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The Lasting Impact of Ethnic Studies

HGSE's Ethnic Studies and Education course is a whole community, as its culminating symposium showed.
Ethnic Studies
A graphic symbolizing the Ethnic Studies and Education class, fall 2020
Illustration: Yeni Yi

As she prepared to lead classmates, professors, teaching fellows (TFs), and visitors in a virtual Zumba session, Bri Braswell paused for a moment of gratitude.

“It has been a gift, a breath of air, for me to be here,” said Braswell, a master’s student in the Higher Education Program, looking out across a sea of Zoom squares.

The participants of Braswell’s Zumba class had been brought together over the past two days for the 2020 Ethnic Studies Symposium, Healing (Y)our Humanity, a shared space for community healing, nurturing, and dreaming organized by the students of HGSE T004: Ethnic Studies and Education. For Braswell, who is a licensed Zumba instructor and one of the symposium’s organizers, leading the community in dance was a small piece of her larger final project, “Zoom-ba with Bri: Healing Through Movement,” which she presented during the symposium.

Taught by Lecturer Christina “V” Villarreal for the past five years, with a dedicated teaching team, Ethnic Studies and Education is one of HGSE’s most lauded and most popular courses. Although it began as an intimate class of 30, it has since grown to include over 100 students. And every year, students leave the class raving about its importance for their practice and for their lives.

“After taking this class, it’s so clear to me that we need to be teaching ethnic studies in middle school, in elementary school, in high schools,” said MK Kirigin, Ed.M.’17, who took the class while a student at the Ed School, in an Instructional Moves video filmed about the course. “My experience of it was so reaffirming of my identity, and the community we built as a group was so strong during the course of one semester. I feel like I have lifelong friends already, including V.”

Her words are echoed by one of this year’s students, Alika Masei. “Dr. V and my classmates remind me that education is always people-centered work,” says Masei. “You cannot be an effective educator, administrator, or policymaker without understanding how the dominant structures of our society create barriers for underrepresented people. I will continue to move forward in my professional career carrying this critical, people-centered lens.”

Building a Community — Even from Afar

At its inception at HGSE, the course was a grassroots effort of graduate students, explains Villarreal, the faculty director of HGSE’s Teacher Education Program. “Most Ethnic Studies classes, like this one, don’t exist because the institution decides; they come from struggle and student protest. Ethnic studies is always organized for and by students.”

Villarreal teaches the course because she is committed to the field and the movement of ethnic studies, a discipline that she credits with raising her, in an academic and personal sense. “I wouldn’t be where I am without ethnic studies,” she explains. “It’s more than a curriculum or a syllabus. It’s a movement, a way of life — one I am deeply and fiercely committed to.”

She takes a unique approach to teaching, tailoring the course to the needs of her specific students. “The curriculum isn’t complete until I meet the students and get to know them,” she explains. “My favorite thing is seeing the ways they bring their lived experiences to the syllabus and really bring it to life.”

Ethnic Studies - Zoom

Pictured is only a fraction of the fall 2020 Ethnic Studies and Education community as they gather on Zoom. Lecturer Christina "V" Villarreal is pictured in the first column, fourth box, with honorary class member, Canela.


Despite the course’s flexibility, Villarreal was nervous about meeting her students’ unprecedented needs this fall, when the class was held online during a global pandemic.

“I really had to think about, how do I preserve the essence of this course and of student experiences? How do I adapt? I was terrified,” she explains. “But I knew what was non-negotiable was community.”

So, to build community, Villarreal decided to offer the course across four live, synchronous two-hour sections, each with approximately 30 enrolled students and one teaching fellow. Spaced to accommodate students from different time zones, these small groups allowed for continued intimacy, despite the virtual limitations. Villarreal also invited true connections in other ways.

“My approach was to be open, raw, and vulnerable from the very beginning. We always made time for mind, body, and heart check-ins. We opened every class with a song from our 'Ethnic Studies Mixtape' and a prompt related to the song’s lyrics. We had virtual social spaces outside of class, where we did things like cook, bake, and dance together. I also held a series of ‘T004 Community Cafes,’ where students from the different sections could come together in an informal space to spend time with me and my dog, Canela. We even made and sold sweatshirts to raise money for the Abolitionist Teaching Network. When things got tough, most specifically during the devastating week of the decision in Breonna Taylor’s case and during election week, we adjusted our plans accordingly,” says Villarreal.

