One September evening, my friends and I attended a spoken word performance in William L. Harkness Hall’s Sudler Hall. The line of students packed the staircase, bending around to the Cross Campus exit. It wound past a small hallway I’d never ventured into, too tucked away to seem significant. I had passed that hallway exiting the building numerous times, after creative writing group sessions, extracurricular meetings and political philosophy sections. Then, to write this article, I finally went back there on a November afternoon and encountered the humble beginnings of an interdisciplinary center aiming to transform ethnic studies at Yale.
The Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, or RITM, is dedicated to intersectional race, gender and sexuality research as well as academic work regarding Native and diasporic communities both domestically and transnationally. To cultivate robust scholarship, the center supports undergraduate education by housing the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program and incentivizes graduate and postdoctoral work with a number of fellowship opportunities.
According to Mary Lui, professor of American Studies and history who sits on RITM’s Faculty Advisory Board, the center occupies a few offices in WLH. Lui, who is also head of Timothy Dwight College, said she is impressed with what RITM has been able to do so far on campus.
At first glance, however, the current state of RITM belies the program’s impact. The wooden table for four in WLH Room 104, RITM Associate Director Erin Johnson’s personal office, is the primary meeting space. Two postdoctoral fellows share Room 103, and Room 102 serves as RITM’s administrative office. Outside these rooms are two bulletin boards displaying posters for related talks, conferences and other events. The loose, blue plaque identifying the center feels as makeshift as the center itself. RITM plans to move to 35 Broadway, where the ER&M program is located, in late January 2017. How the center will succeed in fully establishing itself is still yet to be seen. And it must answer a larger question: how will it matter to the larger academic, student community?
RITM’s transitional stage has not subdued enthusiasm among faculty members. “We don’t need to have a formal space to get this work started, these conversations started,” said Dixa Ramírez, assistant professor of American Studies and ER&M and the center’s head faculty fellow. Too often, without institutional backing and general recognition from the public, she said, it is difficult to get crucial research and discussions off the ground. In fact, many ethnic and interdisciplinary subjects such as ER&M and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies have historically lacked the consistent funding and hiring capabilities to elevate their standing and validity in the Yale community.
In spite of these challenges, many involved with the center have spoken positively of what RITM has accomplished. A year since the campus protests that catalyzed its existence and given the current political landscape, RITM has seized momentum at an ideal time, beginning its climb towards becoming not only a center for intersectional study, but also a symbol of that study’s significance.
On Nov. 17, 2015, University President Peter Salovey sent a schoolwide email titled “Toward a Better Yale.” Underneath the subheading “Strengthening the Academic Enterprise,” he wrote about the recent student unrest on campus and promised “a transformative, multidisciplinary center.” For years, students and faculty members have asked for institutional support for ethnic studies, such as giving ER&M departmental status. Many believe that the center was created in response to the protests’ magnitude.
RITM exists now, but it is still defining its role on campus as an interdisciplinary center. “We have an opportunity to be nimble in our thinking and structures,” Johnson said. “At the same time, we are operating in an environment that is not so nimble. We are operating in a space dominated by many established programs.” That capacity for flexibility is a key strength the center touts. It is eager to present itself to everyone, forge new partnerships and inspire intellectual collaboration that is mutually beneficial. It strives to connect with other groups, departments and various graduate and professional schools at Yale because it tries to encompass different thinking and methodologies. For example, ethnic and migrant studies can inform and enrich biological research, economic models and historical frameworks, with the reverse also holding true.
Stephen Pitti ’91, the center’s founding director, has been spearheading this outreach. The head of Ezra Stiles College and professor of ER&M, American Studies and history, he has led the efforts of the center’s Implementation Committee and later its Advisory Board, helping to select its diverse array of members. Pitti also spent most of spring semester leading efforts to fund summer research fellowships, enlist postdoctoral fellows, create programs, reach out to speakers for scheduled conferences and communicate with institutions both on campus and beyond. Ramírez, WGSS Chair Inderpal Grewal and other members of the center’s staff lauded his commitment to getting RITM off the ground.
