Image courtesy of the Race and Oral History Project.

by Yến Lê Espiritu, Adriana Echeverria, Youngoh Jung, Simeon Man

Community Engagement and the Neoliberal University: A Departure

As faculty and graduate student workers of color in Ethnic Studies and History at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), we write to recount our effort to enact community beyond the university by centering on the lessons, challenges, and practices of teaching the “Race and Oral History in San Diego” course in Spring 2020–in the midst of the COVID pandemic. We view meaningful public engagement and genuine partnership with community organizations in San Diego as central to our intellectual endeavor, critical intervention, and personal wellbeing. Working and studying at the University of California, where over 70% of tenured faculty are white, means that we often have to initiate, lead, and sustain our own efforts to retain ourselves. In the absence of a university system that facilitates genuine collaboration with local racialized communities, we built our own infrastructure for the “Race and Oral History in San Diego” course. Building responsive and reciprocal relationships with local communities requires both improvisational and care work. We contend that it was this combination–our ability to improvise with the resources immediately at hand and our commitment to build a structure of care with community partners–that enabled us to quickly and meaningfully adapt the course to meet the challenges of remote learning during the COVID pandemic.

Based on reciprocal and collective care, our community work departs from the “community engagement” model promoted by the neoliberal university. Like its relative term, “multiculturalism,” community engagement emerged in the 1980s in response to student movements of the 1960s-70s demanding social redistribution and reorganization of the university to meet the needs of racialized communities. The era’s mantra of “serve the community” was co-opted and institutionalized by the university as community engagement, a hallowed version of the former that, as Roderick Ferguson argues, also worked to stymie student protests by delegitimizing them as divisive and antithetical to the university’s mission of fostering “diversity.”

Community engagement as such perpetuates entrenched hierarchies and exclusions. It promises collaboration but reinforces the divide between the university as the presumed knowledge producers and the “community” as the presumed object of study and service. It entrenches static notions of “community” as that which exists outside the university, as though students and workers of the university are not also a part of communities beyond its walls. It reifies the university as a valorized space that ensures economic mobility, motivating those on the margins to become included into its space, but obscures the university’s role in enabling conditions for gentrification, displacement, dispossession, and precarity. Community engagement thus is only ever a strategic deployment that serves the institutional mandate of diversity and inclusion while leaving unaddressed and intact the violent relationships that sustain the university.

Located in La Jolla on the unceded territory of the Kumeyaay Nation, UCSD occupies a space of settler colonial violence, including the violence of militarism and policing. From the university’s first faculty appointment in 1957 funded by a grant from the defense contractor General Dynamics Corporation, the university has remained deeply embedded in the regional economy of US militarism. The university’s community engagement extends and exacerbates those relations of violence. An example can be seen in downtown San Diego, where a 66,000 square-foot structure called the Innovative Cultural and Education Hub will soon become the showcase of UCSD’s community engagement. Slated to open in 2021, the Hub promises to “bring the university to the community,”with academic and outreach programs for K-12 students, an amphitheater for the performing arts, and specialized courses and workshops catered to area entrepreneurs. The project is being touted by university and city officials for expanding “educational access” and spurring “revitalization” of the downtown area of East Village. Yet, community engagement through real estate expansion in a neighborhood that historically has sequestered San Diego’s un-housed people will escalate a different kind of community engagement: that of “community policing” through San Diego Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team. Tasked to manage and to contain the “nuisance” of homelessness through frequent sweeps, citations, and arrests, the police’s armed social work is a necessary corollary to the university’s function, to demarcate the boundaries of who belongs in its envisioned community. 

Our critique of the university’s community engagement initiatives aligns with Abolitionist University Studies, which elucidates how the politics of universities is “limited by and indebted to white-supremacist, heterosexist, ableist, settler-colonial, capitalist epistemologies.” Inspired by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s call to reinterpret abolitionism as a generative project, our class highlights the counter-memories of racialized communities whose alternative worldmaking projects have been obscured or elided by the universities’ modes of “studying, remembering, and imagining.” Our intention is not to propose policy changes to make the university more hospitable or even accountable to communities of color; we are not confident in the university’s capacity to enact social transformation. We offer instead a “methodology of improvisation”: a mutual aid model of building community ties through organic, creative and makeshift means with minimal formal assistance from the university. 