Healing (Y)our Humanity

This intentionality around community-building allowed for a real community to flourish, despite the pandemic’s constraints. This was nowhere more evident than in the final project symposium. Held over Zoom on December 8 and 9, the symposium brought over 700 educators, family, and community members from across the country and world together in dozens of workshops and presentations over a two-day period. Promising presentation titles like “A Teachers Journey Through Healing and Resistance,” “Decolonizing Education Through Abolitionist Teaching,” and “Healing as Reparations” dotted the agenda. Student presentations were interspersed with community building opportunities – like two “Beats and Vibes” spaces hosted by DJ, community organizer, and educator Justis Lopez, who also worked as a co-collaborator on the symposium.

One presentation, “Healing through Community Storytelling,” — hosted by HGSE students Susie Morales, Nathan Yoo, and Masei — began with a question about participants’ favorite family traditions. Memories piled into the chat, with participants writing about family dance parties, meals, holidays, and rituals. When the presentation commenced, each student took 15 minutes to share their final project, all of which involved a form of community storytelling. Masei, whose family and fiancé were cheerfully in attendance, shared his experience compiling a cookbook of traditional, “soul-filling” Samoan foods, ultimately inviting participants to imagine the foods that filled their souls. As participants responded, stomachs growled and smiles spread contagiously across the Zoom squares.

“When you feel sluggish, you lack energy, or you are thinking really negatively about your relationships with food, think instead of the foods that remind you of your culture and feed your soul,” said Masei in closing.

At another session, “K(no)w Hxstory, K(no)w Community, K(no)w Self,” participants offered a virtual library of their personal histories. The session’s goal was to reclaim personal narratives from the intertwined forces of racism, hatred, and colonialism that have sought to bury them.

One of the session’s many highlights was a “virtual museum” created and curated by master’s student Kathy Tran, who was also one of the symposium’s organizers. The museum, composed of pictures and videoclips Tran took in her personal travels to Vietnam and Washington, D.C., archived her family’s history. Overall, Tran’s session offered a counter narrative about Vietnam through the lens of her family’s lived experiences.

Ethnic Studies

Planning sessions for the course-end symposium and celebration.


“I grew up around a lot of Vietnamese people, but when I went to UC Berkeley, my history wasn’t around me. Every museum I went to, I looked for information about Vietnam. And most of what I found was about the war . . . so I wanted to create my own gallery,” explained Tran. “This gallery is about knowing history, because you need to know your history before you can know yourself.”

The success of the symposium — and the importance of the class — was clear in the symposium’s closing celebration on Wednesday night. Beginning with a call-back to acrostic poems students wrote in September, the closing ceremony was kicked off by visiting student poet, Kaliyah Vernon, who shared a “fire-starting” poetry performance.

“Ethnic studies are histories, her-stories, and their-stories in art form,” said Vernon, cueing an outpouring of love from the chat. “A mosaic of colorful stories that shine despite being silenced or whitewashed in this country.”

The student performances, TF shout-outs, and photo collages that followed revealed the soul of Ethnic Studies, a course that was about more than academics. It was about community.

“Every Thursday afternoon, I walked in depleted . . . and the co-created soul of our classroom, the virtual healing blanket over Zoom, recharged me,” said Noah Schuettge, Ed.M.’16, a TF for the course “You all showed me what was possible in a Zoom space.”

“Every Tuesday when I came to class, all the stress I had from work was gone,” said another course TF, Kwame Adams, Ed.M.’20. “You say I lit a fire for you all, but you all poured gasoline on mine.”

Villarreal stepped up to close the ceremony, wrapping the semester together in a tearful goodbye. “I get to fall in love every year, and that is such a gift,” she said, smiling. “This particular semester was one of the most intimate and meaningful teaching relationships of my career ... but I know that this isn’t the end. Ethnic studies is a lifetime. I am so honored to be on this journey towards our liberation with each and every one of you.”


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