In the rooftop sculpture garden, a shamisen plays as a storyteller, Megumi, recites Japanese folklore. In the silent room next door, expressive photographs of Native Americans from California tribes cover the walls. In the first-floor atrium, orchestra music fills the space.
The 3rd Friday Festivals at the Museum of Art and History (MAH) presented Beyond Borders last Friday to connect the Santa Cruz community to local organizations fighting for political and social justice. About 300 people filtered in and out of the event to participate in hands-on workshops and watch cultural performances by various organizations.
Community programs coordinator Helen Aldana said the event serves to move individuals, who may not otherwise associate with each other, past the borders that prevent them from making meaningful connections. The MAH recruited local organizations in the Santa Cruz area that focus on community activism and use art as a medium to engage locals.
“These borders that we create ourselves, these borders that the system creates, these borders that society creates, all these borders — whether mental barriers, race, gender [or] non-gender identity, class — these things hold us back,” Aldana said.
Since its creation three years ago, 3rd Friday Festivals has changed its themes for each event — from the human body to music to poetry — while still keeping the focus on bringing organizations together to celebrate Santa Cruz’s art and culture. The event had a mix of about 20 performances and workshops that focused on community activism through art. People of all ages came to experience different cultures and find new ways to get involved.
The night featured poster making for the March for Science protest, Senderos’ dance group performances, a local music ensemble from El Sistema, poetry readings from Puente Project, a selection of Japanese art techniques — like origami and calligraphy — and folklore storytelling.
A table covered with markers, paints and poster paper in the middle of the room drew a crowd of people who wrote catchy slogans to express why they believe in science. These were among thousands of posters carried during the March for Science on Earth Day.
“[The] event was a perfect chance for us to interact with our larger community,” said March for Science volunteer coordinator Cassity Mega. “We wanted to have a sincere dialogue about how science shapes everyone’s lives regardless of where you are on Earth, your age, ethnicity or gender.”
Next door to the poster-making, people gathered around the atrium floor and along the stairs to watch the musical and dance performances by El Sistema and Senderos, two local organizations that support students through cultural and artistic programs. El Sistema provides after-school music classes for elementary school students. It does so not only to provide students with an artistic outlet, but to support their development of self-esteem, social responsibility and intellect and reinforce the importance of community involvement.
“[We are] challenging the notion that socioeconomics are the single biggest predictor of academic success,” said program director Isabelle Tuncer. “Children who engage in art and, more specifically, music from a very early age break down barriers of all kinds, from socioeconomics to language or special needs, leveling […] the playing field for all.”
The event was organized to bring the community together and engage in a mix of cultures, with art playing a major role in each organization’s activism. For students from El Sistema, becoming part of a committed community of performers restores self-confidence to help them take on difficult challenges.
“[The] role of artists in social change movements is not to just provide visuals for activists’ communication strategies and immediate needs, but rather to develop what artist Favianna Rodriguez calls a ‘cultural strategy’ to help shift the way people think about the world,” Tuncer said.
Helen Aldana, 3rd Friday’s organizer, sees the intersection of art and activism as a way to bring about inclusive communication. When people come together in spaces they wouldn’t normally inhabit, borders fade away and people can work together to bring about change.
“The collaborators at Beyond Borders are all sharing how they express peace [and] their talents. [They] become resources for the people that attended,” Aldana said. “They provide a beautiful, creative way for people to connect with themselves and complete strangers. That is resistance — breaking the barriers.”
With the drastic change in federal administration, community activism increased in both Santa Cruz and across the nation. This increase shows in the number of people turning out for protests in the last few months. The March for Science, for example, saw participation in the thousands. Events like Beyond Borders aim to revive waves of involvement by giving people the opportunity to engage with other cultures and take action.
“A lot of people are waking up,” Aldana said. “People are really acting and moving, asking questions, seeing what they can do, whether it’s through protesting or showing up. [That] is the most important thing to do if you want to look out for your community.”