We write this in the midst of the shutdown of the UCSB MultiCultural Center (MCC), a situation that has gone viral in the mainstream media and social media. The MCC was closed on Monday, February 26, 2024, in a complex situation involving artwork in solidarity with Palestine, accusations of anti-Semitism, and charges of internal center problems. We are not offering an assessment of these events, but instead, provide a brief history of the MCC as context for understanding the center’s principles and values. The MCC, like any unit at the university, has faced institutional constraints, and the challenge was always present to forge a space for activism and liberational aspirations, while having to resist structural constrictions. We hope this history will be of use for today’s struggle. As we seek to re-open the MCC, we ask: How can we re-imagine the space of the MCC to be the most transformative space possible to support students from historically aggrieved communities and to co-create the knowledge, experiences, and visions needed to forge new futures? What can we learn from the history of the MCC to build forward collectively?  

Point #1: The MCC started in struggle and was sustained through activism.  Anti-Black racism, notably a black face performance at “Air Jam 84” in 1984, and other racial problems spurred students to form the Coalition Against Racist Expressions (CARE) and later the Concerned Students Against Racism. This was a period of political conservatism nationally; but on the UCSB campus, then with only 25% students of color, and elsewhere there were also increasing demands for the recognition and inclusion of histories and cultures beyond the “western canon.” In the face of institutional resistance, students, with some faculty and staff, launched a  hunger strike in 1989 that gained the campuswide ethnic studies requirements. 

It was in this larger context that the needs and demands for the MCC materialized. In April 1987, the administration announced plans to open a new space. The MultiCultural Center opened its doors in January 1988. Zaveeni Khan-Marcus, then a graduate student, was appointed as the part-time program coordinator in October 1988, and hired as the full-time director in 1989.  With limited resources and a tiny space, the MCC director and the MCC Board, consisting of 11 staff and 3 students, met every Friday to implement the MCC’s vision. Over time, they grew the MCC’s programming, strengthened its campus profile, and showed the importance of the MCC’s mission. In Spring 1995, the MCC moved into its current location, a 4,500 square foot space in the UCen, and grew in its programming. In 2019-20 AY, for example, the MCC hosted 115 programs, with over 6,800 people attending. And new programs emerged, including the MCC Student Council with 60 student user groups, the Race Matters and Resilient Love in a Time of Hate series, a visioning process just before the pandemic, and the Jackson interns and the Intersectional Justice Facilitator Certificate Program. Khan-Marcus, the founding director, retired in August 2020 after more than 30 years of service.

Point #2: In order to respond to crises, the MCC needs a strong community building process in place before the eruption of problems.  With support of students as its primary mission, the MCC throughout much of its history created a coalition of students, staff, faculty and off-campus community as its base of support. At moments of crises in the nation or on campus, the MCC opened its doors for dialogue and struggle, including after the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, 9/11, and the November 2016 elections.  It is disturbing that in another moment of crisis, the current conjuncture of war and genocide, the MCC has been shut down rather than remaining open for crucial, informed, and intensive discussions, learning, and collective healing. 

Points #3: Strong leadership is needed in a space like the MCC that opens to potentially contentious, but necessary conversations and struggle. A crucial point of leadership must come from  the director, who is charged with running a well-functioning center, training and updating staff, grounding their work in the center’s mission and history, and safeguarding the center against the institutional efforts at constriction. Another point of leadership is the MCC Board. The MCC’s Mission Statement, dated April 20, 1995, reads, in part:

It is vital that the MCC always remains an autonomous site under the direct control of the MCC Board, composed of students, staff, and faculty. The MCC strives to support student activism and maintain a mutually supportive relationship with its student users, as they work together in pursuit of a more just society.

The MCC Board held its first meeting in September 1987 and met quarterly thereafter until Spring 2020, with one more Board meeting in Spring 2021.  MCC students form the third pillar of leadership. There is important work to be done to rebuild the MCC as an autonomous space in support of student activism through mutually supportive relationships among its student users and in collaboration with faculty, staff and broader communities. 

Point # 4: The MCC, through much of its history, has been a space of connection and collectivity, and also promoted an ongoing process of self-reflection and change. Many students expressed that the MCC was one of the few places on campus where they felt supported and, more so, could express themselves and work towards transformative justice. At its core, the MCC rests on principles of intersectionality, reflecting the student charge in 1995 for the MCC to be a space where communities come together through mutuality and across differences. The center also respects the need for communities to gather separately. The MCC was built on a history that affirmed both joint struggle and autonomous spaces, recognizing that all things are interconnected. 

There are groups that feel the MCC has not adequately addressed their issues and these concerns need to be taken seriously as the MCC rebuilds. For many years, there has been intense pressure brought against the MCC, often by external actors, on the few occasions when the center hosted Palestine-centered events. The result has been a longstanding implicit, and sometimes explicit, censorship of Palestine within the MCC. There needs to be clarity within the MCC’s mission on the place of decoloniality, inclusive of Palestine.  

Point #5: The MCC resides in a place of tension between the mandate for liberatory practices and visions and the constraints of the university. There need to be safeguards in place to resist the erosion of the MCC’s autonomy as well as to encourage critical reflection and refinement. Even at the time of its founding, the decision to name the place “multicultural” was a compromise. Then and more so today, there are critiques of the term for promoting a superficial focus on culture, diminishing analyses of power and institutional racism, and being co-opted by institutions. Would a different name reflect the actual work and hopes for a re-imagined MCC that creates space for the critical discussions, creative expression, incisive learning, and activist co-construction needed in today’s world?  

How will we develop a process, vision, and goals for reimagining and rebuilding the MCC in service to love and liberation?

Note: The authors are members of the last MCC Board or former Board members.

A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the March 7, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.