The Third World Liberation Front was a coalition of multi-ethnic students that formed in 1968 in California. It paved the way for Ethnic Studies in the U.S.
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Social Activism

The Third World Liberation Front and Ethnic Studies

December 16, 2020

The call for Asian American Studies (and more generally, Ethnic Studies) across the US has been making recent headlines. Students and teachers understand that through the power of a more culturally-diverse curriculum, individuals develop an empowering and socially-dynamic mindset that they can take wherever they go in life. While these needs appear to have been cropping up only as of recent, the reality is that the fight for a more relevant, non-white dominated discourse in schools has been going on for decades. Ethnic Studies advocates credit the Third World Liberation Front Strikes as one of the first key events in this fight.

Who was the Third World Liberation Front and Why Were They Striking?

A cartoon and demands from a Third World Liberation Front pamphlet distributed at the University of California, Berkeley.
Excerpt from a TWLF pamphlet distributed by students at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) was formed in the late 1960s and was composed of multi-ethnic coalitions of student organizations at San Francisco State College and the University of Berkeley. TWLF went on strike to fight for relevant, accessible education for and by BIPOC students.

The term “Third World” connected the racial minorities in the U.S. to the important crusades for independence and self-advocacy in third world countries affected by western colonization. Other coinciding movements influenced the coalition, including the Civil Rights Movement and anti-imperialist efforts in regards to the Vietnam War. 

Self-determination played a key role in TWLF's mission. This idea called on schools to address the systemic oppression caused by racism. Through self-determination, BIPOC students would decide what studying their culture means for themselves and how it should be organized. It was clear as day to these students that education focused more on the needs of businesses rather than the needs of the communities that TWLF students called home. Turbulent times in the U.S. and abroad pushed students to make their opinions loud and clear to society.

The First TWLF Strikes: San Francisco State College

San Francisco State College students picketing with a man holding a sign with a Mandarin Chinese character that reads “love”.
San Francisco State College students picketing in 1969. Man holding up a sign with a Mandarin Chinese character that reads “love”.

A list of tumultuous events led to the first TWLF strikes at San Francisco State College, starting with the college’s new president, Dr. John Summerskill. On May 2, 1967, students took over Dr. Summerskill's office to protest how their college actively provided the Selective Service Office information on students’ academic standing. The Selective Students Office was in charge of who would be potentially drafted into war. This was followed by an incident where James Vaszko, the editor of the school's newspaper called the Gator, was attacked by several black students. Vaszko published a story urging a big corporation to halt any plans of offering money to the college, which would have benefitted programs hosted by the Black Student Union sponsored programs. This piece exposed white students’ discontent with outside funds being offered to black students.

In response to these events, Black, Latin American, Chicano, Asian American, and Native American student organizations occupied the YMCA and began protesting on March 23, 1968. Student unrest continued as students presented demands such as removing the Air Force-R.T.C. program from campus. 

On November 6, 1968, the longest student strike in American history began. The Black Student Union and TWLF had a list of 15 demands that were still not met by the college. Demands included a larger Black Studies Program and rehiring faculty of color. This strike led to police brutality, the school closing, and teacher protests. The five-month strike ended on March 21, 1969. Some of the strike's wins included the creation of America's first School of Ethnic Studies and Black Studies department, and student representation in the committee to create the School.

Second Strike: University of California, Berkeley

Students activists from four University of California, Berkeley ethnic student groups protesting on a street.
Students activists from the Afro-American Students Union, the Mexican-American Student Confederation, the Native American Student Union, and the Asian American Political Alliance. Left to right, in order from their perspective groups: Charles Brown, Ysidro Macias, LaNada Means, and Stan Kadani. 

The TWLF chapter at the University of California, Berkeley followed a similar path as its predecessor-- that past incidents tend to bubble up to the real event. In the spring of 1968, students of the Afro-American Student Union (AASU) submitted a proposal to design a Black Studies Program that would be made and directed towards black students. Although the Chancellor and UC Regents approved the proposal, it was a sad arrangement that lacked any opportunity for black students’ and faculty members' opinions. 

Black, Latin American, Chicano, Asian American, and Native American student organizations started a picketing protest on January 22, 1969, a few months after the first strike in SF. Disappointing compromises offered by the administration for a Black Studies Program led to the protests. The TWLF at the university had identical demands to the strikes in San Francisco but also included others such as work-study roles in Chinatown and Manilatown. Protests were again responded to with police violence. The strikes ended on March 4, 1969, with the promise of an Ethnic Studies Department, but it would be controlled like every other department and not by the students.

Effects on Asian American and Ethnic Studies Today

Schools across the country continue to advocate for robust Ethnic and Asian American Studies programs today. Check out how these programs have evolved since the revolutionary efforts of TWLF. 

