Last week inside the Louden Nelson Community Center, concerned citizens gathered for the first of many “Unity in our Community” public peace forums. The Community Center seemed hardly large enough to hold the group of at least 120 people that attended. Prospects for seats looked grim before the welcome ceremony even began.
“The response has been so overwhelming that we might be looking into a larger venue to do at a different date,” said Vivian Levine, an employee at Barrios Unidos, one of the four organizations that helped put together the event.
Local organizations CoAction, Yes! and Youth in Action also helped coordinate the forum. Organizers hoped to foster a community discussion about violence in small groups. The forum also included several presentations by notable speakers from the community, including City Council members Don Lane and Lynn Robinson.
The event was put together in less than two weeks, partly in response to the deadly stabbing of Santa Cruz High School junior, Tyler Tenorio, on Oct. 16 of this year. The forum was also organized in light of the fact that incidents of larceny, homicide and rape have all increased more than 50 percent in the city of Santa Cruz in the past year, according to the Santa Cruz Police Department.
“People want an answer. People want something to be done, and in order to do that we have to come up with a game plan to do it,” Levine said. “In a forum over these events that have happened recently, people come together in fear and anger and want results immediately and it’s not going to happen that way, it has to be a process.”
Levine feels that there is a disparity between generations when it comes to violence awareness, and she hoped this event would help families, adults and youth talk about difficult issues and ultimately curb violent crime in Santa Cruz.
Before the event, Lauren Parker from CoAction also stressed that she expected intergenerational and interracial discourse from the forum.
“We began to organize [the forum] in response to the lack of community dialogue. We all wanted there to be a place where youth could drive the conversation as much as adults,” Parker said.
After everyone settled in chairs, discussions began. The crowd transformed into a number of small circles of people eager to talk. They exchanged personal accounts of their various violent and non-violent pasts and their hopes for the future. Most came to create a safer community, some for their children and still others in order to break down racial and class barriers — a move they felt might help create a path to nonviolence.
“We need to help stop violence and build bridges to a safer community,” one woman said. “Open dialogue with people you love will help it stop.”
An African-American man in one circle talked about racial barriers within the community.
“People automatically judge you because you are Latino, because you are black, because you look ethnic,” the man said. “Barriers need to be broken down.”
Mamel Amijo, who works with the Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism, was also frustrated with barriers to education and barriers to wealth in Santa Cruz. She suggested that while “there are more people of color in the police force [and] as judges,” many authorities still lack empathy towards those of different classes and backgrounds.
Several people in the discussion called for targeting this systemic problem of societal barriers with increased community economic development. Many participants expressed the belief that a fairer, more equal community would make for a safer, less violent future.
One man pointed to another woman’s children playing on the floor before turning to address his group.
“This is our future. We need to invest the money in our children, and we need unity and intervention. That’s the only way to solve this.”