For two and a half years, scholar and social activist Melina Abdullah traveled weekly from her home in Los Angeles to Sacramento — uncompensated trips that took a personal toll and kept her apart from her three children.
She was working to build support for California legislation requiring all undergraduates across the 23-campus, 482,000-student California State University to take a three-unit ethnic studies class focusing on Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans or Latinx Americans in order to graduate. The fate of the legislation, known as AB 1460, seemed uncertain even when lawmakers passed it and it moved to the governor’s desk.
But Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill Aug. 17.
“I was not confident it would happen,” said Abdullah, who is a professor and former chair of pan-African studies at Cal State, Los Angeles. “We were working up until the very last minute.”
It was a watershed moment for Abdullah, who sacrificed her time because she believes in the cause. Likewise for activists, scholars and students who support the legislation, Newsom’s signature marked the culmination of a decades-long fight to make sure the Cal State system leaders take ethnic studies seriously as an academic discipline and as a cornerstone of knowledge all students should have before they graduate and go out into the world.
Cal State’s actions have a profound impact on thousands of students, as it counts itself as the “greatest producer of bachelor’s degrees” in the most populous state in the country.
The struggle for acceptance and respect of ethnic studies in academe goes back to the late 1960s, Abdullah said. That struggle has not abated over the past 60 years. For those who fight for the protection and promotion of ethnic studies in both higher ed and K-12, the story is one of steps forward, backward and sideways.
Mandating ethnic studies will benefit all students academically and socially, according to those who backed the new California law. For Abdullah, it is also a recognition that ethnic studies is vitally important to students of color. Ethnic studies helps them understand their history and realize their own potential.
Abdullah said she wouldn’t be where she is today without her own exposure to Black studies in high school.
“Black studies literally saved my life,” she said.
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