A Black Lives Matter-led coalition has launched a drive to address “anti-blackness” within California State University, the nation’s largest four-year system, which consists of 23 campuses with about 430,000 undergraduates.
The alliance recently issued a set of 15 demands intended to transform CSU’s Los Angeles location, commonly known as Cal State LA, into a “Freedom Campus” to “make Black Lives Matter.”
The list is directed to campus President William Covino. It starts by instructing him to appoint a prominent Black Lives Matter organizer as a Dean. Followed by calls to defund the campus police department, hire more non-white counselors, and establish “a student-driven process for the removal of administrators.” Seven of the demands are related to the newly established College of Ethnic Studies.
Those demands have been co-signed by the California Faculty Association, a labor union that represents 29,000 professors, lecturers, librarians, and other staffers who teach in the CSU system. According to its website, the group is “affiliated nationally” with the Service Employees International Union, and “CFA members are automatically members of the SEIU.”
#DrAbdullah4Dean is about more than @DocMellyMel.
It's about building a #FreedomCampus…
1. #DefundThePolice on campus
2. Open up @CalStateLA to Black students.
3. Invest in #EthnicStudies.
4. Appoint Dr. Abdullah!
We're calling on #PresidentCovino to MAKE #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/nBlmulxwBq
— #BlackLivesMatter-LA (@BLMLA) July 31, 2020
. #PresidentCovino has the power to appoint a Dean for @EthnicStudiesLA College! @CalStateLA students, faculty, staff, clergy & community members have shown him who should represent our campus: @DocMellyMel . We demand #DrAbdullah4Dean ! His silence screams #Racism & #Sexism pic.twitter.com/fH1VH7QUhe
— CA Faculty Assoc (@CFA_News) July 31, 2020
A statement that accompanied the Freedom Campus demands reads:
There is a long documented pattern of anti-Blackness at Cal State LA that has created an unwelcoming environment for Black students, faculty, staff, and community members. Many Black people and others at this campus continue to lose confidence in the University leadership’s professed commitment to social justice, equity, and inclusion. The current national tragedies of institutional anti-Blackness are not isolated from this institution.
Dr. Melina Abdullah, who leads the LA chapter of Black Lives Matter, is also a professor of Pan African Studies at Cal State LA. The department is now part of the nation’s second College of Ethnic Studies. Abdullah asked the public to help persuade President Covino to appoint her to the unfilled deanship position.
According to the job description, the Founding Dean will participate “in developing University policy and strategic planning and represent the College internally and in the larger community and region.”
Let’s convince President Covino of what students, faculty, staff & community already know…
we need a #FreedomCampus and I’m committed to building just that. Please SIGN & SHARE the petition to make me inaugural dean of the new College of Ethnic Studies. https://t.co/4K5oL88abA
— Melina Abdullah (@DocMellyMel) July 16, 2020
Abdullah’s supporters say the national search for a Dean was unsuccessful, and campus administration never took her candidacy seriously. Her allies claim, “She was told in no uncertain terms that they would not appoint her due to her unapologetic opposition to all expressions of anti-Blackness on campus and in the community.”
. @CalStateLA 's refusal to advance @DocMellyMel beyond a courtesy interview for the College of Ethnic Studies dean reveals their antiBlackness! @DocMellyMel is authentic to #EthnicStudies and will make @CalStateLA a #FreedomCampus ! #EndAntiBlacknessAtCalStateLA #DrAbdullah4Dean
— Sunrise L.A. Youth 🌅 (@SunriseLAYouth) July 17, 2020
Hundreds of activists, students, and faculty members rallied outside President Covino’s office on July 13, which coincidentally was the seventh anniversary of what would become the Black Lives Matter Global Network. LA. City Councilman Herb J. Wesson reportedly spoke on Abdullah’s behalf, saying the decision whether to appoint her was “a no brainer.”
According to the official Twitter account of the PAS Department, “President Covino locked doors and called parking enforcement instead of addressing the people.”
