In the late 1960s, students of color and working-class white students shut down universities to demand the creation of ethnic studies courses and greater access to education for working-class and underrepresented groups. Lasting almost half a year, these student movements, the longest student strikes in the history of the United States, occurred at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968 and led to the creation of the first ethnic studies departments in the United States. The broad coalition of African American, Asian American, Chicana/o, Latina/o, Native American, and white students, known as the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), emphasized the general principles of educational relevance: third world solidarity, self-determination, social justice, and “to serve the people” (Umemoto, 1989).
Inspired by anticolonial movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America, the TWLF radicalized the purpose of higher education in order to link social justice with demolishing settler colonialism and capitalism. Settler colonialism is a form of politics that has both structural and ideological components. More than a singular historical event, it dynamically frames and codes society while removing indigenous people and affirming property rights over land and resources. Through structural and symbolic violence, settler colonialists regulate material and discursive spaces by occupying land and by reinforcing a restrictive private property system and forced labor regimes (Kauanui, 2008; Nakano Glenn, 2015; Tuhiwai Smith, 2012).
These distinct origins shaped the discipline's approach to “civic engagement” and “service learning” in higher education in the United States. Organizing under the umbrella of “to serve the people,” ethnic studies offered some of the first courses with political engagement that centered community and indigenous knowledges, ontologies, cosmologies, and epistemologies. The first wave of ethnic studies classes interpreted community engagement as destabilizing Eurocentric, colonizing curriculum and hierarchical classroom structures. Initially, ethnic studies classes were democratically run with community members as facilitators and included community language courses co-taught by community members and students. Carrying forward its community-based and decolonizing origins, many ethnic studies programs and departments continue to frame “service learning” in terms of unmasking hegemonic power structures and fostering autonomy and self-determination. In this interpretation of “community engagement,” students participate in community and link experience with education in order to consider and grapple with the multiple facets of settler colonialism and capitalism.