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Changing Academia Forever: Black Student Leaders Analyze the Movement They Led

Interview with Associate Professor Dr. Kitty Kelly Epstein and Shaniah Ritzie '21

Kitty Kelly Epstein and Bernard Stringer with Changing Academia Forever interview poster

Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD, is a part-time associate professor of education at Holy Names University. She trains teachers and strives to diversify Oakland’s teaching force. She is also an Oakland activist, the host of “Education Today” on KPFA FM 94.1, and the author of four books and numerous articles on activism and urban education. 

Dr. Epstein was interviewed by HNU biology student Shaniah Ritzie ‘21. Ritzie is president of HNU’s Black Student Union and is an activist on campus and in the local community. Ritzie’s work to diversify the curriculum at HNU directly influenced the University’s new Academic Strategic Plan

What inspired you to research and write your latest book, Changing Academia Forever: Black Student Leaders Analyze the Movement They Led? 

I was very inspired by the success of the San Francisco State strike in 1968. It was one of the most effective and long-lasting [4 ½ months] student strikes in US History. It led to the first Black Student Union, the first Black Studies Department, the first College of Ethnic Studies, and the admission of thousands of students of color. 

This strike led to changing the whole of American academics. Ethnic studies didn’t exist before the SF State strike, and there were no classes in Black studies or Latino studies, and there wasn’t any information about those things in the history classes or political science classes. At the time there was also very little admission of Black and Latino students to San Francisco State or Cal State East Bay, so their parents were paying taxes for these 4-year colleges, but their children were rarely admitted. All of the Black and Latino students were trapped in the community colleges, and they were told they’d be able to transfer, but they would rarely get the chance. There are  not a lot of events where you can say, ‘absolutely this is the event that made this change,’ but in the case of San Francisco State that is the truth. 

The strike had a huge impact on me and gave me a different perspective on politics– it made me believe that the people could win. My co-author, Bernard Stringer, was one of the leaders of the Black Student Union and he had been collecting information about the strike for a long time. He was trying to figure out a way to create a book about the strike and about Black Student leadership. 

As president of HNU’s Black Student Union, I plan to add this book to our book club reading list. What are some things we can look forward to learning about? And what do you think helped make this strike so successful? 

One of the things I learned more deeply about while writing the book is that many of  the people who led the strike were working class Black people from the south. That had a lot of implications for what they were able to do and what they were willing to do. The book has the life stories of the BSU leaders. 

The first chapters are about an activist named Jerry who grew up in Mississippi. The racism was so intense in Mississippi that he felt imprisoned and was willing to do anything to get out of Mississippi, so he joined the Air Force. He went AWOL from the Air Force, and was arrested and put in jail working long hours doing hard labor. He worked hard through this and then got  himself into San Francisco State. As an early leader in the strike, he wasn’t playing around. His philosophy was, ‘we need to win this because we’re going to have a chance to learn our own history.’ 

The same thing with Jimmy who was another early leader of the strike. He grew up in Texas and experienced incredible racism. A relative of his was the last person that was lynched in East Texas and Jimmy’s relatives had been enslaved. After moving to California he learned organizing tactics and the discipline needed to carry on a long-term strike. Discipline was needed as there were six hundred police on the campus almost every day. And the police had told the main leaders, ‘we’ve got four bullets. One marked for each of you.’ They had to hide and they couldn’t go home. That’s an enormous amount of courage and commitment. 

Another component of this strike was the organization of the Black Student Union. As a united Black organization their position was that they were leading the struggle, while keeping strong affiliations with white students, Latino students, and Asian students. They weren’t giving authority to anybody else, but they definitely wanted alliances. This combination of keeping autonomy and making alliances at the same time is something important to learn. 

When you see movements as large as Black Lives Matter, what do you want to say to them as far as organizing with intention? 

I think BSU had a very good approach to these issues. In spite of how busy they were with carrying on a whole strike, they had regular meetings, they read things together, they studied together, and talked and debated the issues. Another good thing about BSU is that they had a collaborative structure. The program that I think is most like the San Francisco State strike are the people that are involved in the Moms4Housing and Anti Police-Terror Project. They have discipline, they make specific demands, and they aim for societal change. 

I listen to your KPFA radio program, “Education Today.” regularly and recommend it to all my friends. You have hosted this program since 2006.  What led you to start broadcasting these conversations in the community? 

I had a friend who was a producer and connected with KPFA and he thought I’d do a great program on education–there aren’t really a lot of radio programs out there that are specifically devoted towards education. 

I learn from researching and interviewing for the program, and I’ve been teaching for a long time. There are always changes in what I’m teaching because the world is changing and so new things become important to talk about. The radio program helps in showcasing some of the activism that is around here and also helping people get into some of the deeper level questions. There are people in academia doing some really interesting research. The separation of academia is not a good thing, and there are some researchers who are doing very significant work and other people need to hear about it. 

You’ve been a powerful voice and activist in Oakland. Can you describe some of the work you have done to help Oakland schools and teachers? 

While getting a doctorate at UC Berkeley, I started doing teacher education. I realized that the teaching force was very white and the student population wasn’t at all. I started researching why there wasn’t diversity in the teaching force, and looking deeply into what people needed to go through to become a teacher. I found an increasing number of barriers. I wrote about that and organized a few protests and worked with Oakland-based programs to diversify the teaching force, such as the Partnership Program and Teach Tomorrow.  I also organized a campaign against the CBEST test. I got an attorney to take on the campaign as well as a number of students got involved in it. We sued against the CBEST and we partially won. We were able to get the irrelevant parts of the math test, like trigonometry, removed and provide test takers unlimited time to complete the full test.  

What do you teach at Holy Names? And what led you to teach there? 

Multicultural Ed and Issues in Urban Ed.  I was living in Oakland and involved in activism; I wanted to be in an Oakland institution. Holy Names was good in that respect and I was interested in the teaching of teachers, and being at an institution that was intimately related to the community, in order to make a difference. 

What is next for you? 

I’m writing a third edition of the first book about the Oakland schools. I’m also working on the different city council endorsements and forums. I’m interested in changing the conversation so that it gets more concrete about what people are going to do and what they actually believe in. 


On Thursday, September 17, 2020 from 5  – 6 p.m. HNU and the the African American Museum & Library at Oakland are co-sponsoring a Meet the Authors virtual event for Dr. Epstein’s new book, Changing Academia Forever: Black Student Leaders Analyze the Movement They Led.

To register for a Zoom link, email aamlo@oaklandlibrary.org.