.@DocMellyMel is speaking now
“Pan-African studies is not only the home for Black students but it’s the home for any student who wants to step into their fullest self and challenge systems of oppression.” pic.twitter.com/tE6vTuSWAP
— Lex Roman (@calexity) July 13, 2020
100s showed up yesterday to demand that our beloved @DocMellyMel be named Inaugural Dean of the College of #EthnicStudies that she helped to vision and win. President Covino locked doors and called parking enforcement instead of addressing the people.
CALL HIM AT 323-343-3030.
— Pan-African Studies (@PanAfricans) July 14, 2020
Abdullah was instrumental in convincing LA’s public school district in 2014 to mandate ethnic studies classes as a requirement for high school graduation. She serves on the Taskforce for the Advancement of Ethnic Studies for the CSU system.
Meanwhile, she is pushing statewide legislation requiring CSU students to take one 3-credit unit of any accepted Ethnic Studies class. That proposal, Assembly Bill 1460, would supersede a broader requirement recently approved by CSU’s Board of Trustees. The bill is expected to reach Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk soon.
— DICK CHENEY SHOT A MAN (@MicSchirtzer) July 17, 2020
In an essay titled, “Institutions Didn’t Birth Ethnic Studies, Movements Did,” Abdullah explained that the academic field stems from Black liberation revolutionaries from the 1960s:
The full-scale struggle for Ethnic Studies was launched in 1968 at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University). In the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and an era of Black Power, Black Studies became central to the fight. In its ten-point program, the Black Panther Party advanced a liberatory model of education that undergirds Ethnic Studies: “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of the decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.” The Party went on to help organize community, students, and faculty at San Francisco State to demand Black Studies and, in short order, Ethnic Studies. The 134-day-long student strike that ensued carried with it real human costs: physical injuries, arrests, retaliation, loss of jobs and income, and trauma. In the end, however, the only set of disciplines to be grounded in community demand was birthed.
To be clear, Black Studies specifically and Ethnic Studies more broadly are the results of movement, demand, and struggle, not of administrative decision-making, or benevolent ideals of diversity and inclusivity initiated by structures that were designed to silence Black dissent and the voices of the oppressed.
“Black Studies transformed me from one who dropped out of traditional high school and was losing her way to one who earned her Ph.D. and became a professor and activist/organizer,” Abdullah once revealed to her followers on social media. “There are countless others like me whose lives have been saved by ethnic studies.”
Through the Pan African Studies Department, which bills itself as “the intellectual arm of the revolution,” Dr. Abdullah serves as a mentor to several students on a similar journey, often referring to them as her “spirit children.” The department lists at least three BLM members on its faculty and staff, which has sometimes functioned as a de facto extension of the activist group’s LA chapter. The setting has also provided opportunities to welcome students into the local progressive organizing scene, both on and off university grounds.
“Pan-African Studies’ contribution to the formation of Black Lives Matter was a significant touchpoint in the reclamation of the department’s and discipline’s community allegiance,” Abdullah wrote. “What emerged was an understanding that PAS and Black freedom struggle were bound together. By strengthening Ethnic Studies, we awaken and support generations of leaders who embrace the Black radical tradition.”
As the drive to “build a Freedom Campus” at Cal State LA gains momentum, a student-fronted BLM group recently formed at CSU’s Northridge location nearby. Activists from the university organized a protest march in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death. They emphasized the benefits of ethnic studies courses and called for defunding the campus police department, closing the school’s jail, and renaming the library, which they say is named after a racist.
“Student activism is hugely important to the movement,” Dr. Abdullah recently told The Sundial, a news organization covering the Northridge campus. “Young people are less invested in the current system. Young people tend to be more audacious and visionary in what it is they’re calling for. The initial convening of Black Lives Matter – when we were first called together by (BLM co-founder) Patrisse Cullors – about half of the people gathered were my students from Cal State LA.”
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