Virgil Roberts 68, M.A. 69 came to Westwood four decades ago to find there was only a small fraction of black students on campus, and they were not exactly welcomed with open arms.

“When UCLA’s first black homecoming queen was elected [Carolyn Webb 69, M.A. 72 crowned Miss UCLA in November 1968], the Westwood merchants refused to give her any gifts, which they had always done for a homecoming queen,” recalls Roberts, co-founder of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and now managing partner of the entertainment law firm Bobbitt & Roberts. “Most of the fraternities or sororities who controlled the social life on campus controlled the politics. They were all exclusionary. A lot of people who owned apartments in Westwood didn’t want to rent to blacks. But that was America.”

Yes, it was — then. But this is now, when the President of the United States is half-black, the Mayor of Los Angeles is Latino and approximately 55 percent of UCLA’s undergraduates are minorities.

“The concept of an ‘average American’ is gone, probably forever,” writes demographer Peter Francese in “2010 America,” an Advertising Age white paper on the upcoming 2010 Census. For most of the country, “no racial or ethnic category describes a majority of the population.”

Welcome to New America, a multicultural society that, despite deep and pervasive problems, crackles with possibilities. Nowhere is this energy more powerful than in Los Angeles, the most heterogeneous city in the world. And it is in L.A. that you will find one of the foundations upon which our diverse new world was built: UCLA’s Ethnic Studies centers.

The four centers — American Indian, African American, Chicano and Asian American — were among the very first of their kind in the country at their birth in 1969. Each center has established worldwide scholarly networks and earned international acclaim for its accomplishments and impact. And each works with the other three in the kind of interethnic cooperation that many other sectors of our society still struggle to achieve, or, in the words of Joseph G. Nelson 96, M.A. 98, an American-Indian Bruin who is now director of admissions at the University of Alaska, “We rode on the coattails of a bigger movement.”

But the most important legacy of UCLA’s Ethnic Studies centers is not found in research papers, speeches or academic journals. It is, instead, found in the men and women who came to learn and left determined to bring what they studied in the classroom to life in their own communities.

People like Nelson, who returned to his native state to help others achieve their own dreams. Or entrepreneur Linda Griego 75, the Latina Bruin who went on to serve as deputy mayor of Los Angeles and was a key player in the effort to rebuild the city in the wake of the riots following the Rodney King verdict. And Stewart Kwoh 70, J.D. 74, the Asian-American graduate who founded what is now the largest public interest law center serving Asian Americans in U.S. history.

The same is true of the four centers’ faculty. Like Chicano Studies Research Center director Chon Noriega, for example, the trailblazing leader who has championed a long list of Chicano artists and helped to expose them to mainstream audiences. And Bunche Center director Darnell Hunt M.A. 91, Ph.D. 94, whose academic explorations into the African-American experience have helped shape public policy on everything from television casting to higher education.

And those extraordinary people are joined by a steady stream of others. Today, UCLA is the only university in the country with four Ethnic Studies enterprises, and Chancellor Gene Block has dedicated the 20092010 academic year to the theme of “Celebrating 40 Years of Ethnic Studies at UCLA.”

It is an acknowledgment of the contributions that Ethnic Studies professors and students have made in a new America — and recognition that their work is not done.

“California has always been the leader of ideas,” says Griego, now president of TV production company Zappo Entertainment Group. Griego has been a force in L.A. for decades as a businesswoman, politician and sought-after adviser on civic issues. Among her many posts, she was president and CEO of Rebuild L.A., the nonprofit formed in the wake of the riots that rocked the City of Angels in 1992. “So I see the [Chicano Studies Research Center] assuming a greater leadership role. This could be quite a jewel, not just for UCLA but for the entire UC system.”

“We are becoming a majority minority country,” adds former Asian American Studies Center scholar, music journalist, hip-hop activist and author Jeff Chang M.A. 95. “The cutting edge in Asian-American studies is to grapple with what that means for us as a country. … The center is the place I look to first when I’m trying to [answer] these questions.”

Here, then, is the story, in their own words, of the men and women of UCLA’s Ethnic Studies centers. Befitting their legacy, they are a group of diverse interests, opinions and positions. Their job titles alone speak eloquently of the transformation they helped create in their communities, and their ongoing passion and continued optimism add texture to the tale.

Listen to history talking.

