups this campus is simply an incubator. Swarthmore is not immune to issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism and the preference of funds over people’s wellbeing. This institution mirrors America in this regard. Indigenous students at this college wish to demonstrate that we do in fact have a presence on this campus, and that our voices, indigenous voices, need to be recognized. Our existence is meaningful and our pain did not stop in 1776 with the ousting of the british,  colonization did not end in 1825 when the Western hemisphere was freed from ‘colonial’ rule, our suffering did not end with the trail of tears, our oppression did not end when we were made citizens. Settler-colonialism itself has no end. After 525 years we still feel the pain of Columbus and we still feel the weight of America on our backs. So we burn the flag.

Let us quickly outline the fact that this was not the first chosen route to have our needs met. Swarthmore College has unfortunately time and again invalidated our existence and without apology, upheld settler-colonialism. The student group associated with indigeneity on campus was granted a student space after long negotiations with members of administration. We met opposition in that administrators said they did not want to give a space to a group that is not consistently active. In fact they’re right, Indigenous students on this campus have never been consistently active as an identity group and seem to have not existed on this campus until the 1990s. The irony of this, of course, is that we have been historically barred from opportunities that give one access to Swarthmore and  Swarthmore has historically chosen not to recruit and admit Native American and more broadly indigenous students. In fact, we have almost always made up less one percent of each incoming class. Is this because Native students simply do not apply? Maybe, but blatant racism, stereotyping and prejudice in the admissions office has also been demonstrated.We have not forgotten that in November of 2014 – less than three years ago – Swarthmore’s Director of Admissions JT Duck said that Native high school students are “not academically qualified for Swarthmore”.

Indigenous students at Swarthmore also considered the fact that many Native students may not want to apply to the college because the institution makes no effort to ensure that we have a place here, as Admissions so freely admitted a few years ago.  Within the past few weeks the space that we fought to have was vandalized, and the bias incident report never resolved. Then on Columbus Day, an administrator accused us, the indigenous students, of stealing space in the same way land and life was taken from us. Anyone would be enraged by one of these events, in combination we remain resolved in our protest of this country, this system, and this institution. There is a clear trend of this institution neglecting Indigenous students, and it is up to Swarthmore College to change it.

One aspect of this is having an advocate of our own. In Spring of 2016 Native students met with President Valerie Smith asking, once again, to prioritize hiring a Native American staff or faculty member. We also asked that admissions pay more attention to recruiting and admitting Native students. The freshman class of 2021 has only one Indigenous identifying student and there have been no efforts made to hire a single culturally indigenous faculty or staff member that we have been made aware of. Our voices, yet again, have been left for the wind.

In the greater world, indigenous folks regularly work exponentially harder than those in power for our voices to be heard. We often represent a small portion of national populations, but it is important to remember that these numbers that many use to deem us as insignificant are the result of a genocide, that the systems that count us for their census were built on top of our lands, and in opposition to our existence. Burning a nation’s flag is a demonstration born out of frustration. When respectability politics do not allow your voice to be heard, you must take action to ensure that your voice is heard. Historically when people of color make our voices heard, we are seen as aggressive. So be it. We hope that our actions will be met largely with understanding, but when they are met with discomfort, our hope is then that you will think critically about what established values told you to be uncomfortable with this type of protest, and why we would oppose them. Ruminate on the gap between our lived experiences.

For many indigenous people the first step is recognition in any regard. We need to be recognized as human beings, as cultures that still exist, that we are a vast array of people and histories and we are also in solidarity with each other. We want our history to be recognized, our history that is separate from any US history. Our history is many histories, they are indigenous stories of trial and turmoil and beauty and success. We face genocide and yet we survive. The US history is a colonial history, a history of slavery and racism, it’s a history of genocide and a history of propaganda. The legitimacy of the United States is not a given, Manifest Destiny is not real, and the American Flag can be burned.

We burn the American flag not just for ourselves, but for our ancestors who died because of that flag. We burn it for our indigenous siblings across the globe and for all of the people across the globe exploited by the United States and other Western imperialist states, caught in between their wars. We burn the flag for our kinfolk here on these lands we love, the other marginalized groups we are offering our solidarity to, hoping they offer it in return. We burn this flag because we want you to know it’s not just you who is angry and fighting against this broader oppressive apparatus: we are too.

We hope if nothing else, that this act will help you question your country, your school, your identity, and the hegemony we all live under. We hope you will examine how your life may contribute to the colonization of these lands. And we remind you that any group that wishes to take a position of neutrality on indigenous people, anyone who is not recognizing our existence,  or not including us in your conversations or on your syllabi – those groups are complicit in an on-going genocide. A genocide we stand against, a genocide that is led by the state represented by the United States flag.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Phoenix’s editorial policies state that letters and opinion pieces represent the views of their writers and not those of the Phoenix staff or Editorial Board. The Phoenix reserves the right to edit all pieces submitted for print publication for length clarity, and factual accuracy.

In light of that policy, the Editorial Board has the obligation to assume that the statement by the author of this op-ed that “Swarthmore’s Director of Admissions JT Duck said that Native high school students are “not academically qualified for Swarthmore”” is in reference to the 2014 Daily Gazette article “NASA Panel Brings Critical Discussion of Diversity.” If so, the Editorial Board has the obligation to point out a discrepancy between the statement by the author of this op-ed and the content of the Daily Gazette article, which can be read in full at the following link: http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2014/11/20/nasa-panel-brings-critical-discussion-of-diversity/

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