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Institutionalization and Political Struggles for Justice

How do we contend with the “institutionalization of political struggles for justice?” In the symposium “Administration and Diversity in the Public University: A Feminist Conversation” hosted by the UC Davis Feminist Research Institute, scholars across the University of California considered this question and others. With the hiring of a new Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, one panel asked: “what do the histories of establishing social-justice motivated departments and programs have to teach us now looking forward?”

Associate Professor of American Studies Erica Kohl-Arenas, who is also the Faculty Director of Imagining America, drew links between the current state of higher education and the broader historical question about how social movements have been institutionalized and incorporated as nonprofits. Taking the California farm workers movement as a case study, she explored how movement leader César Chávez initially maintained a firm stance against outside donations and movement institutionalization because he viewed farmworker ownership as a necessity to achieve dignity and justice. Foundations funding civil rights wanted to fund the farmworkers movement, and eventually Chávez agreed the movement would need to “get in the game” or lose the opportunity to gain funds and institutionalization as other movements were doing. Chávez looked at this process as a negotiation between the movement and wealth. There were consequences to accepting institutionalization; it does not ruin the movement, but it requires a leaning away of the more radical elements. Nonprofits, therefore, became a “safe retreat.” Negotiated frames of social change have to do with individuals who need to negotiate the politics of philanthropic institutions. Kohl-Arenas considered the parallels between negotiating wealth and philanthropy and the politics of a chief diversity officer at the university. These officers may have radical goals for their students while also having to work within the confines of the institution.

Nick Mitchell, Assistant Professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Santa Cruz, began by recognizing the fifty-year anniversary of the five-month-long San Francisco State College (Now San Francisco State University) student strike that negotiated the first College of Ethnic Studies. An ignoble anniversary joins it next year; following the strike, the state of California passed over fifty different laws regulating the conduct of student activists. On this anniversary, Mitchell posits several theses on diversity. Diversity’s history is a “history of displacement and divergence from the idea of movements for social justice.” The story of diversity is as much due to the attacks on social justice movements as to the movements themselves. These attacks shaped the conversation about and around diversity. Furthermore, the University of California has always been a gender-inclusive institution, “which was central to the function of settler colonial California” at its genesis. The Supreme Court case, UC Regents v. Bakke (1978), which upheld the legality of affirmative action, provided legislative backing for the last forty years of diversity discourse. Moreover, it coincided with the “alignment of diversity with managerialism.” “Diversity is not a being but a doing,” Mitchell stated. “Peoples’ bodies are cited as evidence of diversity. That doing manifests as an injunction to work.” Diversity also is a follows the pattern of steady tuition inflation and wage stagnation–and diversified bodies disproportionately feel this pattern. Diversity’s logic is one of accumulation, Mitchell contended, and the question is fundamentally about how to become more diverse, how to add or retain more bodies representative of diversity. Finally, critique is not transformation; if transformation is the aim, we must see diversity work as work. The university needs diversity and those whose bodies are used to represent diversity perform the work. That work should be acknowledge and, therefore, able to be leveraged.

How do introductions of acknowledgement of indigenous land delineate paths forward? Mishuana Goeman, Associate Professor of Gender Studies, Chair of American Indian Studies Interdepartmental Program and Associate Director of the American Indian Studies Research Center at UCLA expounded on this question. Goeman, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, explained that the introduction is intended to “place oneself in physical geographic location” while also placing “oneself in a trajectory of cultural, intellectual and political and lineages.” It is an anti-colonial tool to “root indigenous being and recognize alternative knowledges” that every university needs. The recognition in introductions are not solely rooted in the past, but also intended to put indigenous peoples in relationship with the future of indigeneity. The introduction is a space whereby relationships are forged—between peoples and between communities. Moreover, it remind people of the relationship and ancestors that were here before. Significantly, it is not an apology for the past– it leads a future forward and creates indigenous and allied networks. “Grammars of settler apologies can never suffice,” Goeman said, and universities need to work with indigenous peoples. Critiquing settler colonialism, too, is not enough. We need to look for the way forward, something on which indigenous scholars have been working for decades. The UC could and should have a relationship to native people to find that way.

Clarissa Rojas, Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies at UC Davis, paints the picture of the death of socialities. With the formation of Ethnic Studies came a disruption to the logics of the university. However, it also produced the politics of incorporation and the “dismemberment of the collective body.” She cites Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, which sees connections between the university and the plantation; “in many ways the university is much better at undermining socialities in the process of individuation.” The university also contains a generational disconnect as it “restricts the flow of life across generations; where are the children?” Professionalization is tied to adulthood, Rojas argued, and the “faculty-student divide depends on the degradation of the young.” Rojas illustrates the university’s intergenerational disconnect through a personal story. When Rojas brought her six-month-old daughter to class on the day her students delivered their final projects, the students were calmer because of her presence. “Children are not yet captured by colonial logics,” Rojas articulated. “The little ones make us so human….The university is in check so they sent the young ones elsewhere. They sent the caretakers, the caring, the soft side elsewhere.”

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–Ashley Serpa, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and PhD Candidate in History

This page was last updated: April 8, 2019



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