“We’ve partnered with around 25 various Yale schools, programs and departments. There seems to be a lot of people who recognize the critical importance of these topics,” Pitti said. RITM’s Faculty Advisory Board includes members of the Yale Law School, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the School of Management, the Theater Studies Department and many more academic corners.
Tavia Nyong’o GRD ’03, professor of Theater Studies, African American Studies and American Studies who sits on the Advisory Board, said he has noticed a general interest among Yale students and faculty to pursue social questions beyond their disciplines, so it is natural for so many partnerships to come together through RITM.
“Everyone should benefit from engaging with these questions,” Nyong’o said.” If we’re talking about Standing Rock, sovereignty and water, I think that should interest students in environmental studies just as much as students in ER&M.”
The willingness to embrace intersectional academic work among professors and educators has fueled the center’s ability to provide resources and sponsor a number of programs and conferences. RITM supported 22 undergraduate and graduate student projects this past summer, sending young scholars around the world and into the local community to conduct research independently or on the behalf of institutions. 12 of those students then presented on their work at the inaugural Student Summer Research Symposium this September. The rainbow of topics included housing design at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, cultural politics involved in humanitarian efforts and women’s health in Guatemala. The center also houses the Henry Roe Cloud Dissertation Writing Fellowship in American Indian and Indigenous Studies, supporting one graduate student’s study for an academic year.
RITM’s calendar page highlights the wealth of colloquia, symposia and exhibitions available to the public. From Nov. 3 to Nov. 4, RITM hosted an Ethnic Studies Conference in honor of the late Don Nakanishi ’71, who founded ethnic studies as a discipline at Yale and helped found the Asian American Cultural Center and the Asian American Students Alliance. That event convened nearly two dozen professors, doctors, administrators and professionals to present their perspectives on Asian American, Latino and Native American studies, celebrating Nakanishi’s legacy as a pioneer of multidisciplinary academics and discussion. According to Johnson, roughly 130 people from Yale and the rest of the country registered to attend. Students, faculty, staff and alumni all contributed to a memorial book in Nakanishi’s honor, offering warm notes and photos commemorating his achievements. Many of the professors I spoke with highlighted this conference as one of RITM’s greatest successes thus far.
Still, while outreach to faculty and institutions has been fruitful, RITM grapples with challenges in reaching a larger student audience. When I approached students and asked if they knew the center existed, I mostly got blank stares and head scratches. 10 out of 12 Yalies I interviewed were not aware that RITM was a Yale institution. One girl believed it was located on Hillhouse Avenue. The handful of students who were aware of RITM knew it only because they vaguely remembered their professor promote it in an ethnic studies class. Even then, they did not know the physical location and size of the center.
The center’s mailing list is slowly gaining new subscribers, but otherwise email notification about RITM is sparse. The center’s social media presence is budding. On Facebook, the center’s page currently has 667 likes, around a third of the likes that the popular a cappella group Shades boasts.
“Their social media presence needs work,” said Chi Zhang ’17, an architecture major who did field work at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya on RITM’s dime. “I only know about RITM because I received their summer fellowship.”
Even students most interested in the center’s primary fields find issues with RITM’s communication. Another summer fellowship recipient, WGSS major Jake Colavolpe ’18, said he would appreciate more direct advertisement from the center. Zhang also informed me that migrant housing and community projects are hot topics in architecture, yet those students get no correspondence from RITM or from their classes about RITM programs. She said architecture is intersectional in its own way and still is isolated from other multidisciplinary initiatives on campus.
Similarly, Ho Kyeong Jang ’17 said he has not been involved with RITM because he feels his interest in Korean history does not overlap enough with what he understands to be RITM’s focus on domestic racial studies. Believing that he cannot adequately contribute to RITM’s big picture, Jang has refrained from participating in the center’s activities.
Clara Yang ’17, who also received the summer research fellowship, said she is unsure which resources and events fall under RITM and which ones are run externally. Additionally, Yang expressed concern about RITM’s complicated relationship with undergraduate interdisciplinary majors that have yet to gain departmental status.
