The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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It only took a worldwide pandemic—and a spike in anti-AA+PI hate crimes—for school districts around the country to start including curriculum about our community in K-12 classrooms, beyond a single page in a textbook. And while AA+PI studies and other American ethnic studies classes and programs have been around at the college level for a while, this is the United States, where it’s unfathomable that anything besides white greatness could have built this country. So it was a struggle for those courses to even exist.
At the forefront of these hard-fought battles was the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), two student groups that started at San Francisco State College (now university) (SFSC) in November 1968, and at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) in January 1969. These coalitions comprised multiracial student groups and were formed in response to the schools’ Eurocentric education and lack of diversity. Two notable Asian American members in these groups included Penny Nakatsu (SFSC) and the late Richard Aoki (UCB), who died in 2009 and was an early member of the Black Panther Party.
The groups were named in relation to the Third World (now more commonly referred to as the developing world) Liberation struggles, recognizing the need for decolonization. And for the students, their struggle was in education, embodying this by creating what they called a Third World College, “dedicated to the underemphasized histories of African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos/Chicanas, and Native Americans,” according to UCB’s Center for Race and Gender.
TWLF led the two longest student strikes in U.S. history on the schools’ campuses (five months at SFSC and three at UCB). Their demands included a curriculum more relevant to students of color and for the institutions to acknowledge the histories of communities of color as important areas of learning, according to UCB’s Center for Race and Gender.
The protests at SFSC, which ended in March 1969, resulted in the establishment of the country’s first-ever College of Ethnic Studies. Nakatsu, a retired attorney, and her peers were tasked with designing the curriculum for the school’s newly established department from scratch. They only had a few months, but the College of Ethnic Studies was ready by fall 1969.
While the demonstrations started out as peaceful, they escalated and became violent as police confronted demonstrators at both schools, though the interactions at UCB proved to be more intense.
A report at the time in New Left Notes, the publication of Students for a Democratic Society, described the UCB campus as a “battlefield,” with attacks coming from both sides. In addition to employing tear gas to break up the crowds, police were characterized as “swinging their clubs wildly.” Students retaliated by “hurling rocks, bricks, bottles, and cherry bombs.” The violence became so bad that at one point, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan had to declare a state of emergency.
“We will settle for nothing less than a full, Third World College for the fall of 1969, developed by the Third World faculty, by Third World students and Third World community people,” Aoki, acting as a TWLF spokesperson, said at a press conference in March 1969. “We have had a strike. We have a strike. We will continue to strike.”
Both strikes ended that month after the student groups and their respective schools came to agreements, resulting in ethnic studies schools and departments—all of which has led to other schools across the country to establish their own ethnic studies programs and departments.
Published on January 5, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.