A Difficult Birth

On almost every campus, in almost every city, in every area of life, change exploded across America in 1969. That was the year of the first moon landing. And Woodstock. At UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 69, then known as Lew Alcindor, capped his collegiate career by helping to bring another NCAA men’s basketball championship to Westwood. Computer Science Professor Leonard Kleinrock and his band of intrepid scientists connected the first node of what would become the Internet.

But there was darker news that year as well, as the social conflict roiling the country also rocked the Bruin nation. Two members of the Black Panther Party were shot and killed in Campbell Hall — in an alleged internal dispute with another activist group over who would head UCLA’s new African American Studies Center, then called the Center for Afro-American Studies.

In fact, all four of the Ethnic Studies centers were born during the turbulence of 1969. Students and community members asked the university to create a curriculum and research center for American-Indian history and culture. Advocacy also led to the establishment of an Asian American Studies Center and its Chicano counterpart.

1969 also saw the creation of the Institute of American Cultures (IAC), a collaborative initiative to foster and advance ethnic studies scholarship at UCLA and to build connections among the four centers. Since its inception, the IAC has continued to enhance graduate studies and support interdisciplinary research and training in Ethnic Studies. It also serves as a forum for intercultural scholarly exchange while promoting diversity in student and faculty outreach and recruitment to UCLA.

In 1970, Chancellor Charles E. Young M.A. 57, Ph.D. 60 secured a five-year Ford Foundation Grant to support the efforts of the centers, which included research, curriculum development, grant writing, libraries and publications. Five years later, UCLA agreed to assume financial support for all four resources.

Becoming Visible

Over and over again, recollections of Ethnic Studies alumni and faculty include some form of the declaration “we were invisible.” These were people who by and large felt left out of American life — and they felt like that for good reason.

Blair H. Taylor M.B.A. 88, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, which has worked closely with the Bunche Center, said that when he was studying at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, a class of 300 was likely to have a handful of black students — and that number has averaged only about seven in the aftermath of anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 in 1998.

Taylor credits the center’s research as being instrumental in understanding the black admissions crisis at UCLA and within the University of California overall, and in driving efforts to support reform that resulted in the introduction for fall 2007 of a holistic review process for admitting qualified applicants from all communities — one that does not, in his view, discriminate against qualified African Americans.

In fall 2006, the number of freshman African-American students who enrolled at UCLA had fallen to only 100. But by 2008, after the introduction of holistic review, that number rose to 230.

“The center, especially under Dr. Hunt’s leadership, has been a necessity for Los Angeles as well as the African-American community. Being able to have that research arm to support initiatives or arguments with data is invaluable,” Taylor contends. “We could really use an educational institution with the credibility of UCLA and the center to get behind the notion of interracial relations and to bring together different ethnic groups.”

For Chicanos and Latinos in L.A., the experience has, not surprisingly, been similar. “The Chicano/Latino population has been fairly invisible and marginalized in official perceptions of history,” says Sandra de la Loza, a multimedia artist working with UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center leader Noriega on a three-year project that will exhibit in 2011 at LACMA called Los Angeles: The Mexican Presence in L.A.

She adds that we can’t assume “just because we have more Latino visibility in the upper echelons of power that we’ve overcome that historic legacy of racism. If we look at the fall of our public school system, the criminalization of Latino youth, and the role that undocumented labor plays within our economy, those issues are still relevant and say a lot about the American experience. The Chicano Studies Research Center is a really important place for a critical look at those issues and to produce scholarship that can be inserted into a larger public debate.”

For others, it was an achievement just showing up. Nelson, the first member of his family to get a college degree, hails from Yakutat (which means “the place where canoes rest” in Tlingit), a small fishing village between Juneau and Anchorage. Yakutat is only accessible by plane.

For Nelson and other American Indians, “the overarching thing was not so much the academics, but being away from home. One of the biggest challenges for any American Indian when you go to college is leaving the comfort of your community that was the success of the American Indian Studies Center. That space in Campbell Hall was a sense of community. It encouraged me to be involved and give back.”

Hanay Geiogamah, who just completed a seven-year term as interim director of the American Indian Studies Center in October, sees this drive to give back still in the stories of even the most recent Bruins, including Raymond Naylor-Hunter M.A. ’09, who, when he arrived on campus, “said ‘my tribe sent me here to learn how to take over the reins of tribal government.’ That’s exactly what he’s doing. Christopher Duro ’07, who got his undergraduate degree here, is now the education director of the San Manuel Band of Indians. We have the tools to build our communities, to build our future, to make something good happen down the road.”