“The ER&M majors view RITM as a different pathway to reroute funding within the institution,” she said. “I personally don’t understand why Yale didn’t just make an ER&M department. It’s already interdisciplinary.”
The funding, resources and faculty brought in to realize RITM’s more ambitious aim of synthesizing intersectional research do not help specific ethnic study-focused majors gain institutional validity.
“That’s not the change I would have prescribed,” Yang said.
Alex Zhang ’18, an American Studies major involved with the Asian American Studies Task Force, is one of a dozen selected undergraduate and graduate students on RITM’s Student Advisory Board. The group meets occasionally throughout the year, helps organize some events and provides input and recommendations for the Center’s future plans. One of the key issues that the student board is keen to address is engagement with the wider New Haven community.
“Many students are really thinking about how the center can engage with people not affiliated with Yale,” Zhang said. “Whenever an event is brought up, we always think about who the audience is and how to include a broader community.”
The strength of RITM’s relationship with New Haven is still a work in progress. A handful of partnerships with local groups have been fostered. For one, American studies and ER&M professor Alicia Camacho, who is on RITM’s Faculty Advisory Board, told me that she shares personal connections with New Haven residents and activists, and she likes to bring local speakers into her courses. Pitti added that RITM has joined the Yale Policy Lab to promote and shape three locally oriented working groups: the Prison Education Project, the Yale College Diversity working group and the Greater New Haven Area Education working group.
Nevertheless, Pitti admitted that the relation is rather tenuous. “Those connections are at their earliest stage of development,” he said. “That’s not something we’ve taken big steps towards yet.”
Grewal framed the Yale-New Haven relationship as an indirect one, describing RITM primarily as a research center. The way RITM serves New Haven is by doing research that affects the community, she said. Grewal envisioned a time in the future when RITM could also assist local research.
Another key issue for the RITM Student Advisory Board is faculty hiring and retention. Historically, Yale has had trouble gaining and retaining professors in ethnic studies, who also tend to be faculty from underrepresented groups in academia. Professors like Ramírez said the absence of University funding, promotions and resources for these areas has left professors feeling that their work is not valuable.
“I could list 25 very important faculty who are doing work in severely underrepresented areas that we have failed to retain,” Camacho said. Lui added that it has been a challenge to see professors like Anthropology and East Asian Studies professor Karen Nakamura GRD ’01 and WGSS professor Vanessa Agard-Jones leave.
Yet despite its current challenges, affiliated students and faculty share confidence that RITM will be a step towards reversing this reality. The center is a sign that the University has started to recognize the importance of ethnic studies to the intellectual sphere, they said, pushing the field towards a larger spotlight. Faculty who ushered in RITM’s inception and who continue to administer it today have made sure to include the voices of junior professors in the conversations about RITM’s long-term vision. Assistant and associate professors now have more meaningful positions, opportunities and monetary support, according to Ramírez. More importantly, with the institutional support, their work now feels valued, prioritized and dignified at Yale.
“The exciting, intellectual, avant garde work happens when there is permanence,” Ramírez said. “You can’t do that work when it feels like you’re standing on quicksand.”
It is telling that Yale needed to witness such an explosion of student outcry to catalyze the creation of a center like this one. Departmental and interdepartmental politics can sometimes keep academics — especially the undergraduate majors that have not gained that status — from evolving at a noticeable pace on campus. But issues of race, migration and more have entered the political mainstream both nationally and internationally. RITM symbolizes Yale’s growing recognition of this shift and its importance to professors and students on campus.
RITM is in its first full academic year. In that span, its affiliates say it has made great strides in progressing its agenda of a more inclusive, intersectional education. Its meager physical space and short run may keep it mired in relative obscurity for the time being. Still, hope persists that these last few months have been setting the groundwork for something special and lasting.
“I think one of RITM’s main accomplishments is simply that it exists, and that there’s such enthusiasm behind it,” Ramírez said.