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1.2: Growth and Expansion of Ethnic Studies

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    Early Days of Ethnic Studies

    Throughout the 1960s, colleges and universities were the sites of student-led protests for racial justice, environmental justice, gender liberation, and in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale met at Merritt College in Oakland, California, where they were inspired by the writings of the Black radical author, Franz Fanon. A sign on the Merritt College campus is shown in Figure They began a student group called Soul Students Advisory Council and advocated for the first Black Studies program, before going on to found the Black Panther Party (Rojas, 2010). At the same time, similar efforts were underway throughout California and across the country. The Black Student Union at San Francisco State College (SFSC) was started in 1963 by activists who had trained with the Black Panther Party and SNCC (Rojas, 2010). The organization supported the small minority of Black students at SFSC at the time and sought to increase enrollment. In 1966, Jimmy Garret from SNCC arrived on campus to mobilize and organize Black students (Rojas, 2010).

    At SFSC, the administration allowed students to teach each other courses not included in the traditional curriculum through the Experimental College. Students resisted any attempt to control the content of these courses, including invited speakers. The culture and operations of the Experimental College attracted radicalized Black students. Students, especially leaders in the Black Student Union, used the Experimental College to build the Black Studies curriculum. By 1968, the Black Studies curriculum covered history, social sciences, and the humanities, including courses like Sociology of Black Oppression, American Institutions, Culture in Cities, Composition, Modern African Thought and Literature, Recurrent Themes in Twentieth Century Afroamericano Thought, Creative Writing, Avant-Garde Jazz, Play Writing, and Black Improvisation.

    Picture of the sign on lawn for Merritt College

    Figure 1.2.1: Merritt College. (CC BY 4.0; Photo by Jordan Burkart)

    The Longest Student Strike

    George Murray was a beloved English instructor at SFSC, who was known for his vocal critiques of racism and the Vietnam War. He also served as the Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party. After he was fired on November 1, 1968, student leaders from the BSU and Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) started a strike. The TWLF was a multi-ethnic coalition of students that were awoken to the fact that they were being taught in ways that were dominating and irrelevant to themselves (Maeda, 2012), and included a coalition of the Black Student Union (BSU), Latin American Student Organization (LASO), Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action (ICSA), Mexican American Student Confederation, Philippine (now Pilipino) American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE), La Raza, Native American Students Union, and Asian American Political Alliance. These movements built on intergenerational traditions of protest and advocacy that informed the emergent groups that formed, established, and nurtured Ethnic Studies (Delgado, 2016). Penny Nakatsu was one of the strike’s leaders, and her speeches emphasized the importance of connecting student oppression with U.S. Imperialism and Militarism that creates adverse conditions throughout Third World countries. Nesbit Crutchfield was also a prominent leader in the organization and the first striker to be arrested. He spent over a year in jail.

    Police officers used militarized tactics on strikers, including directly assaulting students. The College’s President at the beginning of the strike, Robert Smith, was initially sympathetic to students and interested in hearing out their demands. However, the administration quickly replaced President Smith with Samuel Ichiyé Hayakawa, who represented the interests of the predominantly white California State College Board of Trustees and then California Governor Ronald Raegan. The TWLF made a conscious choice in their organizing to center the leadership of students of color. However, the strike also garnered support from white students and community members, as well as the faculty union, a local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The strike lasted for nearly five months and at its peak, had halted nearly all classes and college operations. Although the protestors were met with hostility, resistance, arrests, and violence, they countered this with a strategy called the “War of the Flea,” which focused on disruptive tactics that would pressure the administration to take action. For example, protestors checked out massive amounts of books from the library, disrupted classes to encourage students to join the strikes, and staged massive public demonstrations with music and chanting (Rojas, 2010).

    Outcomes of the Strike

    In the end, the strikers won nearly all of their demands, including the creation of a Black Studies Department, the funding of 11.3 new full-time equivalent faculty positions, a new Associate Director of Financial Aid, the creation of an Economic Opportunity Program (EOP) with 108 students admitted for Spring 1969 in this program, as well as 500 seats committed for non-white students in the Fall of 1969 with 400 additional slots for EOP students, and a commitment to creating the School of Ethnic Studies (Rojas, 2010). The School of Ethnic Studies later became San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies, which includes Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Latina/Latino Studies, and Race and Resistance Studies. The strikers’ unmet demands included that Dr. Nathan Hare and George Murray were both denied faculty employment in the newly formed Black Studies program. Despite these losses, to this day, the strike remains the longest student strike in U.S. history and is a testament to the power of student mobilization (Delgado, 2016; Maeda, 2012; Rojas, 2010).

