Ethnic Studies: Geometry of Power?
In the 26 years since the Boston Regional Organizing Committee successfully lobbied for the inclusion of ethnic studies courses in the state’s curriculum, the program has not only served to educate students and the general public about cultural diversity, but also to enhance the way students themselves view their own identities. It was clear from conversations with students and alumni of the program that many understand the program as an extension of their own personal beliefs, and as a means of making their life more equitable and supportive.
“Ethnic studies was always something I wanted to study—someone had the chance to be a part of the drive to make ethnic studies part of the curriculum, and I wanted to be a part of it,” says George Corwin, class of 1972. “It worked out great, but it’s more than a philosophy—it’s a way of life.”
According to Prof. Mary C. Trotter, instructor of ethnic studies, the program is built on a strong foundation of foundations. “Our core purpose in devoting 40 percent of our year to ethnic studies has always been to engage the whole learner,” she says. “We offer a foundation that covers everything that is a foundation. We offer a system of promoting and sustaining the social sciences on a part-time, free and non-biased basis, through educational and literary presentations, instructor-led workshops, and community outreach.”
The programs are open to students of all backgrounds, and faculty members are available to interact and provide mentorship to students during their time in the program.
“We are what we are because of the racial minority [students] in our midst,” says Professor Paula Borgwardt, chairman of the department of ethnic studies. “A lot of our faculty are former students of African-American and Latino students. Although we are a predominantly white institution, we have a significant number of students of color.”
And although there are still challenges and challenges ahead, the professors involved in the ethnic studies department see these projects as an investment in the future of students and their communities. “As a former student of Asian-American literature who was taught by … a white woman and who later became faculty members in my own field, I know first-hand what it’s like to have a person of a different race in your department who knows her stuff,” Trotter says. “[I know] there are a whole lot of black and brown people who want to learn about their histories.”
Through the ethnic studies program, students are exposed to and empowered to create their own sense of self. “What our programs can do is offer students the opportunity to ‘become’ themselves in the public context,” says Edinho Rohrbacher, ethnic studies professor and member of the department’s Latin American Studies program. “It allows students to know their history as they feel it best. Our particular program offers its graduates a set of strategies and ways of living that they are able to draw on in whatever future endeavors they choose.”
This article originally appeared on MindShift News & Views, a publication of MetroWest Daily News.