Ethnic studies department hosts talk on future of the discipline

By Nicole Mitchell


Nobody chanted “Black lives matter!” or raised a picket sign in protest, but the atmosphere in Main Hall 201 still had the electric quality of a rally on the evening of Wednesday, May 20.  A crowd of around 40 students and faculty had gathered to hear Department Head and Professor of Ethnic Studies at Mills College in California Julia Chinyere Oparah deliver a guest lecture titled “From Third World Strike to Research Justice: Ethnic Studies and the Transformation of U.S. Higher Education.” The talk covered the beginnings of ethnic studies as an academic discipline that evolved alongside the social justice movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It then addressed the challenges and conflicts found within the discipline today. Oparah stressed that, “Ethnic studies is not just a class or a series of classes, or a minor or a major […] but a critical intellectual home on campus for all those who are interested in thinking critically about questions of race, racism, colonialism and organizing.”

Professor Oparah’s lecture highlighted the fact that in ethnic studies, there is a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between academia and activism, something that attracts many student activists to the discipline. Ethnic studies minor and junior Cheyenne Van Dyke is also the Vice President of All Is One! Empowering Young Women of Color. Van Dyke said that Professor Oparah’s lecture got her “really excited for the future of ethnic studies here at Lawrence.” She found the idea that students can affect change on their campuses not just through co-curricular activities, but also through academics, “powerful.”

This sentiment was echoed by freshman Sabrina Conteh, who says, “social justice is a part of my life, and I see ethnic studies as an academic embodiment of that work.”  Though Conteh is currently undeclared, she said that she would definitely consider taking ethnic studies classes or possibly minoring in the discipline after listening to Oparah’s lecture.

Soon, students like Conteh may be able to do more than that. Professor Oparah’s visit—which was brought about thanks to a dedicated group of professors who wrote a grant to sponsor her trip—comes at an exciting time for ethnic studies at Lawrence University. The university does not currently have an

ethnic studies department—only a program—but this may be set to change. Associate Professor of French Lifongo Vetinde explained that Mills College has an institutional profile that is very similar to Lawrence’s, and faculty hope to draw on ideas gleaned from Professor Oparah and other guest lecturers when they meet to “design the architecture of an ethnic studies major here at Lawrence.”

The next lecturer to contribute his ideas to Lawrence’s future ethnic studies department will be Professor Roderick Ferguson of the University of Illinois at Chicago, a leading expert in ethnic studies.  On June 23-24, the university will host an ethnicity and critical race theory symposium where Professor Ferguson will facilitate discussions on the latest intellectual developments in ethnic studies and on best practices in teaching race and ethnicity.