Event commemorates 50 years of San Francisco State University strikes

San Francisco State University is home to the country’s first College of Ethnic Studies. Last Tuesday evening, a panel discussion commemorated the 50th anniversary of the historic five-month long student-led strikes that led to the institution of the college.

“We have a College of Ethnic Studies, which remains the first and only in the nation,” said panelist Penny Nakatsu, who was among those leading the strikes, and co-founded the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) chapter in 1968 at what was then called the San Francisco State College, with an aim to politically and socially unite the Asian American students.

The panel was hosted by the California Historical Society at their headquarters in San Francisco. The event was organized in association with Shaping San Francisco and the Museum of African Diaspora. The eight-member panel included activists and scholars who led and participated in the strikes, Ethnic Studies teachers from San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), and an Ethnic Studies Lecturer from UC Berkeley.

“The student activists gave us a whole way of thinking about our history from a decolonial perspective,” said Jesus Barraza, an artist and a Lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department, who attended San Francisco State University in the mid-90’s. “They got us to stop thinking about it from the western cannon.”

A short film about the strikes that opened the panel discussion showed students abandoning the classrooms and marching together on the college campus, and their clashes with the police.

Photo courtesy of BSU Strike Founders’ Collection

“It was a very disciplined group of students,” said Ramona Tascoe about not being afraid to take orders from the leaders of the strikes. Tascoe, who is a medical doctor, was the first student to get arrested when the strikes began on November 6, 1968.

The protests were a response to the San Francisco State University’s exclusionary admissions practices and Eurocentric curriculum that alienated non-white students.

In the five months between November 1968 and March 1969, members of the Black Students Union and Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a coalition of student groups representing Latin Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Filipino Americans, led the strikes with fifteen demands that asked for moving away from a Eurocentric curriculum by embracing the histories of all people, more faculty of color, and equal access to higher education. The strikers were later joined by members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

“It wasn’t a spontaneous event, it was an event that occurred after two and a half years of hard negotiations,” said Benny Stewart, who served as chair of the Black Students Union at San Francisco State University from 1967 to the summer of 1969, and was part of the early negotiations with the college administration to set up a Black Studies Department, which became a major part of the College of Ethnic Studies at the university.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Hartford and Foundsf.org

Teachers representing SFUSD said during the panel discussion that they are focused on what was laid out by the activists and are building “Ethnic Studies at SFUSD that would stay,” said Artnelson Concordia, an SFUSD Ethnic Studies teacher on special assignment.

Other panelists included Roger Alvarado, who was part of the TWLF as a member of the Latin American Student Organization at San Francisco State University, and Nikhil Laud, a teacher representing SFUSD. Waldo E. Martin Jr., Professor of American History and Citizenship at UC Berkeley, moderated the panel.

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