50 years later: SF State activist to be commencement speaker

With graduation upcoming, and successful education strikes across the country garnering varying success, a look at an influential student strike through the eyes of an integral member can give the current labor union movement some perspective and positivity.

Dr. Ramona Tascoe, this year’s SF State commencement speaker, was born in Baton Rouge but has grown up in the Bay Area since she was three. Her parents left the South “to get as far away from Jim Crow as possible” and settled in the City by the Bay.

Tascoe attended 12 years of private Catholic school before coming to SF State at the height of what was later known as the Student Strike of 1968. After SF State she attended UCSF School of Medicine and then received a master’s in health services administration from USF. She’s local in both her culture and education, providing her relevant insight into the nature of labor and education in America.

Tascoe reflected on the shift in the narratives of the curriculum, eventually leading to the establishment of the first College of Ethnic Studies, while she was at SF State.

“We were just tired of education that was monopolized by European models, where the melting pot was defined by our brother and sisters who were white, and their cultural, historical and political experience,”she said. “We never heard anything about ourselves in any positive way.”  

Tascoe spoke about how her time at SF State shifted her ideas about education and continues to influence her career.

“Having matriculated in ‘67, the strike in ‘68 and the founding of the College of Ethnic Studies in ‘69 and my graduating from SF State in 1970. I probably don’t need to tell you I was in the vanguard the frontlines and it definitely informed my life and set me on a course I experience even to this day,” she said.

When describing the atmosphere at the time of the strike, Tascoe provided a vivid and insightful description into the student’s desire for equitable education and the coordination between various student groups. She said the mood “varied from tense to strategically engaging” as the students developed a clear agenda.

The agenda was a collaborative effort among a variety of students to be more critical about the contradictory educational narratives they were taught.

“In a nutshell, we were beginning to see the early stages of students of color, of all shades including white, beginning to become critical thinkers about the world they were about to inherit,” Tascoe said.

This critical analysis of higher education represented what Tascoe felt was a “seismic shift.”

“While there is no question about the relevance of European education, the irrelevance of the education from the perspective of other ethnic groups … is something that cannot be overlooked anymore,” she said.

Tascoe said that although the strides in educational discourse has been tremendous, the pushback against an inclusive education is nothing new. It harkens back to an era of Eurocentric monopoly over education and the promotion of a revisionist and polished history.

“It would be naive for us to just say all of a sudden there’s this major assault on education; it did not occur in a vacuum,” Tascoe said. “The trend is well established and I would argue that the alt-right and those that want to ‘make America great again’ would incorporate an argument for changing the model of education that would include the privatization of schools [and] monitoring the curriculum and pedagogy to ensure that ethnic studies is not as impactful as it has been.”

Despite the push for privatization from many on the right, Tascoe expressed jubilation over the progress SF State has made to provide students with a complete, authentic education and was excited about the current movement within education to strike for more equitable practices.

“We have grown up through that whole 50-year continuum and have matured as an institution to a point where — administratively, economically, politically and at the level of the student body population and the communities that support [them] — we are generally in harmony,” she said. “We are all pointing in the same direction.”

This common goal, a collective desire for a complete education, is something Tascoe noted as a powerful, positive residual piece of the student strike, five decades after.

“There will no longer ever be a debate at SF State regarding the value, the critical value, not as a variable but as a constant in the equation of providing quality higher education so that American citizens can make a more substantial and positive contribution to the nation.”


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