Our experience with launching the “Race and Oral History in San Diego” course, a project that we have wanted to do for years, indicates that it is important to just start the work—even when the resources are either not fully on hand or are simply not available. Much like an improvisational performance, where the focus is on collaboration and coordination and creating a story in real time with others, the infrastructure for the course emerged from our engagement with community organization leaders. That is, we did not come with a ready-made detailed plan; rather, we discovered the structure for the collaboration–the form, duration, and substance of our work together–alongside conversations with our partners, drawing from their existing resources and knowledge base. In short, we strive to create a relationship-driven infrastructure, one that diverges from the results-driven model promoted by the university.

In all of our community interactions, we adhere to the important axiom in improvisation: Always take care of your partner. This axiom suggests that while improvisation is a form of extemporaneous action, it is not pure spontaneity, but is driven by a relational commitment toward a shared goal. Drawing on this insight, we maintain that improvisational community partnership only works when it is built on ongoing acts and structures of care. As Maurice Hamington states, “caring, like improvisation, requires those involved to be abundantly present and to respond accordingly.” The university as it exists fails to provide the resources for the wellbeing of its surrounding communities; it also actively forecloses the kinds of relationships necessary for building and sustaining them. Against community engagement initiatives that (re)produce conditions of precarity and inequality, we strived to build a structuring framework of reciprocal and collective care. Following the examples of Black activists repurposing university resources to account for unmet needs, or in Harney and Moten’s words, “sneak[ing] into the university and steal[ing] what one can,” one of our key tenets is to redirect resources from the university to community organizations. We also exhibit care for community knowledge by replacing narratives of university-generated history with counter-histories from the perspectives of racialized communities. 

The “Race and Oral History in San Diego” Course

When we created the “Race and Oral History in San Diego” course in 2017, we were motivated in part to address the lack of critical scholarship and teaching about San Diego’s racialized communities.[1]We intend for the course to offer a study of San Diego and its histories of conquest, militarization, migration, and struggle. Its militarized and carceral landscape of military bases, aerospace and defense companies, border checkpoints, detention centers, and the border wall mirrors the growing population of migrants and refugees displaced by US-fueled wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and other countries that have settled in the region. These are people who have been rendered invisible in celebratory narratives of San Diego as a tourist attraction and technological hub, but who have built vibrant communities in the face of ongoing displacement through gentrification and criminalization. 

We also designed the course as a space to build shared knowledge and to enact a community of reciprocal care. Our goal was to create a digital archive of oral histories for the study of race, militarism and migration in San Diego, featuring the voices of migrants, refugees, and other racialized communities. The course maintains a two-pronged approach: to teach students the methods of conducting oral history; and to facilitate students’ engagement with a community organization. Through the course, students learned to build relationships and trust with the community and to avoid extractive models of community engagement. In the last three years, our team of faculty, librarians, and graduate teachers have fostered partnerships with grassroots organizations such as Allies to End Detention, the Barrio Logan College Institute, Casa Familiar, and the United Women of East Africa. Collaboration with these partners means being mindful of their time and labor, listening to their needs, and plugging students into already-existing projects. It means redistributing university resources to these organizations by having catered events at community centers rather than at UCSD and providing stipends for community participants. And it means doing all of this before, during and beyond the course, assisting and finding concrete ways to uplift their organizations and projects whenever possible, including grant writing and holding workshops on requested topics.

Oral history is a practice of shared knowledge production that is grounded not in the authority of academics but in the lived memories of people. It centers people as authorities of their own histories. In the course, we approach oral history as one component of storytelling and community building. Thus students conducted oral histories with community members and also created other ways to amplify storytelling. For example, students who worked with the United Women of East Africa’s after-school program encouraged the youth to recount their family stories through art-making. Those who worked with Allies to End Detention corresponded with migrant detainees at Otay Mesa Detention Center through letter-writing and shared their stories through multimedia projects that included reading the letters aloud and featuring the detainees’ own artworks. At the end of the course, a project showcase brought students, community partners, and family members together, as yet another enactment of collective care and appreciation for the community that came into being through the dedicated labor of everyone involved.

