The Black community of Santa Cruz makes up a mere 1.86 percent of the city’s 62,045 residents, according to the 2016 census. Because of this, many Black residents have expressed a sense of loneliness and lack of representation in a white-majority city.
Photographer Allison Garcia wishes to reintroduce Santa Cruz to its Black community with her upcoming photo exhibition “Black Lives in Santa Cruz: What Matters.”
Garcia is a UC Santa Cruz alumna who graduated from Kresge College in 1981. In 1999, she settled back in Santa Cruz after traveling and worked at the university. After retiring from her position as regional programs manager at UCSC alumni relations, she turned her hobby of photography into a small business. Now her new project showcases the everyday lives of Black people in Santa Cruz.
“The project was to do something positive in the community, raising awareness of racial issues in our community. […] We’re not immune to that at all, it just doesn’t happen at the same scale because you don’t have very many Black people in the community. But that doesn’t mean to that person it isn’t still an issue,” Garcia said.
Garcia paid for half of the project out of pocket and received a matching grant from the nonprofit agency Arts Council of Santa Cruz County. The show’s opening on Jan. 13 at the Resource Center for Nonviolence will coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
The history of Black people in Santa Cruz County is a long one. Late professional researcher and writer Phil Reader documented a timeline of Black history in Santa Cruz, beginning with crewmen of African descent aboard the ship of Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo when he sighted the California coast in 1542. Reader’s history also discloses that civil rights activist and founder of the NAACP Ida B. Wells visited the area frequently to see her aunt and uncle who lived in Santa Cruz at the height of her fame.
The Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP was founded circa 1949 and in its current standing has about 75-100 members, according to chapter President Brenda Griffin. The organization has worked to publicize Garcia’s exhibit.
As it stands, there are no Black members represented in the Santa Cruz City Council, making finding representation on local issues difficult. The show seeks to highlight the small but integral Black community working to support itself in Santa Cruz. The show features Black parents, staff members of different institutions and community organizers, among others.
“The photos are not documenting any kind of violent incidents. It’s people in their lives in a very positive and family-oriented way, but their words by contrast show that racial injustice is something that does affect their lives,” Garcia said.
The faces of Black folks around Santa Cruz are paired with their responses to three questions Garcia asked them: “What’s it like to be Black in Santa Cruz?,” “What does #Blacklivesmatter mean to you?” and “What do you hope the viewers of this exhibit will come away thinking about?”
The questions and their different responses demonstrate how there is no one way to define blackness. Laura Turner-Essel, who has lived and worked in Santa Cruz for the past five years and is the director of residential and community life at the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, was one of those interviewed and photographed for the exhibit.
“A lot of times if people don’t have Black people within their close inner circles they just don’t understand the burdens that we carry on a daily basis,” Turner-Essel said. “It’s important that people see we have a diversity of experiences. […] We are resilient people and even with everything that might go on to discourage us, we’re living our lives.”
Another subject of the project is Ariba Alston-Williams, who grew up in Santa Cruz, attending Santa Cruz High School and later Cabrillo College. She has worked at Cabrillo College for over 13 years and is the staff adviser for the Black Student Union there. She is also a member of the executive committee for the Santa Cruz NAACP.
“I wanted to show the photographer that I’m just a mom, a regular lady that wants to work in my community to make people’s lives better,” Alston-Williams said. “My family and I contribute to the good things that happen in Santa Cruz.”
Alston-Williams and Turner-Essel’s stories, among others’, will be on display at the Resource Center for Nonviolence throughout Black History Month from Jan. 13 through Feb. 26.
“I hope people get a view of Santa Cruz, the whole picture. Everybody that lives here,” Alston-Williams said. “All the people that are featured touch out to a lot of people’s lives.”