Zoila Silvia Mendoza: Why I DEI
Four questions with chair and graduate program director of Native American Studies
Zoila Silvia Mendoza, Ph.D. is a professor and chair of the graduate program and department of Native American Studies at UC Davis, the outgoing Interim Director of Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities (CAMPSSAH), and the “Why I DEI” feature for November 2023.
UC Davis DEI recently had the opportunity to ask Mendoza a few questions about her work in DEI space, her 30-year career at UC Davis and to learn more about her “Why I DEI.”
Meet Professor Mendoza
Professor Mendoza was born and raised in Peru and is a first-generation college student. She came to UC Davis in 1992 as a lecturer and became a tenure-track faculty member in the department of music in 1994. She transferred to the Department of Native American Studies in 1999 when the department welcomed its first cohort of graduate students. At the time, UC Davis was only the second university in the nation to offer a Ph.D. in Native American studies.
The Department of Native American Studies at UC Davis is the only program in the country and world that offers major and minor (undergraduate degrees), master’s degree, a designated emphasis and doctorate degree in hemispheric studies of Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Under her leadership, Mendoza helped establish the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas—which is an interdisciplinary group bringing together faculty and graduate students that focus on the study of transnational processes in the American Hemisphere. She also started a Quechua Language and Society program within the department in 2006.
Q: Why is diversity an essential aspect of the mission, vision and pedagogy of the Native American Studies Department and to you personally?
A: We bring diversity in every sense of the word. At one point, the university introduced a section in the merit and promotion packet called a diversity statement. We thought, “What are we going to say except ‘Everything that we do.’” It is so ingrained in who we are in the department. It is everything that we teach about, who we are as people, where we come from, plus it is essential to our work. Everything we do is to bring into the important conversations – politically and economically – the perspectives of those who have been marginalized forever. I cannot find any example of anyone in our department – student or professor – that is not dedicated to diversity and to giving the marginalized a voice and making them part of the decision making. It’s core to who we are.
It is why I like and have stayed in this department. We are an interdisciplinary group, and our work is committed to and for the People. We do it not for the sake of publication, we do it for giving back the knowledge we achieve so it can be used for the empowerment of those who we work with and serve.
Q: You have been involved with Native American Studies Department at UC Davis since the first graduate students started in 1999. What are some accomplishments that you’ve witnessed in that time?
A: Over the years, I have seen that our graduates have gone back to the People, either where they came from or even if they have not grown up in that tradition, they have developed an interest working with their tribes and different groups, and they gave back. That has been a great thing I have seen. What I've seen over the years is that master's or Ph.D. students are making a huge difference in the advancement of indigenous groups in many, many projects. Even non-native people, who came to Native American Studies to study languages, are hired by tribes to help with the language reclamation movement. Everyone I can think of is involved in making a huge difference in the indigenous community and or in indigenous education. It’s incredible. We are very, very proud of all our graduates.
Q: As chair of the Department of Native American Studies, what is something you would like people to remember or do during Native American Heritage Month?
Open Recruitment: CAMPSSAH Faculty Director
UC Davis DEI is currently recruiting for a new CAMPSSAH Faculty Director. Learn more about CAMPSSAH or how you can apply for this important position, email RobbieLyn Tesnado firstname.lastname@example.org.
A: Something I would love to see at UC Davis, especially because we are home to the only program in the world that does hemispheric work, is for people to realize that ‘Native American’ and ‘indigenous’ stands for all the Americas. I would like people to think beyond the United States and North America. Even within the territory of North America, you have tons of indigenous people migrating from many different nations. For this month, my wish would be that the concept of Indigenous and Native American to be expanded to incorporate other populations. And that we look at the entire continent in terms of celebrating or looking at the realities of indigenous peoples because everything is intertwined. I think it is important to keep that hemispheric perspective.
Q: Can you please share your “Why I DEI”?
A: I do it because it is who I am. I am a first gen professor. I grew up in a reality (in Peru) that needed drastic change and understanding from our own government and to international entities. I wanted to provide support or knowledge about who we are, and the problems that we have. I believe that those who have the privilege of being educated, and having a voice, have an obligation to bring the issues of others to light and to educate people about the issues that marginalized communities face. I wouldn’t be in academia for any other reason. Academia allowed me a more effective way of trying to have my voice heard and provide whatever resources I have access to, to change the situation that if I can, humbly. Everything that I’ve done in my career is to bring light to issues that are often ignored or lesser known; and to bring knowledge, which I was able to acquire, to help other people have a voice.