Ethnic Studies Anniversary : Celebrating 50 Years of Our History Our Way

Testimony in Support and Appreciation of the Department of Ethnic Studies

Members of our community, students and staff, and colleagues in our field made their voices heard at a Board of Regents (BOR) meeting in September 2020 in support of the Department of Ethnic Studies (ES) here at UHM. These powerful testimonies successfully stopped the UH administration in its tracks as it was looking to address anticipated pandemic-induced budget deficits by cutting programs, and "stopping out" (a euphemism for "closing") our department. We highlight some excerpts here about the value of Ethnic Studies from our communities.  Their testimony answers many frequently asked questions: what is ethnic studies? Why is it important? How does the department serve students, the university, our communities and the state of Hawaiʻi? The testimonies highlight our roots: the thirst of working-class peoples of Hawaiʻi to see their histories and their issues reflected in the university's curriculum. In ES, our students discover themselves and the multiple ways in which they can contribute to their communities. Service learning connects our classrooms with our communities and their issues. Our colleagues in the profession recognize the stellar and grounded scholarship produced by our department’s faculty. Community members recognize that we produce leaders dedicated to social justice. All those who testified in support of the department recognize the relevance of Ethnic Studies in today’s world. In the words of UHM alum Greg Pōmaikaʻi Gushiken, "Ethnic Studies, whether directly or indirectly, has produced a generation of community leaders in Hawaiʻi that have continued to shape what a future grounded in justice, aloha ʻāina, and love looks like." 

When you click on an excerpted quote, it will take you to the full testimony given by the person to the BOR.  The BOR testimony page carries all the testimonies that were submitted to the Regents to save several departments at UHM.

Dean Alegado's Testimony

One of Ethnic Studies founding faculty, Dean wrote this powerful testimony on September 15, 2020, shortly before he passed away. 

Selected Testimonies for ES

Community member Danita Au underscores that the Ethnic Studies department at UHM arose from Hawaiʻi’s local and Kānaka communities.

Ethnic Studies is the result of a struggle by students and faculty to offer a local perspective of the development of our diverse community and honors the contribution each ethnic group, as they both assimilated and kept their cultural practices while providing labor. 

Kerry (ʻIlima) Long in the Indigenous Politics program at UHM notes that Hawaiʻi’s marginalized people created the Ethnic Studies Program, and then the Department demanding that these voices be heard in higher education and beyond.  

Ethnic Studies at UHM emerged from a struggle by Hawaiʻi’s people of color to have a department that studies the experiences and social conditions of Hawaiʻi's people [and teaches] the proud history of Hawaiʻi's oppressed people’s fighting for a voice, in this case, in higher education. And it remains as relevant as ever as racial inequality is still a huge problem in Hawaiʻi.  Ethnic Studies changes local students’ lives. 

Jocelyn Grandinetti notes the importance of the ES curriculum in connecting her to the ʻāina and Native Hawaiian history and culture. This enabled her to grasp the significance of the place in which she has been raised.  

Having grown up here my whole life with an extremely limited grasp on Native Hawaiian culture–the Indigenous culture of the ʻāina on which I was born and raised–it has been life-changing to finally take part in culturally relevant practices and give back to this ʻāina through service learning programs offered by ACCESS [Advising, Civic, and Community Engagement in the Social Sciences].

Hawaiʻi Department of Education Social Science educator Pete Doktor affirms

Teachers with ES experience make for much more compelling social science teachers, and transform youth [into those]  that experience the power of education in the process of self-development and social awareness required for critical thinking skills and a natural interest for learning.

Antoinette (Kunia) Freitas, faculty at Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, recalls beloved ES faculty member Marion Kelly, our authority on land tenure and use in Hawaiʻi, as modeling what it means to be a "scholar of the people."

My aloha to the ES department is in part due to receiving a GA under Prof. Marion Kelly. Often cited as an activist scholar, to me, Prof. Kelly was a scholar of the people….  Her history and knowledge of labor in Hawaiʻi among other things keep that important part of Hawaiʻi's history relevant to our contemporary understanding of local land use, labor, and economics.   

UHM alum Greg Pōmaikaʻi Gushiken points out how Ethnic Studies student leaders of years gone by are our kūpuna and community leaders of today.

Ethnic Studies [was] … created out of movements for social justice, decolonization, and liberation…. Indeed, bringing a uniquely Oceanic lens to social justice education, Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has a 50 year history, beginning in the 1970s with critical education that fed into the Hawaiʻi community through the many student leaders it produced, student leaders who today are our kūpuna and our community leaders. Ethnic Studies students were, indeed, at Waiāhole and Waikāne, at Kahoʻolawe, and at Mauna Kea, sometimes leading, often times organizing, and always caring for our communities. 

ES Major Clarissa Mae Rago testifies that her commitment to working with public school youth is being nurtured by Ethnic Studies.

Ethnic Studies and Philippines Language and Literature courses have shaped me to truly strive to be a more community-oriented member and work more in youth outreach. These programs have given me a better insight into working with the youth in our public schools and help guide them into understanding that the University is rich in resources.


UC Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies professor emerita Patricia Hilden observes the key academic qualities of ES at UHM.

I began reading the work of all the faculty in the department and quickly realized how very remarkable they all are. … Not only is their published work amongst the best in an outstanding field of Critical Ethnic Studies scholars, but their teaching - which I have had the joy of observing many times - leaves someone of my generation confident that we are handing on the work to those who will continue the work.

Honolulu-born-and-raised UHM ES professor Laurel Mei-Singh recounts how the work of the department inspired her in her return to Hawaiʻi which led to a career with us. 

After I went away to college, it became my goal to return to Hawaiʻi. Soon after college, I learned about the department of Ethnic Studies and their work since the 1970s for racial, economic, environmental, and gender justice and knew that it was the place where I wanted to work. 

UHM alum Jacob Noa highlights the impact of Ethnic Studies courses in his education.

I was able to gain invaluable experiential and place-based learning opportunities due to Ethnic Studies’ heavy focus on service learning with ACCESS Engagement. Through service learning, I was able to work with amazing groups such as Mālama I Nā Ahupuaʻa and UNITE HERE! Local 5, eventually obtaining an internship with the latter. 

Merle Pak, involved in the early fight to save Ethnic Studies, tells us about the training students get in this department.

 I was involved in the 1971 fight to save the Ethnic Studies Program, along with many students, faculty, and community members.  The UH Manoa Ethnic Studies Program serves to create active, critical thinkers….by educating students about diversity, love of our various cultures, and appreciation of our history as a multi‐ ethnic community in the middle of the Pacific. [Please search for Merle Pak in the main testimony page]

Nitasha Sharma, Asian American studies and African American studies faculty at Northwestern University emphasizes the unique approach the department takes to the ethnic group groups in Hawaiʻi.

I write to you as a faculty member in Ethnic Studies [as a field], but my primary identity is as a girl born and raised in Manoa Valley. I am the daughter of two University of Hawaii emeriti professors …. We must recognize and understand how race ethnicity and indigeneity operate; we have to understand the relationships between Filipinos, Samoans, Micronesians, Hawaiians and other groups and it is the Ethnic Studies scholars at the University of Hawaii who are the ones who make this legible.