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New America

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By Jack Feuer and Mona Gable, Photos by Amanda Friedman

Published Jan 1, 2010 8:00 AM


This school year, UCLA marks the 40th anniversary of its four Ethnic Studies centers. The issues that the centers tackled and the changes they wrought over the past decades helped create a new city and a new nation, diverse and multicultural. Problems, of course, remain — and so do the centers, still searching for solutions with the same dedication and passion that gave them life in 1969.

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Virgil Roberts '68, M.A. '69 came to Westwood four decades ago to find there was only a small fraction of black students on campus, and they were not exactly welcomed with open arms.

40 Years

"When UCLA's first black homecoming queen was elected [Carolyn Webb '69, M.A. '72, crowned Miss UCLA in November 1968], the Westwood merchants refused to give her any gifts, which they had always done for a homecoming queen," recalls Roberts, co-founder of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and now managing partner of the entertainment law firm Bobbitt & Roberts. "Most of the fraternities or sororities who controlled the social life on campus controlled the politics. They were all exclusionary. A lot of people who owned apartments in Westwood didn't want to rent to blacks. But that was America."

Yes, it was — then. But this is now, when the President of the United States is half-black, the Mayor of Los Angeles is Latino and approximately 55 percent of UCLA's undergraduates are minorities.

"The concept of an 'average American' is gone, probably forever," writes demographer Peter Francese in "2010 America," an Advertising Age white paper on the upcoming 2010 Census. For most of the country, "no racial or ethnic category describes a majority of the population."

Photo Gallery: The L.A. Melting Pot

The groundbreaking work of UCLA's ethnic studies centers helped establish the tolerance and acceptance in L.A.'s multicultural mix that extends even to the city's strip malls: the side-by-side existence of Vietnamese pho shops, Salvadorean pupuserias, Korean video rentals and Jewish community centers.

Welcome to New America, a multicultural society that, despite deep and pervasive problems, crackles with possibilities. Nowhere is this energy more powerful than in Los Angeles, the most heterogeneous city in the world. And it is in L.A. that you will find one of the foundations upon which our diverse new world was built: UCLA's Ethnic Studies centers.

The four centers — American Indian, African American, Chicano and Asian American — were among the very first of their kind in the country at their birth in 1969. Each center has established worldwide scholarly networks and earned international acclaim for its accomplishments and impact. And each works with the other three in the kind of interethnic cooperation that many other sectors of our society still struggle to achieve, or, in the words of Joseph G. Nelson '96, M.A. '98, an American-Indian Bruin who is now director of admissions at the University of Alaska, "We rode on the coattails of a bigger movement."

But the most important legacy of UCLA's Ethnic Studies centers is not found in research papers, speeches or academic journals. It is, instead, found in the men and women who came to learn and left determined to bring what they studied in the classroom to life in their own communities.

The UCLA American Indian Studies Center

  • Offers the Interdepartmental Program's (IDP) master's degree in American Indian Studies and, since 2002, a minor in American Indian Studies through IDP.
  • The Tribal Legal Development Clinic teaches students how to assist tribes in dispute resolution, legal codes, constitutions and pursuit of federal recognition.
  • Project HOOP is a national, multidisciplinary initiative to establish American-Indian theater as an integrated subject of study and creative development in tribal colleges, American-Indian communities, K-12 schools and mainstream institutions.
  • Publishes American Indian Bibliographic Series, American Indian Manual and Treaties Series, American Indian Contemporary Issues Series.

People like Nelson, who returned to his native state to help others achieve their own dreams. Or entrepreneur Linda Griego '75, the Latina Bruin who went on to serve as deputy mayor of Los Angeles and was a key player in the effort to rebuild the city in the wake of the riots following the Rodney King verdict. And Stewart Kwoh '70, J.D. '74, the Asian-American graduate who founded what is now the largest public interest law center serving Asian Americans in U.S. history.

The same is true of the four centers' faculty. Like Chicano Studies Research Center director Chon Noriega, for example, the trailblazing leader who has championed a long list of Chicano artists and helped to expose them to mainstream audiences. And Bunche Center director Darnell Hunt M.A. '91, Ph.D. '94, whose academic explorations into the African-American experience have helped shape public policy on everything from television casting to higher education.

And those extraordinary people are joined by a steady stream of others. Today, UCLA is the only university in the country with four Ethnic Studies enterprises, and Chancellor Gene Block has dedicated the 2009-2010 academic year to the theme of "Celebrating 40 Years of Ethnic Studies at UCLA."

It is an acknowledgement of the contributions that Ethnic Studies professors and students have made in a new America — and recognition that their work is not done.

"California has always been the leader of ideas," says Griego, now president of TV production company Zappo Entertainment Group. Griego has been a force in L.A. for decades as a businesswoman, politician and sought-after adviser on civic issues. Among her many posts, she was president and CEO of Rebuild L.A., the nonprofit formed in the wake of the riots that rocked the City of Angels in 1992. "So I see the [Chicano Studies Research Center] assuming a greater leadership role. This could be quite a jewel, not just for UCLA but for the entire UC system."

"We are becoming a majority minority country," adds former Asian American Studies Center scholar, music journalist, hip-hop activist and author Jeff Chang M.A. '95. "The cutting edge in Asian-American studies is to grapple with what that means for us as a country … The center is the place I look to first when I'm trying to [answer] these questions."

Here, then, is the story, in their own words, of the men and women of UCLA's Ethnic Studies centers. Befitting their legacy, they are a group of diverse interests, opinions and positions. Their job titles alone speak eloquently of the transformation they helped create in their communities, and their ongoing passion and continued optimism add texture to the tale.

Listen to history talking.

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