Protests on campus that broke out last spring following an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officer’s presence on campus provided the common ground that two unlikely student groups needed to join forces. Today, the Asian Pacific American Collective (APAC) and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán de Northwestern (MEChA de Northwestern) have come together to form the Latinx Asian American Collective, a group that is working to create Asian American Studies and Latino/Latina Studies departments.
“The beginnings of the Collective were actually in the aftermath of the ICE protest that happened, because MEChA was definitely in hot water with that,” said Jessica Wang, a Weinberg junior and a member of the Collective. “Our organizations have always supported each other, I think, but there hasn’t been nearly this level of collaboration and getting to know each other on a personal level.”
Currently, Asian American Studies and Latino/Latina Studies are both “programs,” which means they cannot hire their own faculty and have lower budgets than departments. Both fields have majors and minors, but remain programs. Some comparable fields, such as African-American studies, have their own departments.
Not having the power to hire their own faculty severely limits the Latino/Latina Studies and Asian American Studies programs, according to Frances Aparicio, director of the Latino/Latina Studies program.
“Part of the challenge we face as a program is that our faculty teach in departments and, based on the needs of their departments, they tell us what they are going to teach,” Aparicio said. According to Aparicio, depending on individual faculty members means the programs have little control over their curricula.
Budget limitations are also an issue. According to the Latinx Asian American Collective’s proposal, the budget for Asian American Studies did not change between 2004 and 2017, and Latino/Latina Studies has had the same budget since 2011, despite an increase in the number of students in both programs since then. The budget deficit requires faculty to fundraise for academic events they want, according to the Collective.
While Asian American Studies only added a major in 2016, at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, two students graduated with the major. Since the creation of the Latino/Latina Studies major in 2009, the number of students in the major has increased by 35 students.
The Collective is also calling for Latino/Latina Studies to be changed to “Latinx Studies” in order to make the academic field more gender-inclusive.
“The first reason [to change the name] is to recognize that there are people who cannot be categorized within the binary of Western gender logic,” said Weinberg sophomore Seri Lee, a member of the Collective. “Another reason is to get away from the Western binary of gender.”
In fact, many students and faculty say one of the reasons they value Latino/Latina Studies and Asian American Studies is because the programs—and ethnic studies fields in general—question the institutions that make up our society.
“A lot of the work that we do in [ethnic studies] is question the very paradigms of institutions, like Northwestern,” said Nitasha Sharma, director of the Asian American Studies program. “Students, more and more, find a real important relevance in ethnic studies, especially in this time, when they don’t understand how undocumented children can be sent home or Muslims can be banned. People want to understand these processes, and you can often sort through them in ethnic studies classes.”
According to Sharma, ethnic studies classes tell a different version of history from the perspective of marginalized communities, whose voices are often left out of the predominant historical narrative. Looking at history from a different perspective allows students to think more critically about the world around them.
“Ethnic studies teaches you how to think. It teaches you how to examine history and really criticize the narrative you’re given,” said Wang. “Especially in this current political moment, it helps you to understand that what’s happening now did not come out of nowhere. There’s a multiple-centuries-long history that has allowed everything that’s happening to unfold.”
Moving forward, the Collective hopes to gain more support for the Collective’s campaign. On February 7, they held a “teach-in” to educate other students about their campaign, which featured an online trivia game: “Are you smarter than a Weinberg administrator?”. They have also been circulating a petition since January, which currently has over 1,200 signatures. They are also trying to reach out to alumni and faculty members from their programs for support.
“We’re trying to make this push more legitimate and make our voices heard by the administration,” said Weinberg sophomore June Choe, a member of the Collective. “After that, we have a lot of plans on our proposal for implementation timelines.”
ASG has also endorsed their campaign, saying in a statement that the programs “serve essential roles” on campus. Other student groups, such as the Rainbow Alliance and For Members Only, have also voiced their support for the campaign. Eventually, the Collective plans to meet with Weinberg administrators to discuss implementing a timeline for establishing the departments.
For now, members of the Collective are working to raise awareness about the importance of ethnic studies. They’ve created two social media campaigns, #aasptaughtme and #llsptaughtme, that feature testimonials about what students learned in both Asian American Studies and Latino/Latina Studies here at Northwestern.
“I’m an Asian American Studies major not because I want to learn about Asian Americans,” Wang said. “If you don’t understand how Asian Americans have played a role in history then you just don’t understand history. Period.”
*This story was updated to reflect that the full name of MEChA de Northwestern is Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán de Northwestern, not Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán de Northwestern. This change was made at 4:29 p.m. on 2/25. NBN regrets the error.