    Sidebar: San Francisco State College Strike Demands

    Black Student Union Demands

    1. That all Black Studies courses being taught through various departments be immediately part of the Black Studies Department and that all the instructors in this department receive full-time pay.
    2. That Dr. Hare, Chairman of the Black Studies Department, receive a full-professorship and a comparable salary according to his qualifications.
    3. That there be a Department of Black Studies which will grant a Bachelor's Degree in Black Studies; that the Black Studies Department chairman, faculty and staff have the sole power to hire faculty and control and determine the destiny of its department.
    4. That all unused slots for Black Students from Fall 1968 under the Special Admissions program be filled in Spring 1969.
    5. That all Black students wishing so, be admitted in Fall 1969.
    6. That twenty (20) full-time teaching positions be allocated to the Department of Black Studies.
    7. That Dr. Helen Bedesem be replaced from the position of Financial Aid Officer and that a Black person be hired to direct it; that Third World people have the power to determine how it will be administered.
    8. That no disciplinary action will be administered in any way to any students, workers, teachers, or administrators during and after the strike as a consequence of their participation in the strike.
    9. That the California State College Trustees not be allowed to dissolve any Black programs on or off the San Francisco State College campus.
    10. That George Murray maintain his teaching position on campus for the 1968-69 academic year.

    Third World Liberation Front Demands

    1. That a School of Ethnic Studies for the ethnic groups involved in the Third World be set up with the students in each particular ethnic organization having the authority and control of the hiring and retention of any faculty member, director, or administrator, as well as the curriculum in a specific area study.
    2. That 50 faculty positions be appropriated to the School of Ethnic Studies, 20 of which would be for the Black Studies program.
    3. That, in the Spring semester, the College fulfill its commitment to the non-white students in admitting those who apply.
    4. That, in the fall of 1969, all applications of non-white students be accepted.
    5. That George Murray and any other faculty person chosen by non-white people as their teacher be retained in their positions.

    The tenacity of the strikers inspired students at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) to form their own Third World Liberation Front in January 1969, who began a separate strike for Ethnic Studies at UCB (Delgado, 2016). Strikers called for a Third World College, but the administration ultimately formed a Department of Ethnic Studies. Throughout the country, racial justice and student activism were front and center, leading to a cascade of activism for Ethnic Studies programs, including the core disciplines of Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian American Studies, and American Indian Studies. In 1969, Chicana/o/x activists came together at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and published El Plan de Santa Barbara, a document that united diverse activists from around the state of California and laid out a roadmap for Chicana/Chicano Studies, as well as programs to increase the retention, engagement, and success of students from minoritized backgrounds (see Chapter 6, section 6.2: "Roots and Resistance- The Development of Chicanx and Latinx Studies"). UCSB created the first Chicano Studies department in the University of California in 1970, now Chicana and Chicano Studies; and eventually formed the first PhD program in the field in 2003. California State University, Los Angeles was also a forerunner in this area and established a Mexican American Studies program, which became the Department of Chicano Studies in 1971, and is now called the Department of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies.

    Ethnic Studies as a Site of Growth

    In the over fifty years since the founding of Ethnic Studies as an academic field, it has grown substantially to include a range of scholarly associations, degree-granting programs at all levels of higher education, growth in the K-12 education system, inclusion within general education curricula, and as a site of struggle and solidarity for racial justice, decolonization, and intersectionality. Subsequent generations of students and scholars have added to the field of Ethnic Studies and expanded its potential for liberatory praxis. As an interdisciplinary field committed to a relevant education, Ethnic Studies has always been a dynamic project that can change and grow.

