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The strike that led to the country's first Ethnic Studies department

The fight for a curriculum that reflects the nation’s diversity began 50 years ago, at San Francisco State University. 

In 1968, protesters called for the creation of an ethnic studies department. That protest was marked by violence, hundreds of arrests, months of disrupted classes and dozens of faculty firings.

A historic student strike in San Francisco

As a little girl growing up in the 1950s, Dr. Laureen Chew spent her evenings watching exotic dancers and circus acts at her family’s nightclub, the Chinese Skyroom. To outsiders, the club sold a fantasy of Chinatown as an alien land, much like that depicted in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song.

When Chew grew up and moved beyond Chinatown to attend San Francisco State University, it was her turn to drop into a kind of alien environment. 

"It was predominantly White," says Chew. "I rarely saw faces of other groups on campus. I remember being very quiet."

She says several factors explain the low number of minorities at colleges then. 

"Getting a college education was really considered something of a privilege for families at that point," she says. "Having a college education was very status-y and basically for more kind of elite thinking, although everyone wanted that for their kids, but it was not necessarily something everyone could afford."

But by the late 1960s, those factors were changing. An overhaul of immigration policy meant huge growth in the state’s Asian and Latino populations. And perceptions of the role and the right to a college education began to change.

"They were very audacious times," says Chew, "for those of us who were able to participate. We felt we could change the world. There was this incredible force that anything was possible if you only struggled and made it be known, and fought for it."

And so the fight began for a more diverse campus and for a curriculum that included the history of minority communities in California.

The push for ethnic studies meant more than satisfying academic curiosity. As minority populations began to grow, their needs became more complex. Student leaders believed ethnic studies would shed light on the contributions and needs of their communities and lead to better public policy. And Chew says the courses would enable minority students to better serve their communities themselves.

"They would work in social services or human services. They never lost sight that they had a tie and a responsibility to the community they came from," says Chew.

To be better prepared to serve their communities, student leaders believed they first had to upend the existing college system. So a coalition of hundreds of students and faculty members staged a strike. For five months, most classes at SF State were shutdown, and the campus erupted in periodic violence, arrests, and faculty firings. It was the longest college strike in U.S. history.

"The campus was very disrupted. There was a lot of damage to property. It was not very pleasant to look at. You had doors that were boarded up, windows that were boarded up. Police everywhere. Certain days it felt like it was a war zone here," Chew says.

It was also a divided campus. Chew says many students didn’t support the movement and dismissed anyone on strike as troublemakers, militants, or communists.

"In the larger frame of the PR, we were seen as radicals and militants and people who needed to be taught a lesson, if we were ever caught. And that they did,"says Chew.

Like hundreds of other students, Chew was swept up in mass arrests and spent 20 days in jail. 

"It was like they planned this military move, how to surround five hundred or four hundred people. I saw my friend’s head get bashed in and bloody. I saw lots of people go down to the floor because they were being hit by clubs. To be honest, I was very scared, because I had never been arrested, much less gone to jail. My mom’s going to kill me. That’s what was going through my mind. She’s going to kill me," says Chew.

As Asian students, Chew says she and her friends faced special criticism: "That’s the first time people heard our voice, and they’re not going to like that.  They’re gonna say, wow they’re copying the blacks or the derelicts of society. Oh my god, what are these people doing to these wonderful Chinese people who have always pulled themselves up by the boot straps and overcome everything, with racism?! Like we were being contaminated."

Despite the chaos, education at state did move forward, often in creative ways.

"Many of us got involved organizing our community as part of our learning here. The spirit and the whole cohesiveness of what we were trying to achieve was very exciting," she says.
By the end of five long months, the strikers and the administration negotiated an agreement. The administration agreed to establish a college of ethnic studies and open up admissions to encourage a diverse student body. Then, according to Chew, came the hard part.

"Get it going, keep it alive," she says. "And becoming credible to be accepted. Certain people didn’t think it would last more than five or six years. They can’t keep it together. Who is going to teach ethnic studies?  Who’s trained?"

Today, it’s Dr. Chew.

Chew has been the Associate Dean of the college of ethnic studies at San Francisco State now for four years. Today, Chew is giving a guest lecture to an Intro to Ethnic Studies course, one of well over 150 classes offered by the College of Ethnic Studies. Now, San Francisco State is among the most diverse universities in the country, and still has the only College of Ethnic Studies in the entire world.

Beyond the establishment of the college, Chew says the strike was enormously important on a personal level for her: "I actually feel very lucky I was given the opportunity to go through that journey. I think many of us see our life’s work more clearly because of it."
You can view archival news footage and photos from the SFSU strike at the online San Francisco State College Strike Collection.

This story originally aired on March 22, 2010.


Crosscurrents Education