Paying It Forward

What began with clenched fists has turned into linked hands and shared commitment. Most of the pioneering Ethnic Studies graduates, in fact, have had a career arc similar to that of Stewart Kwoh. “I was the president of the Asian Student Alliance,” he remembers. “At that time there was only one Asian-American group on campus. We had a big rally protesting the American invasion of Cambodia and a number of National Guard troops rushed Campbell Hall. Some of our members got arrested and I worked on some of the criminal charges. That got me from applying to medical school to applying to law school.”

And now? Kwoh is a former MacArthur Foundation Fellow, president and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and co-author of Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground: New Dimensions on Race in America. But while he has put his placard down, he hasn’t lost his commitment to service: “Despite the strides Asian Americans have made, we certainly know that poverty continues, exploitation continues and discrimination continues.”

To confront those challenges, Kwoh says, the city needs resources like the centers. “[Asian American Studies Center director] Don Nakanishi has done an inspiring job to bring Asian-American studies to national prominence,” he says, “and the center has a number of very important roles. It allows students to understand the Asian-American experience. But it also allows for a connection between the research and teaching that goes on in the university and in the community. Many students have gone from UCLA to community institutions.”

So welcome to New America, where much has changed, and much more needs to be done. It’s a much different world than the one a young Virgil Roberts confronted in 1969, but that’s OK with him.

“As I’ve gotten older, it’s easier to see trends,” he says. “I heard somewhere that lily pads on a pond start with one or two. A week later, you see 10 or 12. In a month the whole pond is covered. I would never have thought, in 1969, that an African American would be President. And the center is one of those lily pads that really contributed to changing the way in which Americans think and relate one to the other.”

The UCLA American Indian Studies Center

  • Offers the Interdepartmental Program’​​​​​​s (IDP) master's degree in American Indian Studies and, since 2002, a minor in American Indian Studies through IDP.
  • The Tribal Legal Development Clinic teaches students how to assist tribes in dispute resolution, legal codes, constitutions and pursuit of federal recognition.
  • Project HOOP is a national, multidisciplinary initiative to establish American-Indian theater as an integrated subject of study and creative development in tribal colleges, American-Indian communities, K12 schools and mainstream institutions.
  • Publishes American Indian Bibliographic SeriesAmerican Indian Manual and Treaties SeriesAmerican Indian Contemporary Issues Series.

The UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center

  • Publications include Aztlan, the leading journal on Chicano Studies in the country; Books and Book SeriesChicano Cinema and Media ArtLatino Policy & Issues BriefsLatinos & Social Security Policy Briefs; and Latinos & Social Security Research Reports.
  • Current research projects include Hate Speech in the MediaThe Mexican Presence in L.A. ArtPhantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement; and a book series titled A Ver: Revisioning Art History.
  • The Chicano Education Research Project assesses Chicano education from the 1930s to the present, with a focus on California.
  • Six faculty positions allow the center to serve as a vital force across campus for diversifying the curriculum and the faculty.

The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA

  • The Black Los Angeles Project explores historical and contemporary contours of L.A.s black community by bringing together the work of scholars from across Southern California. The culmination of this work is a 16-chapter book titled Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities
  • Degree programs: Undergraduate major with a concentration in a given department; graduate major with a terminal masters degree; and joint M.A./J.D. program. Students may also double-major in African American Studies in another UCLA department, or they may have a minor in African American Studies.
  • The CAAS Publications imprint includes Afro-American Culture and Society SeriesSpecial Publications SeriesUrban Policy SeriesCommunity Classics Series, and Minority Economic Development Series.
  • Nine faculty members and many affiliated faculty members and lecturers participate in the Bunche Center and in the Interdepartmental Program in Afro-American Studies.

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center

  • Largest faculty in Asian American Studies in the nation, with 38 professors. 
  • Largest teaching program of its kind in the U.S., with B.A. major and minor, M.A. major, and the Department of Asian American Studies.
  • Publishes leading scholarly journal in Asian American Studies, Amerasia Journal, and more than 200 books on Asian Americans.
  • Most diverse library and archival resources on Asian Americans in the nation.