A group of approximately twenty people stand in audience, listening to a speaker at the top of several stairs. They are outdoors on what appears to be a crisp sunny day.
Luis Alvarez teaching the history of Chicano Park and Barrio Logan to students of the “Race and Oral History in San Diego” course. May 2, 2019. Courtesy of Simeon Man.
Several children sign their names on a mural that reads "I pledge to lend a hand."
The community showcase was held at the East African Community and Cultural Center in City Heights, San Diego, June 7, 2019. The Center was forced to close shortly after due to the gentrification of the neighborhood. Courtesy of Simeon Man.

Rethinking Community, Storytelling, and Labor During COVID-19

In late March 2020, in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, UCSD announced that all Spring quarter courses would be delivered remotely. With less than two weeks to prepare, we turned to the relationship-based infrastructure that we had built with our community partners to reimagine the course. Since our course relied on community ties more than on university resources, and since we have earnestly cultivated these ties, we received generous support and creative ideas from our partners on how to move the course online. While the pandemic is often presented to be a major obstacle for colleges and universities, constraining their ability to offer core services, we regarded it as an impetus to help address the pandemic-related challenges facing our community partners and our students in the course. The improvisational nature and ethic of care of the course, made even more urgent during the pandemic, transformed and expanded how we delimit community, practice storytelling, and perform labor.

A screenshot captures students and faculty participating in a remote learning session on the video conferencing software Zoom.
April 30, 2020, San Diego, California, USA: UC San Diego students participate Tuesday in a Zoom meeting to discuss their projects for the course ”Race and Oral History Project. (Credit Image: © Andrea Lopez-Villafana/San Diego Union-Tribune via ZUMA Wire)


“Growing up, any struggles I had in school, I had to figure out on my own, without help from my parents, who, having grown up in rural Viet Nam and during a war, have both limited English fluency and minimal school experience …. In working with the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, … I was finally able to ask my parents for help with my homework, in translating materials to Vietnamese … and to show visibly, clearly, the knowledge they held silently, to academia and to the world.”

         -Sabrina Pham-Vu, student in the Race and Oral History course, Spring 2020

Remote learning, while full of challenges, worked because we used it to amplify the course’s conceptualization of racialized communities as valued partners and knowledge producers. Remote learning enabled us to partner with communities outside of San Diego, including the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce (OVCC) that assisted Vietnamese-speaking business owners to file for COVID-19 government assistance. Like the OVCC, many of our community partners serve non-English speakers who require special assistance during the pandemic. Accordingly, our bilingual students had the rare chance to use their “home language”—Arabic, Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi—in a college course to serve their communities. As Sabrina’s example indicates, studying from home enabled students to ask their parents for translation help, thereby folding families of students of color—who oftentimes feel alienated from their children’s college education—and their knowledge into the class. Spatially, for students who hail from refugee and migrant communities in Southeastern and South Bay San Diego, working with organizations in their locality, such as the American Friends Service Committee-US-Mexico Border Program and Allies to End Detention, connected them to the knowledge and activism that was taking place in their communities during the pandemic. Teaching during the pandemic also compelled us to repurpose the virtual classroom into a community space of collective and reciprocal care, using class time to prioritize our wellbeing. Students also deployed virtual technology to check in weekly with their community partners to offer genuine support and concrete assistance. All these examples reveal the artificiality of the community-university spatial division embedded in university programs, and highlight instead the rich possibilities that exist in initiatives that promote shared knowledge production and an expansive understanding of community.


The structure of the course required students to meet weekly via Zoom with each other and with their community partners. For many students, working with community organizations and hearing their stories motivated them to ask their family about their own life stories, especially about their immigration journey and experiences with racism. In the process, students learned more than how to conduct an oral history; they learned to honor stories of and by racialized communities, including those of their own families, that convey alternative knowledge, perspectives, and aspirations. “This class will challenge you to go beyond the walls of academia,” one student reflected. Recognizing that they were working with some communities hardest hit by the pandemic in San Diego, the students added thoughtful questions about the impact of the pandemic to the oral histories, centering the interviewee’s strength and resilience. Since our students already had built community remotely with their interviewee beforehand, had shown genuine interest in their story, and had conveyed transparency about the process, the virtual interviews proceeded smoothly. Moreover, an informal archive of stories that document everyday moments of the pandemic populated the virtual space—via group chats, social media, weekly Zoom meetings—that students shared with each other and with community partners. Together, the formal and informal (hi)stories that the class created with and for each other constitute an invaluable archive of stories from the 2020 pandemic.


