Four SF State students ended their 9-day hunger strike—where one student was hospitalized from chest pains—on May 11 after University officials agreed to additionally fund the country’s struggling first and only College of Ethnic Studies with $482,806.
The four students, Hassani Bell, 18, Julia Retzlaff, 19, Sachiel Rosen, 19, and Ahkeel Mestayer, 20, had begun an indefinite hunger strike Monday May 2, initially demanding $8 million for the college. The group, which calls themselves the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) 2016—a tribute to the 1968 student strikers who established the college— said months of unclear communication from President Leslie Wong had motivated their commitment to hunger strike.
“We saw nothing was being done because we were doing rallies and our voices were still not being heard,” Mestayer said prior to ending his strike. “The college is hungry. We don’t even want food; we want Ethnic studies. Invest in our education.”
University leaders negotiated a commitment to 11 of the 26 demands first proposed by student organizers to defend and advance ethnic studies on and off campus.
Among the demands to be implemented are a high school recruitment program within the college; the funding of four-work study positions in the college; specific plans to grant the Race and Resistance Studies program departmental status; transfer of administrative oversight for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA) program; and funding for two courses to eventually unfold a Pacific Islander Studies program.
“There are a lot of moving pieces and I think in order to show the students and the faculty and the community that we’re serious about this, a very deliberate and formal process where we come to the table is needed at this time,” Wong said during a press conference on May 9 before negotiations were settled. “I think that way we can seriously and earnestly tackle some important issues, the least of which is funding. I think there is an issue of trust.”
The University is currently under a review investigating faculty, student and staff civil rights, particularly within the College of Ethnic Studies.
California State University (CSU) Chancellor Timothy White launched the request after the Chairs Council of Ethnic Studies sent a letter to CSU and city leaders admonishing the suspension of two rehire positions in the college’s Africana Studies department.
The hunger strikers had attached this additional item to their list of demands, and funding for the rehire positions has since been allocated.
“They stirred a hornet’s nest which had been dormant for a while,” said Ethnic Studies instructor Larry Salomon, referring to the four hunger strikers, three of which are his students this semester.
As first-generation college students, Bell, Sachiel and Mestayer are enrolled in the Metro Academy Success program, which guides students in navigating a university environment for the first two years. Studies have shown that the first two years are among the most difficult for first-generation students.
“First generation students come from working-class communities, the same communities getting pushed out of San Francisco,” said Salomon, who expressed support for his students. He’s been working with them for more than a year in the Ethnic Studies Metro program. “Our job is to make sure they are supported. We recognize they are coming to campus with specific challenges.”
The student strikers had slept on campus at the onset of their strike without tents as University police had informed them the action was illegal. University policy restricts free speech to public meetings, rallies, petitioning, picketing and artistic and religious forms of expressions, excluding outdoor lodging or camping, as stated in an executive directive titled “Time, Place and Manner: Use of Buildings and Grounds.”
As the hunger strike progressed, physicians performing routine checkups had advised the students to sleep indoors or risk putting their health in greater danger, according to Bell.
Retzlaff had been taken to Clínica Martín-Baró on May 7 due to chest pain complaints, but rejoined the hunger strike. The clinic offers low to no cost services in the Mission district by volunteer physicians and was established by two Ethnic Studies alumni from SF State.
“The purpose of a hunger strike is to attract media attention to issues people feel are being ignored,” said Phil Klasky, lecturer in the department of American Indian Studies. “People are wondering day by day how long the hunger strikers will be there. There is constant reporting on where their health is at.”
The student hunger strike garnered nationwide support.
On May 9, local politicians and actor and activist Danny Glover visited the university during an emergency meeting press rally organized by TWLF.
“They are defending their right to an education,” Glover said, who had participated in the 5-month 1968-student strike that led to the college’s establishment. “Business will not go on as usual.”
The hunger strikers said their fight to advance ethnic studies is not limited to the campus and want an equitable education everywhere.
The day they launched the hunger strike, a group of Aptos Middle School students had visited the campus on a field trip to learn more about ethnic studies. The group was led by Stephen Leeper who teaches an ethnic studies course for 6th, 7th and 8th grade students.
“The demographics of our school are changing,” said Leeper who explained that a loss of school funding has forced the removal of the ethnic studies class for next year. He will instead teach 8th grade U.S. history.
During the May 9 press conference, President Wong said he could not respond to whether or how the College of Ethnic Studies would obtain greater funding until the Gov. Jerry Brown finalized the budget on June 15.
The hunger strikers and University officials involved in the negotiation that ended the hunger strike have agreed to no further press statements for the remainder of the year.
Story by: Alma Villegas