In 1972, a few years after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, students and faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sought to establish an academic center focused on the study of race, ethnicity and social justice. Their efforts led to the creation of the Institute for Ethnic Studies, which has trained countless students in racial justice over the past 50 years.
“Racial justice is important because it really shows how people have different experiences and that we need to be open to understanding why those experiences are different,” said Jordan Charlton, graduate teaching assistant at the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
For him, these 50 years are more than a number.
“It’s a reminder that ethnic studies as a scientific field is something that comes from resistance,” he said.
He said it all started with the 1968 student strike at San Francisco State College. Students gathered to protest the racism and authoritarianism that prevailed on campus. The strike lasted five months and became the longest strike in the history of American higher education.
“It’s an important thing to learn your stories, to learn new stories and to step away from a Eurocentric agenda,” Charlton said. “Doing this for 50 years here, with the institute, is something we should celebrate.”
The institute plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a week series of events from March 28 to April 1. The series of events includes eight documentary screenings and five lectures given by scholars from across the country. The lineup includes Norma Cantú, Daniel Heath Justice, Keisha Blain, Virginia Espino and Renee Tajima-Peña.
Joy Castro, director of the Institute for Ethnic Studies, explained that she wanted to bring at least one speaker from each program offered by the institute: African studies, Afro-American studies, Latin American studies, Latin American studies , Native Studies and Asian American Studies, which is forthcoming.
“We wanted to bring in dynamic, intelligent and passionate scholars and artists who would appeal to UNL students,” she said. “All of our visitors are incredible, forward-thinking leaders in their fields.”
Castro said this milestone is about honoring the people who made the institute what it is today.
“It means honoring the tremendous work of those who have come before us, faculty and students who have worked hard to explore the importance of racial justice and Indigenous justice in traditional academic disciplines and beyond.” she declared.
UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and Mark Button, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, funded the entire 50th anniversary celebration.
“This demonstrates their true commitment to ethnic studies and racial justice education at UNL,” Castro said. “We couldn’t do this without their support.”
Five episodes of Tajima-Peña’s Public Broadcasting Services docuseries, “Asian Americans,” will screen at the Lied Center for Performing Arts throughout the week, beginning March 28 at 4 p.m. The filmmaker herself will speak to students and faculty about the importance of Asian American Studies on April 1 at 2 p.m. via Zoom.
“We have a large population of Asian American students here, and our curriculum needs to reflect that,” Castro said.
She acknowledged that while the current curriculum doesn’t reflect this very well, the department is creating a new minor in Asian American Studies.
Alumna Cantú, Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison, Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Trinity University, will deliver the first lecture, “A Pilgrimage: Fifty Years of Ethnic Studies at UNL,” March 29 at 5:30 p.m. on Zoom. Cantú will also pay tribute to the co-founder and former director of the institute, Ralph Grajeda, who died in 2020.
This will be followed by a lecture on the past and future of Indigenous studies on March 29 at 5:30 p.m. by another UNL alumnus, Justice, Professor of Critical Indigenous Studies and English Language and Literature at Columbia University -British.
Blain, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, will host a webinar on “Black Women and the Struggle for Human Rights” on March 31 at 6:30 p.m. The closing talk, “’Para que me Recuerden’: Acts of Love for Family and Community,” will be presented by Espino, a public historian specializing in motherhood and health activism, on April 4 at 4 p.m. .
Castro said the institute has historically been underfunded, but Button is working to change that. Considering they currently only have a small administrative office suite in Louise Pound Hall, she said she hopes to see their own classrooms, larger faculty offices and social space in the future.
“It is a tremendous honor to work with incredibly motivated, innovative and dynamic ethnic studies faculty and students, and to be able to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us,” said Castro.