Robert Stanley Oden ’69 participated in protest efforts that brought about the ethnic studies programs at UC Davis. (Photo: courtesy)

50 Years of Ethnic Studies

by | Jan 15, 2020 | Culture, Fall/Winter 2019-20, On Campus

When Robert Stanley Oden ’69 attended UC Davis, he was one of about 40 African American students on a 10,000-student campus. He and others from underrepresented groups were at the forefront of protests calling for a more diverse campus, including creation of ethnic studies programs.

“We were very organized and disciplined,” said Oden, now a political science professor at California State University, Sacramento. “We were able to get what we wanted faster than at other schools, and I believe it had an impact on the whole UC system.”

That was the beginning of what would become African American and African, Asian American, Chicana and Chicano, and Native American studies programs, all celebrating their 50th anniversaries at UC Davis. All the programs have expanded in the number of faculty and students, and the topics and regions addressed in classes and research. Students and alumni said ethnic studies gave them a place of identification and support at UC Davis, have been a catalyst for social and political action on campus and beyond, and cultivated a lifelong commitment to making a difference.

Chicana and Chicano studies major José Quiñonez ’94 was one of six students who took part in a 1990 hunger strike to raise awareness about the need for a cross-cultural center.

UC Davis student leaders like Mel Posey, pictured at left, participated in protest efforts on campus in 1969. Their work was a catalyst for social and political action later, including in the 1990s (center and right). (Archive)

“We wanted to make sure that the administration was committed to creating a space for students of color to be comfortable,” said Quiñonez, who founded the Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco to provide zero-interest loans to immigrants, for which he won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2016.

Ben Wang ’04 got interested in prisoners’ rights while a student in Asian American studies at UC Davis. His 2016 documentary, Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story, is about a Chinese immigrant teenager who became the youngest inmate at San Quentin State Prison. Wang is co-director of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, an organization that assists Asians and Pacific Islanders in U.S. prisons.

Takarra Johnson is a senior double majoring in African American and African studies, and American studies. During her first year at UC Davis, she studied abroad in Ghana and has returned several times since to work in health and education programs.

“[My professors] took me under their wing not just as faculty, but as mentors and family,” said Johnson. “They’ve been influential in all parts of my life.”