ICSA’s Fight to Make Education Relevant to Chinese Communities (by Albert Liu)


In this high school history lesson, students will discuss and analyze the impetus for the formation of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and the subsequent struggle for Ethnic Studies from the perspective of the Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action (ICSA).


This lesson is designed to introduce students to the idea of an Asian American movement. It brings attention to Asian American involvement in the TWLF and the development of Ethnic Studies programs in higher education. Students make use of primary documents written by the ICSA to understand some of the factors that led to the Third World strike at San Francisco. They are then asked to design Chinese Ethnic studies courses that address some of these factors. In doing so, they are forced to confront the difficult struggles of the Chinese in the United States. Students should leave the lesson with a stronger understanding of the role of education in empowering marginalized communities of color.


The Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action (ICSA) went on strike with the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) at San Francisco State to demand an education designed to serve impoverished communities of color, especially the Chinese community which was often ignored due to the Model Minority Myth.


  1. What were the demographics of the Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action and how did this inform their agenda?
  2. Why were Chinese communities like Chinatown seen as doing well? How does the ICSA attempt to break this myth?
  3. Why did the ICSA join the TWLF?
  4. Why did the ICSA want the creation of a School of Ethnic Studies and a Chinese Ethnic Studies Department at SFSU? What were the perceived goals of this department?

Ever since its establishment in 1848, San Francisco’s Chinatown has been an important ethnic enclave for Chinese immigrants in the United States. In the late 1970s, the vast majority of San Francisco’s 80,000 Chinese lived in Chinatown.[1] Despite its presence as a tourist attraction, Chinatown was actually little more than a glittering ghetto. Police brutality in Chinatown was commonplace, and maladies such as malnutrition, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and depression were rampant.[2][3] Under these frustrating conditions, many of the Chinese youth turned to drugs or street gangs as an escape mechanism.[4]

Influenced by the militant Black Panthers in the Bay Area, politically minded Chinese students founded the Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action (ICSA) in November 1967.[5][6] The ICSA was founded primarily by middle class Chinese students whose parents had managed to escape from the ghetto.[7] Many of them saw education as one of the only options to escape the cycle of poverty in the ghetto of Chinatown. They were committed to serving the Chinatown community, and established a youth center in Chinatown that became an important community gathering place for youth.[8]

In 1968, racial tension and the suspension of English instructor and Black Panther Minister of Education George Murray at San Francisco State prompted various organizations of students of color to band together to form the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF).[9] The ICSA was one of these organizations, being extremely frustrated with San Francisco State’s inability to serve San Francisco’s Chinese population. Together, the TWLF went on strike to protest the lack of resources for students of color and the lack of racial diversity on campus.[10] Their demands were:

  1. That a School of Ethnic Studies for the ethnic groups involved in the Third World be set up with the students in each particular ethnic organization having the authority and control of the hiring and retention of any faculty member, director, or administrator, as well as the curriculum in a specific area study.
  2. That 50 faculty positions be appropriated to the School of Ethnic Studies, 20 of which would be for the Black Studies program.
  3. That, in the Spring semester, the College fulfill its commitment to the non-white students in admitting those who apply.
  4. That, in the fall of 1969, all applications of non-white students be accepted.
  5. That George Murray and any other faculty person chosen by non-white people as their teacher be retained in their positions.[11]

One of the TWLF’s primary goals in establishing Ethnic Studies Programs was to break away from the Euro-centric model of teaching and to educate students of color about their plight in the United States. The ICSA in particularly viewed the establishment of a Chinese Ethnic Studies Department as a way to educate Chinese leaders who would return to help their impoverished community.[12] They used the strike as an opportunity to debunk the myth of the successful Chinese community who had suffered relatively little in the United States.[13]


  1. “San Francisco State Strike 1968 Student Brochure”
  2. “Proposal for the Establishment of a Chinese Ethnic Studies Department (pg. 1-5) : links for download are on the right side
  3. Poster sized paper

Begin the class by recapping the Black Power movement from the previous lesson. Ask students if anyone has ever heard of the Asian American movement. From there, ask students to list any perceptions of Asian Americans in the United States that they might harbor. Write these down on the board. Have each student read the Introduction (above) and ask them to share with the class if any of their perceptions have changed after the reading.

Hand out individual copies of the San Francisco State Strike 1968 Student Brochure by the ICSA. Have students form groups of 3-4 people and ask the groups to analyze the document in the context of ICSA’s demographic and their participation in the TWLF. Provide them with the guiding questions:

  • How does the ICSA’s description of Chinatown match up to your perceptions of Chinatown? Did you expect this level of poverty? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think the conditions in Chinatown are so abysmal? How could they be improved?
  • Why did the ICSA target San Francisco State for reform?
  • Are the issues raised by the ICSA reflected in the demands of the TWLF?
    • Why do you think the ICSA joined the TWLF?
  • What role does language play in communities and in Chinatown in particular?
  • How will a Chinese Ethnic Studies Department address the issues being raised in the brochure?

This small group discussion will last for approximately 10 minutes, followed by a quick large group discussion where they share what they discussed in small groups.

After this exercise, hand out a sheet of paper to every student in the class, and ask them to individually brainstorm ideas for a Chinese Ethnic Studies course that would address some of the problems raised by the ICSA brochure for five minutes. In their brainstorm, they should tackle the following questions:

  • How does this course help students engage their community?
  • How does the course empower Chinese American students?
  • How does the course promote understanding of Chinese culture and the Chinese condition in the United States?

Split the class into four groups and have them share the ideas from their individual brainstorms. Each group should then design a Chinese Ethnic Studies course. The goals and structure of the course should be outlined on a large poster paper. The students should be given about 10 minutes to design their course, and then each group should present their course in the front of the class for approximately 5 minutes each.

For homework, have the students read the Proposal for the Establishment of a Chinese Ethnic Studies Department, focusing on the suggested courses page. They should then write one or two sentences that identify the fundamental issue being addressed in each course.


Louie, Steve and Glenn Omatsu edit. Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2011.

Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Whitson, Helene. The San Francisco State College Strike Collection: Introductory Essay. San Francisco: San Francisco State University. http://www.library.sfsu.edu/about/collections/strike/essay.html.

“Yellow Symposium 1969.” Asian American Movement 1968. http://aam1968.blogspot.com/2008_01_11_archive.html.


  1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  2. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  3. Students construct and test hypotheses; collect, evaluate, and employ information from multiple primary and secondary sources; and apply it in oral and written presentations.
  4. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
  5. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
  6. Students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken other directions.
  7. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

[1] “San Francisco State Strike 1968 Student Brochure,” Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action.

[2] William Wei, The Asian American Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 173.

[3] Louie, Steve and Glenn Omatsu, edit. Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment. (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2001), 36.

[4] Ibid 38.

[5] Wei, The Asian American Movement, 17.

[6] Ibid 15.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Helene Whitson, The San Francisco State College Strike Collection: Introductory Essay, (San Francisco: San Francisco State University), http://www.library.sfsu.edu/about/collections/strike/essay.html.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Yellow Symposium 1969,” Asian American Movement 1968, accessed April 5, 2012, http://aam1968.blogspot.com/2008_01_11_archive.html.

[13] Wei, The Asian American Movement, 174.

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