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The Fight for Academic Equality: Spotlight on Student Efforts to Bring Race and Ethnicity Studies to Tufts

News & Features | March 26, 2012
 by Ariana Siegel


In the past two years, student activism has brought issues of identity and diversity to the forefront of conversations at Tufts. These discussions inspired the creation of a comparative race and ethnicity studies working group, dedicated to establishing a new program called Critical Studies in Disparities and Diasporas (C2D). This program will serve as an umbrella for an Africana Studies major, an Asian American Studies minor, and other identity-related studies in the future.

The faculty working group is led by Professors Peniel Joseph and Francie Chew. The TCU senate also elected four student representatives, responsible for reporting the group’s progress to the student body. The Observer sat down with three representatives, Tomas Garcia, Marcy Regalado, and Joseph Thibodeau, as well as Pan African Alliance executive board member Brionna Jimerson, to discuss the progress of the group and what its presence will mean for campus as a whole.

The faculty-working group was originally supposed to draft a proposal for the C2D curriculum by March 23 and launch its first component, the Africana studies major, in the Fall 2012 semester. However, recent meetings have revealed that more time will be needed to generate support among the faculty at large. In the new timeline, the earliest iteration of C2D with the Africana Studies major would not appear until the fall of 2013. As they look down this ever-longer road, involved students reflect on the excitement and challenges of creating academic change on campus.


Observer: What has been your involvement thus far in the creation of the Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies program?

Brionna Jimerson: First, I want to make sure you understand that this is my opinion, and I can’t possibly stress that enough. My involvement has primarily been through Pan African Alliance (PAA). My sophomore year spring, some seniors held an info session about the history of searching for academic equity on campus, focusing on establishing Africana Studies as a department.

Marcy Regalado: I was at a PAA meeting and we were talking about needing continuity [in the program], and people were saying, “We need young, fresh blood.” I’m just sitting there thinking about all the issues that are coming up, absorbing them, because I’m a freshman in a room full of upper classmen. Then finally someone said, “Marcy! Wait, what about you?” And I’m like, “OK, let’s do this!” When somebody puts me on a job, I go big or go home.

Joseph Thibodeau: I’ve been involved in diversity issues since I came to Tufts. I’m a class senator and was one of the writers of the Africana Studies resolution that went through Senate last year. I sit on the Senate Executive Board, and I’m also chair of the Culture, Ethnicity, and Community Affairs Committee. Then, when the TCU had to pick two people [as student representatives in the Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies working group], Tomas and I were chosen.

O: Lately, there have been many initiatives speaking to issues of diversity at Tufts, and we sense that there has been some confusion between them. For instance, what distinguishes the C2D program from the Intercultural and Social Identities Program (ISIP) and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy?

BJ: So ISIP is not academic at all; it’s completely about student affairs and social life on campus. It has nothing to do with Africana Studies, though probably a lot of the individuals involved with ISIP promote and support Africana studies.

Francie Chew: The Center for Race and Democracy will foster both research [by faculty and students], as well as offerings such as conferences, whose goals are to discuss and reflect on research findings in relation to communities and political processes. We need all three components: (a) the co-curricular/extracurricular; (b) curricular offerings including relevant majors and minors; [and] (c) research and ability to share the creation of knowledge with other scholars and the public

O: Let’s talk about the working group for the Critical Studies in Disparities and Diasporas (C2D) program that Tomas, Joe, and Marcy are on. How was it created and what is its purpose?

JT: There’s been a movement for Africana studies for over 40 years. [There is also a movement for] Asian American Studies—people have been advocating for that since the 90s. This year and last, a lot of activists have come together and really advocated: that’s where you see events like Occupy Ballou happening. Last year, Senate passed a resolution calling for Africana studies. So you have all these voices coming together, and finally it’s come to the attention of the administration that we need to come up with a good stable program.

BJ: To clarify, what [Africana Studies] means is the history, the culture, the sciences, the theories, and the methods of individuals and practices that root from the African diaspora. And it’s looking at all these different aspects that are not represented equally at Tufts in the curriculum. A lot of people conflate [Africana Studies] with African American history and African American studies—you know, language and literature and art—and it is all of those things, but it’s so much more.

