Ethnic studies conference will honor Don Nakanishi ’71, a founder of the field

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Don Nakanishi

Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM) and the Asian American Cultural Center at Yale will host an Ethnic Studies Conference on Thursday and Friday, Nov. 3 and 4. The event will honor the late Don Nakanishi ’71, a Yale graduate who was a pioneer in the fields of ethnic and Asian-American studies, and will draw on the deep experience of the Yale community in the area of ethnic studies.

The conference begins the evening of Nov. 3 with a keynote address titled “Race and Politics from Don Nakanishi to Donald Trump” by Janelle Wong ’01 Ph.D., professor of american studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland.  Stephen J. Pitti ’91, professor of history and American studies and founding director of the RITM Center, will offer opening remarks the morning of Nov. 4.

The remainder of the program Nov. 4 will be devoted to panel discussions on the fields of Asian-American, Latinx, and Native American studies. Nakanishi’s wife, Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, and son, Thomas ’05, will also participate in a discussion celebrating his life.

“We are thrilled to bring students and scholars together to share their research and scholarship on Asian American, Latinx, and Native American communities, groups that have not always received careful attention from policymakers or academic departments,” Pitti remarked. “We will hear from well-established scholars such as Gary Okihiro who helped to shape the field of Asian American Studies, and from emerging scholars like Irene Garza (’02) who are just beginning promising careers in the academy.”

Most of the conference speakers are Yale students, alumni, faculty, and administrators — reflecting the university’s strength in the field. “Faculty members and other researchers have pursued serious work on these topics at Yale for more than forty years, and Don Nakanishi played a key role on this campus and around the country in shaping Ethnic Studies fields,” Pitti said.

Registration for the conference is free but required. Registration details and full conference times and locations are available here.

The conference is an initiative of Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, which was announced by President Peter Salovey last November. It is co-sponsored by La Casa Cultural Julia de Burgos,  the Native American Cultural Center, the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Department of African American Studies, the Department of American Studies, and Timothy Dwight College.

Nakanishi, who helped establish Asian American studies as a legitimate and relevant field of academic inquiry, was a faculty member at the University of California-Los Angeles for 35 years and served as the director of the Asian American Studies center there. He died in Los Angeles on March 21 at the age of 66.

Pitti noted that Nakanishi was “an extraordinary alum” who was devoted to making Yale a better place, and to supporting students and faculty members. As issues of race, migration, and equity have become increasingly important in American politics, the scholarly fields that he pioneered have become more important than ever, said Pitti.

“In addition to helping to create the first Asian American student organization on campus when he was an undergraduate, Don helped to establish the first classes in Asian American studies and Chicano studies taught east of the Mississippi. He also helped to create Amerasia, the first major scholarly journal devoted to Asian American Studies, when he was a Yale student. And after he left Yale and returned to the West Coast, Don played a critical role in developing Asian American Studies as a faculty member and administrator at UCLA,” Pitti said.

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