Ethnic Studies program launched after years of planning
“We can take a step back and say ‘what is critical race theory and why is the idea of teaching it so overwhelming for people? “, Said Ongiri. “We can really take a step back and think about these issues rather than just fighting about it. “
It is with this mindset that Ongiri is leading the new Ethnic Studies program. According to them, the idea for the program was born in 2014. It now materializes years later with the official support of the University.
The program encountered challenges along the way. The search for a faculty member was halted in the spring of 2020 when the three remaining applicants for the post each turned down the post.
Ongiri previously worked at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where they were associate professor and director of film studies for Jill Beck. They focused their work on visual culture and its connection to race, gender and identity.
Former student Carolina Cortes, who graduated in May 2021, was also a major proponent of the founding of the program.
A former member of the Ethnic Studies Student Steering Committee and Diversity Contributor, Cortes has devoted a great deal of time and effort to the formal introduction of the program.
Although she will not benefit directly from it, she is delighted to see future students take advantage of what the program has to offer.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve all done together to get this started,” Cortes said. “We’ve had a lot of late nights, a lot of Zoom meetings and I’m just thankful that the students (can) connect to the classes that I wish I could have taken when I was still enrolled.”
Cortes worked alongside Sabrina Saturn, professor of psychology and member of the Ethnic Studies Research Committee.
“In this role, I found it absolutely essential to follow the wisdom of the students, especially student activists like Carolina (who) were doing all of the fieldwork,” Saturn said. “I think (she contributed to the success of the research the second time around.”
Ongiri wants the program to focus on the interdependence of three main aspects: scholarship, community outreach, and student support.
Portland also offers a unique experience due to the number of large-scale protests in the city’s past, including the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.
“One of the goals of ethnic studies is to bring the campus community closer to the wider Portland community,” Ongiri said. “I hope we can bring activists from the community to the campus to talk about Portland’s unique situation and its incredible history of resistance.”
The notion of resistance also appears in many works analyzed within the framework of ethnic studies courses.
“I think it’s really fascinating to dig deeper into a specific area of black resistance and take a look at the portrayal in the film, the way the stories are told and the way the film portrays messages in the film. -beyond the intrigue, ”said Gaby Mota, an ethnic studies student.
Ongiri also stresses that the program and its events are not just for students of color. In fact, according to Saturn and Ongiri, many ethnic studies students are white.
“There is a little myth that ethnic studies are only for students of color,” Ongiri said. “This is not true. The majority of people who major in ethnic studies in the United States are actually white, but our idea is that anyone can benefit from thinking about race and ethnicity, as well as the history, storytelling, and aesthetics of the people who were left behind.
Junior Jack Dinsmore, a current student in the Ethnic Studies program, acknowledges some of the discomfort associated with being in class as a white man.
“As a cis-white man, my experience in society and my perception of the world around me is going to be very different from anyone else with some sort of marginalized identity,” Dinsmore said. . “I would say the Ethnic Studies class definitely takes me out of my comfort zone. “
Likewise, many queer, transgender, black and indigenous of color (BIPOC) students also have the opportunity to take part in discussions centered on identity, culture and politics.
Senior Grace Fortson, who was also a member of the Ethnic Studies Student Steering Committee, appreciates this aspect of the program and its organization which prioritizes student discussions.
“I think community is an important part of ethnic studies, to have that sense of camaraderie and support, because, if you don’t, then it’s really hard to engage on these topics in a classroom. class and it’s really hard to engage with the realities of being a QTBIPOC student at a predominantly white institution, ”Fortson said.
Student training also plays a role in the diversity of the program. Ongiri notes that UP’s Ethnic Studies program is unique due to the intense contributions of students in the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
Ongiri is also optimistic that students with a liberal arts background may also offer diverse opinions, given the unique approach to liberal arts education.
Through the combination of STEM and liberal arts students, Ongiri hopes to shatter generalizations that STEM is all about “facts” and the liberal arts is only about “feelings.”
This allows for a broader discussion between topics in the two disciplines. Ongiri suggests using both areas to address topics like racism and its connection to environmental justice, for example.
University approval and support for the program also opens the door to greater opportunities. One of those benefits is the funding and resources that the program can now receive.
Ongiri hopes to develop further by aiming for a minor in ethnic studies by the end of the year.
Senior Grace Adam focused on supporting the community when it comes to serving students of color on campus for the future.
“People see statistics and think ‘oh, progress’,” Adam said. “It’s deeper than that. It’s not just about bringing in more people of color, (you have to) support them. “
Looking ahead, the potential for increased diversity among UP students in the coming years could mean greater involvement between the students and the ethnic studies program. Ongiri recognizes this and is excited to lead a program that can benefit students.
“One of the realities is that the majority of students over the next 20 years will not be white,” Ongiri said. “If you don’t know how to serve non-white students and how to centralize their stories, your school won’t be very attractive.”
Michael Lang is a reporter for The Beacon. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Brie Haro contributed to this story. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org