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Professor pivots to entrepreneurship to make Filipino and ethnic studies more accessible

Robyn Rodriguez, a professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, will retire from academia in 2023 to focus on making ethnic studies more accessible through an independent school. / Photo by Glenn Aquino

When Robyn Rodriguez decided to pursue a career in academia, it solidified a path toward fulfilling a longtime desire to work in a field that would be of service to others.

“I knew I wanted to do something that would be service oriented, and I wanted to be able to do something that would advance issues of social justice,” said Rodriguez, a professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis.

Since making that decision about 30 years ago, she became the first Filipina American to serve as chair of the university’s Asian American studies department in the university’s 50 year history from 2018 to 2020, became founding director of the UC Davis Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies — the first of its kind in the University of California system that focuses on Filipino experiences in the United States, and has authored and co-authored multiple books.

Yet despite all her accomplishments, she recently made the decision to leave academia in 2023 after encountering a lack of support and feeling like she wasn’t valued in the field. When she retires next year, Rodriguez plans on continuing to serve others through a couple of entrepreneurial endeavors, namely an independent school she recently launched to bring courses about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities directly to individuals without the constraints she has experienced in academia.

Rodriguez remembered being inspired to pursue teaching at the university level after encountering ethnic studies professors while she was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara. One professor in particular, Diane Fujino, who still teaches Asian American studies at the university, had an especially memorable impact on her.

“What stood out about her was that she wasn’t simply teaching the material,” Rodriguez said. “She was actively providing us opportunities to engage.”

She remembered learning in Fujino’s class about dress manufacturer Jessica McClintock paying Asian immigrant garment workers low wages, and how Fujino gave students the opportunity to attend a rally to protest those wages.

“I wanted to be able to be like that,” Rodriguez said. “To be able to have the training to do research, to have the opportunity to publish research, and teach in a classroom that would allow me to share some of that knowledge with young people in particular. And, also like her, I hoped to give young people an opportunity to learn about ways to address social injustices.”

Students from Robyn Rodriguez’s Asian American Studies class and UC Davis’ Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies deliver petitions to representatives’ offices at the California State Capitol to advocate for the $1 million budget allocations in 2019. / Photo by Robyn Rodriguez

Rodriguez believed that doing all the “right” things would allow the community’s needs to be better served: she obtained her doctorate, became a full professor — the highest rank a professor can achieve — in 2018, and successfully had her research published. She said she hoped that accomplishing everything she did would allow her to open up the field of Filipino American studies so that more Filipino Americans could enter academia and publish more research about the community. That research would provide entities like non profit organizations with data they could cite to justify why resources and services should be allocated toward Filipino Americans.

The Bulosan Center, which opened its doors in 2018, has published dozens of articles, books, zines and policy briefs combined. Its work has been cited in mainstream media outlets, including a report about factors that put Filipino Americans at high risk of being heavily affected by COVID-19, and a survey on Filipino American health and well being that revealed the impact of the pandemic on the community’s mental health.

“We’ve done tremendous work in the community in all the ways that I had hoped and dreamed, but I can feel the constraints,” Rodriguez said. “The money is going to run out.”

The center secured $30,000 from community donations — three times its initial goal — when it was established four years ago. The following year, it received $1 million from the state of California, which has allowed the center to hire staff and fund research by graduate students.

It has not seen that same level of funding in more recent years, Rodriguez said. And constantly having to search and fight for money to keep the center operating has led her to burnout. Apart from funding, she said she has seen a lack of support for students who want to study the Filipino experience.

“I think I’ve just come to a place in my life where I just don’t want to have to do that knowledge production and dissemination in the context of an institution that really doesn’t value the people I care about or value me,” she said. “I just want to create a space independent from that that can directly serve our community members.”

A large part of Rodriguez’s decision to pivot from academia to entrepreneurship came during the pandemic and after her son’s death in 2020.

“It was just this major moment to stop and try to reevaluate: Is this the only way to share and disseminate knowledge about our community? Do I have to work under the constraints of these institutions? Or is it possible to create an autonomous space where I can just directly serve the community without having these kinds of intermediaries?” she said.

Filipino Americans are the second largest Asian American subgroup in the country, and the Philippines was colonized by the United States for about 50 years, Rodriguez noted. But that fact and that history aren’t enough to draw investment for resources and the preservation of the community’s stories without a fight, she said.

“I’m just really exhausted from trying to transform institutions that were not made for us and really would rather spend my energy, my time and my creativity and creating institutions for us and by us,” she said. That’s what she hopes to do through a social enterprise she’s building, which includes her online courses and a recently purchased farm that she plans on using as a learning center.

Rodriguez’s school, School for Liberating Education, currently offers an Asian America introductory course and Filipinos and the fight for housing justice. A mini course on Asian American activism is accepting pre-registrations and a six-month course on Filipinos in America is in development. She said she is looking to expand course offerings to include more BIPOC communities in the future.

The farm she purchased is in Lake County, about two hours northwest of Sacramento. She plans on using it to teach people about things like composting, solar technologies, water collection and water recycling, all of which have largely been inaccessible to Filipino Americans.

“But in a lot of ways, our communities in the Philippines have always known how to do this,” she said. “So how do we wed the knowledges of our ancestral homeland together with new innovations happening here, so that they can be part of our own everyday life practices? And how can I help to facilitate that as an educator and scholar?”

Ultimately, Rodriguez said she wants the Filipino community’s stories to be collected and told through her entrepreneurial endeavors, and to allow the Filipino community to develop stronger connections with the Philippines.

“That’s always been an important part of what I do,” she said. “As diasporic people over generations and time, unless we return home to the Philippines, we will be here. Our descendants will be here. And I want to ensure that the sacrifices of our ancestors are not in vain, and that we will continue to retain important vital ancestral knowledge.”

She also hopes her school leads people to be better stewards of the planet, particularly with the threat of climate change.

“If this school is one small contribution towards giving our community these kinds of knowledge and skill sets that derived from our own traditions, but also informed by the communities that we live with — other BIPOC communities — then I feel like that’s a lasting legacy that I can leave for my son and future generations,” she said.

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Agnes Constante

Agnes Constante

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