Lorrayne Shen, Vice President of the Asian American Alliance: Asian American Studies shouldn’t be conflated with Asian Studies—that’s the study of Asia, the continent. It’s an interdisciplinary field that examines Asian Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders and their historical and contemporary issues. It studies experiences of immigrants and succeeding generations within the changing context of US society.

JT: A lot of concerns came up that there weren’t student voices involved with the current proceedings [to create the C2D program], especially since it’s been students who have primarily advocated for it as long as these movements have been going on. So this year, an agreement was established between Dean Berger-Sweeney, Tony Monaco, and the Pan African Alliance to allow four students on this committee, two from TCU senate, and two from PAA.

O: So what are your goals for the C2D program?

JT: The idea is that the first concrete major that will come out of this is Africana Studies. But there are conversations about a future umbrella group for Asian American studies, Queer Studies, [and] potentially Women’s Studies; they’re kind of feeling it out right now.

MR: [Since this is a program and not a department], it’s going to be the general faculty that ultimately will be teaching this. If you don’t have faculty support, the program will fail.

O: So considering the 40-year struggle for equal representation in academia, why do you think this is happening now? What’s changed that has enabled this to become such a concrete process?

Tomas Garcia: I think there are multiple parts [to] it. One, I think you have very strong student activism. Last year’s class of 2011 were visionaries; they wanted something and they pushed for it. In addition to lobbying the administration, [and] in addition to organizing sit-ins, they presented a referendum on Africana Studies to Senate. I think it’s the first time that kind of thing has ever gone through the TCU senate.

I also think that it has to do with Tufts emerging into the battlefield of colleges. To be a competitive top university in this country, you need to have programs like this. I think it says a lot that we’re basically emulating Stanford’s extremely successful model. People aren’t willing to simply accept one point of view in their Tufts education and are demanding a diverse array of ideas. In my opinion, that’s going to make Tufts students better, more likely to succeed in the job market, [and] more likely to succeed in academia.

JT: I think this is an example of how we need to practice what we preach. If we’re an institution that says, “We need to support diversity and active citizenship,” then we need to do that in all sectors, whether it’s social life or even academically. This is at the core of who we are. This is really Tufts becoming itself.

BJ: I’d also really like to emphasize the significance of the fact that this [push for Africana studies] isn’t new. The recent activism is probably just the loudest and the biggest. You can’t discredit social media, obviously, for part of this. You’ve got a lot more people, and quite honestly, a lot more white people involved. It’s not always the same group of six people fighting for something; it’s a group of 60 people fighting. And that’s much more powerful because it’s much harder to silence.

It’s also important to emphasize the fact that people have literally sacrificed their degrees for this. Last year, one of the most active people in this didn’t even graduate. That person put their whole life, four years of their existence, into this and you can’t just discredit that by saying, “Oh, we have something new, courtesy of Arts and Sciences folk, courtesy of this office, or that dean.”

I think this is also the first time that the coalition between different student groups has been this strong. I think a lot of the support came out of the Occupy movement. There was so much more support than there’s been before.

O: Which groups have been part of that coalition?

BJ: Past and present members of Tufts PAA, Tufts Asian American Alliance, Students Acting for Gender Equality, Tufts Occupiers, Occupy Boston, Occupy the Hood, and Association of Latin American Students. Kids who know that something is wrong, and now that they can name it, they want to work. That activism has created this climate where something like ISIP could even be thought about, dreamt up. Twenty years ago, that probably couldn’t have happened.

O: So how do you all envision the C2D program continuing to change the climate on campus? A large part of the discussion about creating a new academic program has surrounded the idea that Tufts isn’t a welcoming climate to people of all identities.

BJ: It’s up on a hill. It’s not welcoming to people with disabilities, in its literal foundation.

TG: We’re working on that.

BJ: I mean inherently, it’s a private institution. It’s a private college. That literally cuts out thousands of applicants. There are so many institutional and structural parts of the university that I can’t change—I can’t get rid of the hill, I can’t make it a public college, I can’t make it somewhere warm. So what can I change right here? Dammit, it’s not sunny, and I have to walk up the hill, so can I at least take a class about Afro-Asian relations in Uganda please?

