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Ethnic Studies Celebrates 20 Years on Campus

Within the College of Liberal Arts’ academic community is the Ethnic Studies Department, a small division of dedicated professors and students with a heightened awareness of social and cultural issues and a hunger for positive change. The department is cultivating an increased public presence, yet remains one of the college’s hidden treasures.

A fairly new department by university standards, Ethnic Studies celebrates its 20th anniversary on campus this year. Over two decades, the department has grown in both vision and impact and is now a key player on campus and in the community.

“The discipline comes out of an activist spirit and operates with a critical gaze on scholarship, research and teaching. Our department has sought to apply that spirit to Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing approach and offers a transformative educational experience,” said Denise Isom, professor and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department. 

Ethnic Studies Interviews

The audience of the Hip Hop Symposium, in March, enjoyed watching some breakdancing alongside discussion of poetics and politics.

The Ethnic Studies Department boasts a set of truly interdisciplinary programs. The ethnic studies minor began in 1994, a comparative ethnic studies major was approved in 2007, and a new minor in indigenous studies in natural resources and the environment was added in fall 2013. All of the programs incorporate the arts, humanities and sciences to provide students with a curriculum that emphasizes a broad range of critical methods of inquiry to the complex areas of race, culture and ethnicity, as well as their intersections with gender, socio-economic class, and transnational identity.

“To some degree, ethnic studies is reflective of a broader social movement. It engages multiple disciplines and ways of thinking to increase our understanding of social structures, systems and ideologies and, ultimately, equips change agents and develops scholars,” Isom said.

The department has extended its reach across campus, actively contributing to the current development of four new Science, Technology and Society (STS) minors that examine how science and technology influence and are shaped by social, political and ethical issues.

As a discipline, the major is committed to evolving and tackling social issues head-on in creative and innovative ways. With these goals in mind, the department facilitates various campus events and projects that contribute to the discipline’s mission of social engagement. 

In March, the department sponsored a Hip-Hop Symposium in connection with Professor Jenell Navarro’s Ethnic Studies 310 course, Hip-Hop, Poetics and Politics. The event featured Native American rapper Tall Paul and the Cal Poly Break Dancing Club for an evening of entertainment and discussion of important social questions.

With their innovative and wide-reaching approach to an interdisciplinary, liberal arts education, Ethnic Studies has also developed faculty-student projects like Professor Grace Yeh’s Re/Collecting project — a project that digitally captures the rich, undocumented histories of communities in San Luis Obispo county, such as the Filipino farmers who arrived in the United States in the 1920s.

This past year, Professor Denise Sheridan worked on gathering the histories of African American communities on the Central Coast, adding another branch to the Re/Collecting project’s expanding scope.

At the cusp of change, the Ethnic Studies Department is looking to expand in the years to come to improve awareness and increase access for interested students and instructors.

The department’s many aspirations include doubling the number of majors and minors, and revamping the current curriculum to further embody the spirit of the discipline and the growing needs of our global society.

“The department’s faculty members are brilliant, passionate and driven,” Isom said, “We are full of energy, ideas and excitement for what we can build here at Cal Poly.”

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