Institute for Ethnic Studies celebrating 50 years

· 6 min read

Institute for Ethnic Studies celebrating 50 years

Jordan Charlton discusses with his class during the ETHN 100 - Introduction to Ethnic Studies course Feb. 1.
Craig Chandler | University Communication
Jordan Charlton discusses with his class during the ETHN 100 - Introduction to Ethnic Studies course Feb. 1.

Fifty years ago, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and nationwide political protests against continuing racism and white supremacy, students and faculty at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln advocated for an academic home for the study of race and ethnicity.

In 1972, the Institute for Ethnic Studies was founded to educate students about issues that were so urgent and pressing then — and remain so today.

“Our institute at UNL was among the first academic centers created in the United States to support groundbreaking research, teaching and service on issues of race, ethnicity and social justice,” said Joy Castro, Willa Cather professor of English and director of the institute. “Our mission remains crucial.”

Over the next five decades, the Institute for Ethnic Studies became an interdisciplinary academic unit that offers a major, five minors, and graduate specializations at the master’s and doctoral levels. Instructors in ethnic studies have won university awards for excellence in teaching, and many are nationally and internationally known for their scholarship and creative work on racial justice.

“Teaching ETHN 100: Introduction to Ethnic Studies here at UNL has been a transformative experience, and the eagerness with which my students engage with me in class gives me hope for the future,” said Eli Ornelas, a doctoral student in sociology and instructor in ethnic studies.

Students who major or minor in ethnic studies can focus on African studies, African American studies, U.S. Latinx studies, Latin American studies and Indigenous studies. The development of a long-desired Asian American studies program is now under way. A new minor in racial justice, inclusion and equity — a diversity credential to combine with any major and prepare for a global workplace — is enrolling students now.

“Educating people about racism and racial justice wasn’t easy in 1972, and it isn’t easy today,” Castro said. “There continue to be segments of the population that prefer to ignore or deny the racist violence of our country’s past and present. We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

To mark the 50th anniversary, the institute is hosting a week-long series of events March 28 to April 4 that explore various aspects of racial and Indigenous justice.

“Our line-up is stunning,” Castro said. “We’ve scheduled knockout lectures by distinguished scholars from across North America: Norma Cantú, Daniel Heath Justice, Keisha Blain, Virginia Espino and Renee Tajima-Peña.”

The events include presentations via Zoom, and screenings of documentary films, including the PBS docuseries “Asian Americans,” and the short skateboarding documentary, “Skate Manzanar,” both directed by Renee Tajima-Pena.

“All of our events are free and open to the public, thanks to the generous support of the Chancellor’s Office and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.” Margaret Huettl, Anishinaabe historian in the Department of History and head of the Indigenous studies program, said. “We’re also in the fortunate position of having several new scholarships and awards to bestow, thanks to the generosity of donors who care about racial and Indigenous justice.”

Among the new scholarships and awards are the Leo Yankton Award for Indigenous Justice; the Rafael (Ralph) Grajeda Graduate Student Support Fund; the Rev. Dr. Michael W. Combs Memorial Fund for Scholars of Equality and Justice; and the Libano Fabio Castro Scholarship in Film Studies.

The Leo Yankton Award for Indigenous Justice honors the extraordinary life and work of local Lakota activist Leo Yankton. He grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and in Lincoln, and he was the keynote speaker at a previous spring celebration. The award will be given annually to one or more students, staff members, non-ethnic studies faculty members, or non-university affiliated individuals who have contributed significantly to Indigenous justice in the spirit of Leo’s own Native activism.

“Ethnic Studies is especially proud to now offer an award dedicated to the tribal peoples of Nebraska and the Great Plains,” said Tom Gannon, associate director of the institute and Lakota memoirist.

The Rafael (Ralph) Grajeda Graduate Student Support Fund will be given to a doctoral student and is named for Grajeda, who co-founded the institute. After he earned his doctorate at Nebraska, he became a revered teacher and scholar of Chicanx literature in the Department of English. He was director of the institute from 1979 to 1984.

The Rev. Dr. Michael W. Combs Memorial Fund for Scholars of Equality and Justice was founded in honor of the late Combs, a scholar of African American politics, constitutional law, and judicial politics who taught for 40 years at Nebraska, and directed the institute from 1989 to 1991.

The inaugural Libano Fabio Castro Scholarship in Film Studies will be awarded to a junior or senior majoring in film studies with a second major or minor in Latinx or Latin American studies.

“This award honors my late father, who always loved film but couldn’t afford college until after he retired,” Castro said. “All of the instructors in ethnic studies are dedicated to making the future brighter than the past. It’s why I love being part of the institute.”

The 50th anniversary celebration includes presentations from (left to right) Norma Elia Cantú, Daniel Heath Justice, Keisha N. Blain, Renee Tajima-Peña and Virginia Espino.

The week of celebration is as follows:

March 28:
  • Screening of “Asian Americans,” episode 1, “Breaking Ground,” 4 p.m., Lied Commons.

  • Screening of “Who Killed Vincent Chin,” 5 p.m. Lied Commons.

March 29:
  • Screening of “Asian Americans,” episode 2, “A Question of Loyalty,” 4 p.m., Lied Commons.

  • Screening of “Skate Manzanar,” 5 p.m., Lied Commons.

  • Presentation by Norma Elia Cantu, honoring Ralpha Grajeda, “A Pilgrimage: 50 Years of Ethnic Studies at UNL,” 5:30 p.m. via Zoom. Register here.

March 30:
  • Screening of “Asian Americans,” episode 3, “Good Americans,” 4 p.m., Lied Commons.

  • Presentation by Daniel Heath Justice, “Blood, Nation, Kin: Pasts and Futures of Indigenous Literary Studies,” 5:30 p.m., via Zoom. Register here.

March 31:
  • Screening of “Asian Americans,” episode 4, “Generation Rising,” 4 p.m., Lied Commons.

  • Presentation by Keisha Blain, “Black Women and the Struggle for Human Rights,” 6:30 p.m., via Zoom. Register here.

April 1:
  • Presentation by Renee Tajima-Peña, “Why Asian American Studies Matters,” noon, via Zoom. Register here.

  • Screening of “Asian Americans,” episode 5, “Breaking Through,” 5 p.m., Lied Commons.

April 4:
  • Screening of “No Más Bebés,” 4 p.m., Lied Commons

  • Presentation by Virginia Espino, “‘Para que Recuerden’: Acts of Love for Family and Community,” will follow the screening, at approximately 5 p.m. Lecture is in-person, but will also be available via Zoom. Register here.

For more information on the Institute for Ethnic Studies, or on the films and speakers included in the celebration, visit the IES website.

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