JT: I also think that in college, people’s identities are so central to their mindset, especially [because] you’re being exposed to people that you’ve never been exposed to before. Like people from the suburbs of Massachusetts are being exposed to people from the Deep South of Mississippi. We’re wondering, how do I fit into the pattern of the class? How do I fit into the fabric of the world? I think that having the opportunity to really dissect identity and discover who you are on a scholastic, academic level is really helpful.

The types of classes that are offered through [C2D] would provide different types of tools for your academic toolbox. You’re given the tools to understand identity and understand people in a different way than we’re normally used to studying.

MR: It’s really important that students understand their identity and be able to work with people [of different identities] around them. If you don’t try to understand how somebody else works, you might not be able to do business with them, communicate with them, or know how to treat them. So instead of just being lectured once, it’s important to actually take a class on something and submerge yourself, be a part of it, and then take that with you.

BJ: From a student perspective and a scholarly perspective, it’s truly a shame that we call ourselves global citizens when some people can’t even define race and its role in the United States. How are you going to become a civil engineer if you don’t understand the people that your inventions are helping and hurting? How are you going to become a police officer if you’ve never looked at race in America or how masculinities show themselves in the workplace? Tufts is training global leaders and they can’t think outside US hegemony. I mean we should criticize Tufts—if you don’t, you’re wasting 50 thousand dollars.

O: So what about people who don’t major in C2D or even take a class? How do you think this might impact campus at large?

TG: From my perspective, the word of the day is synergy. I learn a lot from my classes at Tufts; I’m a quantitative econ and international relations major. But the time I learn the most is when I’m sitting in the Rez arguing with a women’s studies major, a math major, and a biology major about the implications of regulating birth control. The issues that are at stake in the world today are issues that can be approached from so many different sides. As long as there are Tufts students who are dedicated to taking those classes, then the entire Tufts community will benefit. And I think that there is enough demand. Demand has been demonstrated for the past 40 years.

O: What obstacles still stand in the way of seeing C2D to fruition?

MR: The first risk that we have is the timeline and how easily it can change. Unfortunately we as the student representatives do not have power over that. But what we can do is say, “Listen, you told the student body this date, and if you keep pushing it back, you’re going to hear it from them.”

JT: [One issue is that] we have so many other identities that are implicated in this. The effort right now is to get Africana studies through as the first “start up,” but while we’re working on that, we need to be talking about Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Asian American Studies, Latino Studies, and a whole wide variety of studies. So keeping all of these programs in mind while also keeping on task is going to be a challenge.

O: What criticisms of the C2D program have you heard on campus? At the conference on Obama and American Democracy, Dr. Peneil Joseph mentioned an American Thinker article that said Tufts had “diversity on steroids,” and that we’re focusing too much on these issues. What is your sense of that?

TG: I don’t pay attention to arguments that Tufts is “diversity on steroids” because I don’t think there’s any merit to that. But an argument that does have a lot of merit is the issue of cost. Whenever you’re creating a new program, a new area of study at a university, you want to know, how is that going to impact cost of tuition? Especially when the cost of tuition is skyrocketing.

JT: One other thing that I’ve heard, and this is from both sides of the spectrum, is that there’s a lot of focus on diversity, and as a result there are so many councils being created on diversity. We have our council, and President Monaco has recently formed a diversity council with some students, faculty, administrators, [and] staff, basically to look at diversity at Tufts on all of its campuses.

We shouldn’t be in silos, though. We don’t want five different councils working on the exact same issue. We want to combine efforts [and] stay on task, so each group should do what they’re supposed to do. Let’s just say that, a lot of times, a way for the administration to appease people is to create a committee, or a panel, or a working group, which will create a report and then not do anything about it. People often cite the Task Force on Race and Ethnicity in the 1990s, which laid out so many issues and recommendations, and nothing happened with them. So, making sure that what we have set as goals gets accomplished is imperative. Now is the time.

If you want to learn more about the C2D program or the working group, the student representatives on the working group are fielding inquiries at: tomas.garcia@tufts.edu, joseph.thibodeau@tufts.edu, and marcyreg@gmail.com.