    Scholarly Associations and Degree Programs

    Scholarly associations are voluntary organizations of professional researchers who organize the exchange of ideas through activities like conferences where scholars present and share their work, newsletters, peer-reviewed publications, scholarships, and research grants. Within Ethnic Studies fields, many scholarly organizations exist which focus on specific disciplines and populations of scholars. Some of these predate the 1968 protests for Ethnic Studies, like the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded in 1915, which is the group responsible for Black History Month. The Association for Ethnic Studies was formed in 1972, just four years after the San Francisco State College strike began. The National Association for Chicano Social Scientists first began in 1972 and later became the National Association for Chicano Studies in 1973. Due to the activist of feminist scholars and their allies, the group changed its name to the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies in 1995, which remains the name today. However, a single association is often not enough to reflect the diversity and complexity of an academic field. For example, Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social was founded in 1982, focusing on Chicana/Latina scholarship separately from what was known as the National Association for Chicano Studies at the time.

    With respect to the other core disciplines of Ethnic Studies, the National Council for Black Studies began in 1975 to help provide a structure to the growing fields of Africana/Black Studies, bringing together scholars of the African diaspora studying various aspects of the global experience of Blackness. In 1979, the Association for Asian American Studies was formed to organize this discipline. The American Indian Studies Association was formed in 1999 to develop the fields of American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Indigenous Studies. As well, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association was formed in 2007 and publishes the journal, Native American and Indigenous Studies with the University of Minnesota Press. Academic associations typically encourage student participation and have specific opportunities and scholarships available to students in that field. There are also associations within other disciplines that utilize a racial justice or decolonial lens, such as the Association of Black Sociologists, the Black Women’s Studies Association, and the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists.

    There are a range of degree programs that are offered in Ethnic Studies fields, reflecting the complexity and depth of experiences among people of color and Indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world. Ethnic Studies programs are united in their shared focus on power and domination, as well as a connection to real-world struggles for justice and equity. This is distinguished between traditional fields of regional studies, cultural studies, and American Studies. For example, researchers who study African cultures, traditions, history, and science may offer a program in African Studies or a degree specific to a region or country on the continent. These programs are distinct from a Black Studies program or Africana Studies program, which focuses on the self-determination and struggles of Black communities in the U.S. or in a transnational context. Ethnic Studies programs may offer degrees in Comparative Ethnic Studies, which addresses multiple historically defined racialized groups, or with a specific concentration in disciplines like Black Studies, African American Studies, Africana Studies, Native American Studies, Indigenous Studies, American Indian Studies, Chicanx and Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, Critical Pacific Islands & Oceania Studies, Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas, and Critical Middle East/Southwest and North Africa Studies.

    Institutional Growth and Policies

    While Ethnic Studies has grown as an academic discipline, it has always maintained its connection to community collaborations and ensuring that scholarship and education are useful to communities affected by historical violence, settler-colonialism, and systems of exploitation. Student activists are a key force in Ethnic Studies, and groups like BSU (Black Student Union) and MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán or the Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlan) build student leadership, advocate for equity and policy change, and develop relationships with historically underserved communities in higher education. Students have also been a major part of advancing Ethnic Studies programs and speaking out when they face budget cuts and administrative threats. For instance, in 1999, the Third World Liberation Front at UCB emerged once more and organized hunger strikes to protest the proposed cuts to both funding and faculty support for the Ethnic Studies department. The movement also included rallies, sit-ins, and building occupations, and managed to stop the cuts to the department and generated an administrative commitment to establishing a research center that was eventually called the Center for Race & Gender. In 2016, the TWLF emerged again, this time at San Francisco State University, also staging hunger strikes as part of a strategy to pressure the administration into making investments in the College of Ethnic Studies. The College faced a nearly $250,000 deficit in funding, with the University failing to provide adequate financial resources to cover the salaries of all faculty and permanent staff. The student demonstrations, including a 10-day hunger strike and camping overnight on campus grounds, led to university administrators committing a total of over $650,000 to both address the shortfall and expand the faculty for teaching high-quality and innovative Ethnic Studies courses.

    Ethnic Studies classes are a great opportunity for students to deepen their knowledge and passion for these topics. Educators have also shown that these classes have general benefits for all students, as well as campus communities as a whole (Bonilla, Dee, and Penner, 2021). This has led faculty advocates and administrators to establish Ethnic Studies as a general education graduation requirement. In 2020, the California state legislature passed Assembly Bill 1460 (authored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber), which changed the general education curriculum to include Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement for all 23 campuses in the California State University (CSU) system. The CSUs enroll nearly half a million students (485,550 in 2022) and are the largest public research university system in the world. The legislative directive in AB 1460 made it so that all students must take an Ethnic Studies class taught in an Ethnic Studies department, separate from any related diversity or multiculturalism requirements. This acknowledged the status of Ethnic Studies as a distinct field of scholarship. The California Community Colleges followed suit by establishing Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement, while the University of California system Academic Council is considering both an Ethnic Studies graduation requirement and admission requirement for high school students hoping to attend the UC.

