Feature: Elevando Las Voces de la Comunidad: Attempts to Center Community Knowledge within the Bounds of Colonial Intellectual Reproductions

By Rosa Noriega-Rocha, Student, University of Southern California; Mary Fernandez, Student, University of Southern California

When thinking about academia as a space for cultivating higher thought, we must actively remember that higher education has historically been a colonial space that excludes many people. First and foremost, academia is a space reserved for folks who have the knowledge and resources to navigate educational institutions. Barriers and access to membership may be especially notable for those who identify as having intersectional backgrounds of historically marginalized or underserved populations, like first-generation students of color. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, coming from a first-generation background is more likely among African American students and Latinx Students).[1] Reflecting and interrogating where cultures of colonialism linger in higher education is critical given that college students are more diverse than ever before in US history.[2] Interestingly enough, many elite universities who tout their diversity often make little to no effort to try and foster resources or interventions for such students.[3]

As first-gen students ourselves at the University of Southern California (USC), one of the world’s leading private research universities, we know from direct experience that being the first in your family to attend college can be both empowering and disempowering. We often find that many of the theoretical frameworks that are presented to us in class can be attributed to or help inform our lived experiences. However, it must also be noted that much of the jargon that scholars use to prove their intellectual capacities inadvertently becomes inaccessible to folks who do not come from a formally educated background. The irony of this is that the very people who scholars are theorizing about (e.g., members of gangs, first-generation students, undocumented immigrants, single-parent households) are often excluded from the kinds of conversations validated in elite academic spaces.[4]  bell hooks, a black feminist scholar who is famously known for her decolonial praxis, describes this contradiction in regards to her own experience as a black woman in academia: “Attending a recent conference on cultural studies . . . I was disturbed when the usual arrangements of white supremacist hierarchy were mirrored both in terms of who was speaking, of how bodies were arranged on the stage, of who was in the audience, of what voices were deemed worthy to speak and be heard.”[5] hooks’s observations and critiques of how white people center themselves in these spaces remind us that academia has not been welcoming or accessible, particularly to women of color.

These barriers to inclusion often extend beyond campuses of higher education to other institutions, like museums. However, the Boyle Heights Museum (BHM) in Los Angeles, where we serve on the research team, seeks to transform what conventional history museums look like through challenging what narratives have been previously deemed (un)worthy of occupying actual and physical spaces. The Boyle Heights community is almost 75 percent Latinx, with 50 percent of the total population identifying as a foreign-born immigrant.[6] Our current BHM exhibit, “Traditions and Innovations,” focuses on counteracting the misconception that gentrification is solely responsible for the increase of successful business in Boyle Heights through recording the narratives of local entrepreneurs and their long-standing businesses. Thus, BHM provides these residents with the opportunity to see themselves and their history represented, as opposed to the colonial framework which has often been used to whitesplain the experiences of communities of color.[7]  Most salient, however, is that the BHM allows residents of Boyle Heights to curate their own history, flipping the role people of color usually play in knowledge production. That is to say, they are no longer subjects being observed and written on, but instead individuals capable of intellectual contribution.

Informed by our own experiences with spaces that proclaimed to support diversity, when we joined the BHM team and set out on our first interviews in the community, we were extremely conscious of our limitations. Neither of us had a personal connection to Boyle Heights, or even to Los Angeles before we attended USC. The only connection we could make to Boyle Heights was that our own hometowns were also being affected by gentrification. We accounted for this limitation by educating ourselves as much as possible on the history of Boyle Heights, and entering interview sites with the intention of listening and bearing witness to the lived experiences of the residents. This is significant because many academic researchers enter their sites of research with the preconceived notion that they already know what is worth knowing. We also found it important to acknowledge what USC and our affiliation to an elite academic institution represented in Boyle Heights. Unfortunately, USC is a driving force of displacement and gentrification in both South Central Los Angeles and Boyle Heights through the expansions of the Health Sciences Campus.[8] To this community (and others), USC might evoke images of power and abuse. We made sure to be aware of our proximity to this institution and the implications this might pose on how community members view us.

Thus, although we are USC students, we criticise the practices USC engages in and actively work to use the knowledge and resources extended to us from our association to USC for the benefit of underserved communities. We prioritize community-based participatory research, paying special attention to accessibility of language and framing research questions so that the community’s needs are centered as opposed to the university’s interests. We establish and respect boundaries that many traditional academic researchers might not consider. For example, our interview with Tomas Delgado, the owner of Candelas Guitars (a historically successful business in Boyle Heights), consisted of us continually reminding him that we were only willing to record ethnographic notes and pictures with his consent. We wanted to respect his personal space and accurately portray him and the history of his shop in a manner he felt comfortable and content with. Because of our approach, which was mindful of histories of exclusion, he welcomed us into his guitar shop and his favorite private room, and he allowed us the special opportunity to see pictures of his family’s previous three generations and drawings made by his children. We have also agreed to essentially coauthor our piece for the BHM with him by running everything from the transcript to the final draft by him for approval and giving him space at the museum exhibition opening to promote his business.

In order to actively work toward a decolonial framework, we must first acknowledge the fact that academia is a space in which the voices of historically marginalized people are traditionally compromised and decentered, and to be mindful of our own personal privilege and context. Once we have acknowledged this, we can work toward adopting frameworks that allow spaces like college campuses and museums to be more inclusive and accessible to all.


[1]  Forty-one percent of African American and 61 percent of Latinx students are first-generation college students; Mikhail Zinshteyn, “How to Help First-Generation Students Succeed,” Atlantic, March 13, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/03/how-to-help-first-....

[2]  Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2019), https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uplo....

[3]  Clint Smith, “Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong,” Atlantic, March 18, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/privileged-poor-na... Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani, and Mesmin Destin, “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition, Psychological Science 25, no. 4 (2014): 943–953. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613518349.

[4]  It should be noted that such conversations do not just occur in institutions of higher education; however, they tend to be culturally validated if and when such conversations occur in academic spaces, especially elite ones.

[5]  bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992): 345.

[6]  Enrico A. Marcelli and Manuel Pastor, “Unauthorized and Uninsured: Boyle Heights and Los Angeles County,” San Diego State University and the University of Southern California, 2015, https://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/731/docs/Web_06_Boyle_Heights_LA_C....

[7]  Whitesplaining is the act of a white person explaining topics to people of color, often in an obliviously condescending manner, and especially regarding race- or injustice-related issues.

[8]  Andrea Klick and Sasha Urban, “Local Tenants Organize, Protest USC Expansion,” Daily Trojan, April 16, 2019, http://dailytrojan.com/2019/04/16/local-tenants-organize-protest-usc-exp....