Teaching in the time of COVID-19 exposes the invisible labor that comes with recognizing students as human beings and the circumstances making it difficult for students to adapt “quickly and efficiently…[to] continue their studies” remotely. As graduate teaching assistants, we (Adriana and Youngoh) prioritized students’ mental and physical well-being over deadlines and productivity. We spent countless hours outside the scheduled class time with students, listening to their struggles and helping them cope, sharing resources whenever possible but mostly sharing empathy and simply being present. Students related common issues such as having poor internet connection, lacking a suitable environment to attend class, and juggling multiple jobs to support themselves and their families. In group chats, students checked on each other, shared tips on how to study remotely and how to hold it together during this time, and generally uplifted each other. All the emotional labor—performed by the students and by us—remained unaccounted for, and indeed cannot be measured by the university’s metrics. Our teaching stipends were calculated based on the number of students enrolled and not on the number of actual hours worked, and in truth proved far inadequate from providing for our own needs. As precarious graduate workers ourselves, who hail from the same afflicted communities of many of our students and community partners, we found strength in common struggle with each other. As discussed above, what we created with our uncompensated affective labor was not just a virtual classroom but a community that nurtured all of us, a space of mutual aid that is not of the university (though it may claim it as such), and that is in every way against its model of profit over people.


We taught the “Race and Oral History in San Diego” amidst the start of the pandemic in the U.S. and at the tail end of the months-long “wildcat” strike led by graduate workers across the UC system demanding a Cost of living Adjustment (COLA). The COLA movement began in Fall 2019 at UC Santa Cruz and spread in February and March to other campuses including UCSD. Graduate workers protested their below-poverty wages while working and living in some of the most expensive cities in the state and while doing the bulk of the teaching and grading labor for the university. In their demands for redistribution and livable conditions, graduate workers were expressing a vision of a radically restructured university that centered the needs of its students, workers, and communities. As administrators retaliated by deploying UC police to surveil and suppress the strike and by firing 54 striking TAs at UC Santa Cruz, the movement garnered wider support across different sectors, including contingent faculty, tenured and tenure-track faculty, and undergraduate students, as well as supporters beyond the UC system.

As UCSD claims the “Race and Oral History in San Diego” course as its own, it will have to confront the fact that the labor of underpaid graduate workers and the unseen care work of students and community members made the course possible. This labor will remain unacknowledged by the university, for acknowledging it would entail facing its own contradictions, as an institution that espouses to care about the wellbeing of its students and community yet through its actions has exacerbated their vulnerability to institutional violence and premature death. As we write this, we are confronting a university bent on opening the campus for in-person classes during a deadly pandemic, putting already vulnerable students, workers and the seldom-mentioned surrounding communities at even greater risk. If the course has taught us anything, it is that in the face of organized abandonment we must continue to build autonomous spaces of community and resistance—within the university but not of the university—that will enable us to survive this collective nightmare and create the world we need and deserve.


Yến Lê Espiritu is Distinguished Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She has published extensively on Asian American panethnicity, critical immigration and refugee studies, and U.S. colonialism and wars in Asia. She is a founding faculty member of the Race and Oral History project and co-teaches the course.

Adriana Echeverria is a second year PhD student in the department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on the forced migration of Central American and Caribbean migrants on the Tijuana/San Diego borderlands. She was a Teaching Assistant for the Spring 2020 Race and Oral History course. 

Youngoh Jung is a PhD candidate in the History Department and the Critical Gender Studies Graduate Specialization Program at University of California, San Diego. He specializes in Asian American history with a focus on transpacific militarism during the Cold War. His dissertation examines the history of diasporic Korean militarism and alternative formations of identity and community in the Korean diaspora beyond the US Military Empire in the Asia-Pacific. 

Simeon Man is Associate Professor of History and Director of Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies Program at University of California, San Diego. He is author of Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific (University of California Press, 2018). He is a founding faculty member of the Race and Oral History Project and co-teaches the course. 

[1] The course was created by Luis Alvarez, Yến Lê Espiritu, and Simeon Man.