“To me, teaching Ethnic Studies, particularly Black Studies, is self-discovery. It’s a present every day.”
CFA member Dr. Tracey Salisbury has noted a few big milestones lately.
Ethnic Studies at the higher education level turned 55 this year. CSU Bakersfield – where Salisbury teaches Ethnic Studies – turned 50 a few years ago. And one of Salisbury’s classes this spring will teach the history and influence of rap music and hip hop culture, a musical genre and cultural force that turns 50 this year.
The assistant professor of Ethnic Studies, who specializes in teaching Black Studies and Black Feminist Studies, mentioned the landmarks while acknowledging her inaugural chairing of CSU Bakersfield’s Ethnic Studies Department this year.
“Ethnic Studies is a different dimension of how you can help students. This is us. This is a no-brainer. We should shine, and I’m going to make sure we do,” she said. “This is going to be a minority majority country very soon. And despite all the socio-political shenanigans and rage and violence that is going on right now, we are going to be a nation of the true ‘melting pot’ people always love to say. We truly are going to be that.
“You’re going to need to know something about all the different people you’re going to encounter. When you go to work, when you go to school, when you go on vacation, the majority of this world is going to see somebody who doesn’t look like them, doesn’t have the same religion, doesn’t have the same culture, and you need to know something for us to be able to work together, to be able to succeed, and to lead. Ethnic Studies is that tool. It will help you have more awareness of what America truly is, its history, its people, and how a lot of people’s underserved voices, underheard voices, whose untold stories shaped this nation.”
CFA’s work to establish an Ethnic Studies requirement for all graduating CSU students – known as Assembly Bill 1460 – helped energize efforts to establish Ethnic Studies programs, departments, and colleges across the CSU – including at CSU Bakersfield.
While advocating for AB 1460 in the state legislature and with Governor Newsom, Salisbury addressed the California Legislative Black Caucus, learned from then-Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s leadership, and spoke up on behalf of AB 1460 in meetings and other gatherings. Salisbury also noted CFA’s network of councils, caucuses, and committees for providing the opportunity to learn what other tactics and strategies members were using to strengthen anti-racism and social justice on their campuses.
“It was a case of the village coming in. CFA really played an important part in me being an effective advocate in getting Ethnic Studies on our campus. CSUB didn’t even have an intro to Latinx Studies until 2019. We’re an HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution). That’s how blank the slate was,” said Salisbury, who joined CFA as soon as she was hired to a one-year lecturer contract in 2017.
“I’m a passionate person and CFA has given me a space for that passion to go. The CFA work made this work for me easier,” she said.
CSU Bakersfield’s Ethnic Studies department was established in much the same way SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies was founded – through the efforts of Black students, faculty, and staff. CSU Bakersfield’s president and provost were supportive; the opposition came from some white senior faculty, Salisbury says.
“We fought together. We came together in a show of force,” she said, recalling a critical vote of the campus Academic Senate. After they were flooded with letters of support and heard eloquent speeches from student leaders, the body voted unanimously in favor of the Ethnic Studies department. “They had no other choice!”
The hunger for Ethnic Studies is real. The department is offering 11 sections this term, and all were full within 24 hours of registration opening.
“Part of what’s important about Ethnic Studies for my students is giving them the language of communication. Most students have never heard of intersectionality. They’ve never heard of agency. They’ve never really discussed capitalism or how capitalism affects them as individuals. They understand being poor, but they don’t understand what structural racism is or structural sexism,” said Salisbury, who also serves as co-chair of CFA’s Black Caucus, and CFA Bakersfield’s Council for Racial and Social Justice representative and advisor for Students for Quality Education campus interns. “They know the derogatory words and the racism, but I think when you pull the lens back more and show them how this is part of a systemic issue and then show them how systemic change has occurred, how people made sacrifices, how people fought, they understand the power of one.
“I’m walking on the shoulders of very powerful people. They opened doors for me, and I know Ethnic Studies can open doors for others.”
What’s surprised Salisbury most about chairing a new department?
“The astounding number of meetings and paperwork!” she jokes. “But really, it’s the responsibility to bring in the best faculty to work with our students. And I mean work with, and spend time with.”
Salisbury’s pedagogy includes holding events for students of color where they own the space. Last term, she and her colleagues rented out a 300-seat movie theater to show “The Woman King” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which featured Black and Latinx superheroes.
“Black students aren’t used to owning the space. And these events allowed us to own the space and not feel apologetic for being proud,” Salisbury said.
Uchechi Okey-Dike is one of the many benefactors of Salisbury’s laser focus on students and their success.
“Everything she does revolves around student involvement. She makes sure students have what they need,” said Okey-Dike, a fifth-year CSU Bakersfield student and intern with Students for Quality Education. “She is that person who is always on your side. She speaks up on your behalf even if you’re not in the room. She’s an advocate for everyone who knows her. She’s an advocate for every student. She’s an advocate for what’s right, what’s necessary. She’s not afraid to say the hard stuff. We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Okey-Dike is taking Salisbury’s History and Influence of Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture class this term, and said she’s already learned a lot from Salisbury about hip hop.
“I’m not much of a hip hop fan, but it’s been cool learning about the genre’s start and why it started,” Okey-Dike said. “Hip hop changed the tone of music overall and paved the way for creative freedom. For a marginalized group, back in the 80s, it was a way to speak up about political and social issues, to find a voice, and that was through music. That’s beautiful.”
Salisbury is a self-described non-conformist and horror-movie fan who loves writing and telling stories. She hopes to resume making short films and writing screenplays in the future. Dr. Salisbury is expected to gain tenure this semester and is looking forward to spending the rest of her career at CSU Bakersfield.
As certain parts of the country slide backwards, Salisbury is glad to see California work to acknowledge and right its past and current wrongs, and to ensure education represents everyone. Efforts to ban books and tear down academic freedom in places like Florida are futile attempts to stop change.
“Florida Governor DeSantis is smart enough to know exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t believe in any of that stuff he’s saying. He’s going with the crowd and shame on him. Shame on the College Board for kowtowing. They made a vicious mistake. They set a bar they know that now the right knows what they can holler about,” Salisbury said. “He’s doing us a favor though, that’s how I look at it. Because he’s a teaching lesson because, to me, the more someone tells you you shouldn’t have something, the more you should want it. I tell my students – take pride in it. Take pride that they are so frightened of you telling your history that they are resorting to obvious lies.
“Education will change your life. Education will save your life. And it’s yours once you have it.”