Vassar College

Vassar College students gather during a student showcase project for an Asian American Studies class.
Students present during a showcase for the Asian American Studies class, Fugitivity in the Academy. The class was student-run. 

Located in the scenic Hudson Valley, Vassar College is a small private liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1965, Professor Johanna Meskill led the creation of the Asian Studies Program. Although at that time it was known as the East Asian Studies Program, the program offered a curriculum that included East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The program initially only offered a minor until 1970. 

In 1979, Asian American students joined strikes led by students of color and demanded an Asian American Studies program. The Asian Student’s Alliance planned a protest twelve years later as many demands remained unfulfilled. Although Vassar added twelve more faculty members throughout the 2000s, none of the professors were hired specifically to be in the Asian Studies program. In 2006, the student-ran Ethnic Studies Coalition won their demand to have two tenure-track lines to each of the Latino/a, Native American, and Asian American Studies. Again, this promise was not met. Around 2018, students formed the Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group to continue the movement where it left off. Students created social media campaigns, conducted surveys, met with administration and faculty, organized panels and workshops. This year, students helped in the hiring process of Postdoc Professor Vivian Truong who teaches in American Studies and Asian Studies.

Yale University

Yale University Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program faculty visiting a pop-up bookstore hosted by the program’s students.
Faculty in the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program show supports for a pop-up library hosted by students in the program. The empty bookshelves represent the 41 faculty that the program lost, plus the thirteen who left in Spring 2019.

Known by many, Yale University is an Ivy League university in New Haven, Connecticut. The Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program (ER&M), started in 1997, “engage[s] the fields of ethnic, Native, and queer of color studies to study race, migration, culture, and politics within a global framework.” Since its founding, there has been an amazing turnout of students interested in the program. 

With a growing following, the department has had its share of growing pains. On January  21, 2020, the Yale Daily News released an article describing ER&M students' lamentations over the difficulty of getting into courses during their "shopping period" for classes. Only a select amount of professors teach in the program and many classes are interdisciplinary which increases the competition. Last spring, thirteen tenured ER&M faculty left the program due to the lack of support offered by the university and concerns about the sustainability of the program. In May 2019, student, faculty, and alumni activism convinced Yale to give the department "new institutional status and permanence”. ER&M faculty were able to rejoin the program as a result.

The George Washington University

George Washington University's Asian American Student Association student as a kid with her grandma and a boy in a courtyard.
An Instagram post from the George Washington University Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Alliance's campaign for Asian American Studies. 

The George Washington University (GWU) is a private research university situated in Washington, D.C. Talks about starting an Asian American Studies minor started in 2017 when the then-president of the Asian American Student Association (AASA), Jeremy Lee, met with English Professor Patty Chu. Alongside the English Department, AASA is also working with faculty in the Theatre and Dance department. Students and faculty envision that the program will focus on the culture and experiences of Asian Americans, and include experiential learning such as community service. The current Asian-focused department and program offered at GWU— the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures in the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences (CCAS) and the Asian Studies Master's Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs— do not have a critical Ethnic Studies focus. 

During this past summer, students started the GWU Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Alliance to support the rally for Asian American Studies. Faculty recently submitted a proposal for an Asian American Studies minor this past fall semester. In addition to this, students gathered 2,500 signatures on a petition to pressure administrators to approve the proposal. Thanks to the grassroots advocacy, the proposal passed the review stage with the CCAS Deans as CCAS would house the new minor. Students eagerly await as the Undergraduate Studies Committee must review the proposal next.

California State University

People attending a press conference in support of the ethnic studies graduation requirement at California State University.
Press conference in Sacramento advocating for the new ethnic studies requirement on June 27, 2018.

The California State University (CSU) is a public university system that houses 23 campuses across the state. Back in August, California adopted a new law that required students attending a state university to take an ethnic studies class. Fast-forward to this past month: the Board of Trustees voted 9-2 to make an amendment that only “a class in one of four ethnic studies disciplines: Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies or Latina and Latino studies.”

Controversy still abounds after the latest board meeting, specifically over when the course requirement must be taken. CSU chancellor’s office prefers that the ethnic studies course be taken in the lower-division (in the first two years of college). Others argue that students should be allowed to take it anytime throughout a student's education and with faculty specializing in these disciplines. In response to this month’s amendment, the CSU’s Academic Senate passed a resolution requesting that the Board of Trustees and the chancellor’s office determine that the requirement could be completed at either the lower- or upper-division. Although there is overall support for the new law, community colleges will face funding and logistic issues if the law becomes a lower-division requirement. For example, approximately 40 out of 116 community colleges currently don't offer ethnic studies classes. The law will take effect starting next fall for the class of 2025.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The story of the TWLF Strikes and its effect on today’s education system proves that progress towards a more inclusive and impactful education is a marathon, not a race. What does Ethnic and Asian American Studies mean to you? Did you ever take a class in these disciplines in college?