    Ethnic Studies curriculum has a long history in the K-12 educational context as well. In 1970, the Native American Materials Development Center created a K-6 curriculum for Navajo children that included both historical content and culturally relevant pedagogies. As early as 1993, the Berkeley Unified School District created a 9th grade course in Ethnic Studies and made it a graduation requirement. In 2007, Kailu High School in Hawai’i established Ethnic Studies as a required 9th-grade course for all students. In 2014, El Rancho Unified in Pico Rivera, CA, created a high school requirement for Ethnic Studies. The Ethnic Studies Now Coalition helped to spread the successes of Ethnic Studies to other communities, including through advocacy as well as sharing resources. With more and more districts adopting Ethnic Studies, statewide advocates in California moved to formalize the curriculum and establish a framework for Ethnic Studies teachers. Campus programs like the UCLA Center X / Teacher Education Program, Exito at UCSB, and XITO (Xicanx Institute for Teaching and Organizing) have started to train educators interested in working in this growing field.

    Threats Against Ethnic Studies

    While Ethnic Studies scholarship and curriculum have seen substantial growth over 50 years, this has always been threatened by counter-movements and institutional resistance. In 1998 in Tucson, Arizona, the school district established a Mexican American Studies program that grew to 48 course offerings and was the largest Ethnic Studies program in any school district nationwide. The department offered student support and facilitated teachers’ and parents’ involvement in Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x student success, which directly increased graduation rates and grades in all classes (Cabrera, Milem, and Marx, 2012). In 2010, state lawmakers passed Arizona House Bill 2281, which dismantled the program. The ban was overturned in 2017, as it was deemed racist and unconstitutional. The rhetoric from this law, which claimed to restrict teachers from promoting “resentment toward a race or class of people" or advocating “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals,” re-emerged in 2021 as conservative activists passed statewide bans on Critical Race Theory to intimidate K-12 educators working to have discussions about race and ethnicity in their classrooms. Despite this political hostility and counter-mobilization, Ethnic Studies educators and others invested in student equity and success continue to work at the front lines to inspire students and ensure that the next generation has access to a relevant education.

    As California has continued to formalize and institutionalize Ethnic Studies, scholars and activists have contended over the boundaries of the field and its purpose for higher education and society. In 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101 (authored by Assemblymember Jose Medina), which established that all high school districts will be required to offer Ethnic Studies by the 2025-2026 school year and require an Ethnic Studies course for graduation by 2029-2030. Prior to establishing an Ethnic Studies requirement, the state Department of Education adopted an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum in March 2021. The first draft of the Model Curriculum included lessons on the occupation of Palestine and its connection to Third World solidarity movements in the United States. However, the final draft removed this content and emphasized General Ethnic Studies, along with the four core disciplines centered on historically defined racial groups: African American Studies, Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x Studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies, and Native American Studies, along with sample lessons on Jewish Americans and Arab Americans. The Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum was created by independent scholars as a guide for K-12 educators that also includes Arab American Studies, along with Intersectional and Comparative Ethnic Studies. This group of educators is working to ensure that diverse perspectives within Ethnic Studies are continuously cultivated and represented.

    Sidebar: Contention over the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

    In 2019, the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee convened at the California Department of Education in Sacramento. The convening began with a land acknowledgment, showing a commitment to Indigenous peoples. And, the first draft of the high school curriculum incorporated the attempted genocide and resistance of California Natives. In its first version, the model curriculum had a lesson about land acknowledgment as well as protection of sacred sites, but they were removed. By 2022 when the final version was published, the Indigenous (Mayan) inspired poem, In Lak’Ech, was removed from the approved Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for high schools.


    The section titled Early Days of Ethnic Studies comes from the page The Beginning of Ethnic Studies is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI))

    1.2: Growth and Expansion of Ethnic Studies is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick.