Out professor co-chairs Skyline's ethnic studies dept.

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday January 18, 2023
Share this Post:
Professor Arnetta Villela-Smith, right, works with student Stephen Robertson in the ethnic studies class at Skyline College last fall. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Professor Arnetta Villela-Smith, right, works with student Stephen Robertson in the ethnic studies class at Skyline College last fall. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Black nonbinary queer professor Arnetta Villela-Smith is co-chairing Skyline College's new ethnic studies department that was recently launched.

The San Bruno campus, part of the San Mateo County Community College District, is offering students six courses examining the "experiences and contributions of people of Indigenous, African, Latinx, and Asian descent" in the United States. Three of the courses will delve deeper into race and gender, "Borders and Crossings," and Filipina/o/x communities.

The spring semester began January 17.

The new department is co-chaired by Villela-Smith and veteran Skyline College educator Roderick "Rod" Daus-Magbual, who in November was reelected as a Daly City councilmember. He did not respond to the Bay Area Reporter's requests for comment by press time.

Villela-Smith, 43, is an alumnus of San Francisco State University, where she received a bachelor's degree in Africana studies and a master's degree in ethnic studies.

SFSU was the nation's first university to establish a College of Ethnic Studies in 1969. The college was established a year after California State University, Los Angeles instituted the first Chicano studies program in the country in 1968.

"Professor Arnetta Villela-Smith brings so much to our ethnic studies department and to our college," wrote Danni Redding Lapuz, Skyline's dean of Social Science & Creative Arts, in an email interview with the B.A.R. "Our faculty and campus community are thrilled that we are creating an ethnic studies department.

"Enrollments in our course offerings are strong and as we continue to develop our curriculum and degree, I am confident that we will see a growing interest in ethnic studies," she added.

Diversifying education

Skyline is one of 116 community colleges that are now all required by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office to offer ethnic studies as of 2020. Fall 2021 was the first semester that Skyline students could take an ethnic studies course in Latina/o/x American, Asian American, and Native American subject matter under the new department's banner.

Students can also delve deeper into subjects with courses on Asian Americans and U.S. institutions; race, gender, and power in America; and Filipina/o/x community issues.

According to the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, California Assembly Bill 1460 signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020, did not mandate the Golden State's community colleges to require ethnic studies. The law only mandated the California State University system, the United States' largest four-year public university system with 23 campuses statewide, make ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

However, the law impacted the two-year community colleges, of which more than 50 already had ethnic studies programs in place, to respond to CSU's requirement by developing courses and programs to meet students' needs at the higher education level.

California is the first state in the nation to require ethnic studies as a condition to graduate from a state university, according to the California Faculty Association, reported Ed Source. The law requires all students enrolled in the CSU system to take a three-unit ethnic studies course (African American, Asian American, Latina/o/x, or Native American studies) to graduate. The requirement started with CSU's incoming 2021-2022 freshmen.

The bill was not in response to America's racial reckoning in 2020. The legislation was authored by former San Diego Assemblymember and now Secretary of State Shirley Weber in 2019. The Legislature passed the bill and Newsom signed it into law in August 2020, just a few months after the murder of George Floyd by four ex-Minneapolis police officers that was captured on video on May 25.

Villela-Smith sees the graduation requirement at CSUs and the establishment of ethnic studies departments and programs at the state's community colleges as a modern-day student development "reminiscent" of the ethnic studies movement 1960s and 1970s. Many of the students of that era were from communities of color just as the students are today, she noted.

"A lot of the students at the four-year [schools] were demanding that it become a requirement," she said. "It was student activism with the support of community and faculty and staff to establish ethnic studies and now to make it a requirement."

Redding Lapuz, an ally, agreed, stating, "It is critical as we reckon with our nation's history of racism, occupation, and social injustice, that we empower our students with the knowledge and self-efficacy to actively participate and make change within their communities, locally and globally."

Villela-Smith noted that racism is by no means over. Despite the historic era of President Barack Obama's eight-year administration (2009-2017) there are modern manifestations of racism. She pointed to several examples, including legislative action in some states to ban the teaching of critical race theory, school boards banning books that talk about race, and people's lack of understanding power structures.

Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old, an article in Education Week noted. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

"The folks in California said 'Yes, we need to have this,'" Villela-Smith said about the need to require ethnic studies, recognizing that "we don't live in a white society, we live in a multicultural society. We need to understand everyone's experience, not just a one-sided history, a one-sided experience of what's going on in the world.

"I think that's one of the reasons that ethnic study needs to be really institutionalized across the nation, not just in California," she added.

"Ethnic studies creates a dedicated academic space for our communities to engage in this work," Redding Lapuz added.


Responding to the B.A.R.'s question about the importance that she's co-heading the department as a queer nonbinary professor, Villela-Smith said, "I think it's important."

"Just me being a nonbinary, Black professor, for the last six years, what I noticed is it allows people, at least in my classes, to be themselves fully," Villela-Smith said, talking about transgender and queer students who have come out to her over the years. "They see that representation" in her mannerisms, style, and how she talks, she said.

Villela-Smith was looking for a chance to return to the Bay Area when she saw opportunities at San Jose City College and Skyline College. She was living in Long Beach in Southern California teaching ethnic studies with an emphasis on Africana studies, queer and gender studies, and media studies at Fullerton College in Orange County for six years.

The St. Louis, Missouri native moved to the Bay Area in 2004 to attend college at the Academy of Art University. She later earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from SFSU.

Villela-Smith told the B.A.R. that she opted for Skyline College for the opportunity to build her own department, including a Black studies program and, eventually, a queer ethnic studies program. San Jose City College has an established ethnic studies program.

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the Midwest where Villela-Smith didn't see anyone who looked like her queer-wise, especially in a leadership role, she said it is important for her to be at the head of the department and class.

"It was very taboo to be queer," she said. "We had to be closeted where I'm from."

Being at the helm of the department, Villela-Smith said, "I feel like it's a possibility module," about not having the opportunity that younger generations have now to see a nonbinary, butch, stud, or masculine-of-center female professor or teacher. "I can be a professor and I can be comfortable in my skin. It's a very beautiful thing."

Building the department

Redding Lapuz and Villela-Smith said Skyline is building a "robust" ethnic studies department and degreed programs to enrich students' educational experience.

"The plan is to create a robust department," said Villela-Smith. "We want all areas of study: African American studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, and Asian American studies."

Redding Lapuz added that the department will collaborate with educational programs, such as the Puente (Chicano/Latino/a) and Kababayan (Filipino/a) learning communities at Skyline, and on-campus communities Brothers Achieving Milestones and Women's Leadership & Mentoring Academy.

"Ultimately, we want every single student at Skyline College to feel a sense of belonging," wrote Redding Lapuz.

"We need to have competent, conscious leaders," she added, focusing on the education of future doctors, lawyers, nurses, and police officers. "The whole college system has an important role in developing the future society."

"I think educating that younger generation that's going to eventually lead us into the next centuries it's extremely important to be conscious of these things, these matters, and understand how our system works and why our system is the way it is," Redding Lapuz stated. It's about "changing and empowering them."

Professor Arnetta Villela-Smith teaches an ethnic studies class at Skyline College last fall. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Examining the intersections
In addition to working on a Black studies program, Villela-Smith said she wants to fulfill her vision to create a degree program in queer ethnic studies. She proposed a degree program at her previous job that she now wants to bring to Skyline College.

The program "centers the queer and nonbinary trans experiences within communities of color," she said, noting the importance of the program due to mainstream society being "very hetero-sexist" and the queer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) "narratives are left out."

"We look at history, a lot of our contributions have been ignored," she said, explaining that she had to go outside of the ethnic studies department to the queer and sexuality department to examine her own intersectionality as a nonbinary queer Black person. "I don't think we should because what that does is separate this even further."

She continued, giving examples of feminist and ethnic studies courses and historians ignoring contributions from Black and queer figures in history. She pointed to the late Black, queer, feminist author and poet Audre Lorde and the late gay Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who worked closely with civil rights leader the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lorde is often quoted in women's and queer studies courses but left out of ethnic studies courses, she said.

"She's a Black woman, a Black queer woman, who has given so much to so many ideas to the discipline," said Villela-Smith.

Rustin organized King's famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, although that is typically credited to King, she noted.

"My excitement is bringing that more into the Black studies program at Skyline," she said. "Really looking at gender and sexuality and Black community."

Villela-Smith had nearly 50 students in online and in-person classes during the recent fall semester. She anticipates as the classes get filled up that the new department will hire additional instructors — adjunct or full-time.

Students can still register for the spring semester until January 30.

For more information, click here or contact 650-738-4122 or socialsci-[email protected]

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.