21 for ’21: How Bella Bonner found her voice — and plans to keep honing it

Bella Bonner addresses the masses at Lighthouse Field on June 3.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

A young activist came out of nowhere in 2020 to spur dramatic gatherings of diversity discussion and police reform. But her voice really was developing long before George Floyd’s death.

Bella Bonner was a Soquel High sophomore in 2011 when she began to understand her restless soul.

There had been a rash of racist graffiti appearing on campus and a group of students suspended for their part in what the principal termed “a white-pride criminal gang” recruiting in the community. “We became national news — not a great scene,” she recalls.

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Not long after, in the summer of 2013, came the Trayvon Martin murder trial, which ended in the acquittal of George Zimmerman — “something I just couldn’t understand, why there was no justice,” she said.

It was the trigger that began the process that has turned Bonner, 25, into one of the most recognizable voices on equity and social justice issues in Santa Cruz County this year. From organizing public events to blogging and public speaking, she’s set herself up to be an even more influential force in 2021.

Back in 2013, she poured her heart out to her father, Alfred, who had grown accustomed and numb to even far more in-your-face racism during his time as a bike salesman in Santa Cruz County. Her dad was Black. Her mom was white. It wasn’t yet clear to Bonner where she fit in.

“I remember hearing racial slurs thrown at my dad as we drove through town,” she said. “It made me so sad to see what my dad went through. I felt privileged to have lighter skin. He suppressed a lot of it, didn’t want to seem weak around his daughters.”

Alfred and Bella
(Courtesy Bella Bonner)

Until then, Bonner says, she didn’t know how to put her feelings of hurt and angst into words. “I really wish I’d been able to use my voice more.” And so began a phase of self-discovery that would ultimately carry Esabella (E-sah-bella) Bonner into the tempest of 2020, with plenty to say and a megaphone in hand.

It began, post-Soquel High, with sociology classes at Cabrillo College where she finally could define the moments of discomfort she’d felt all her life as micro-aggressions. “In summer, the skin tan thing. ‘Oh, my god I’m Black, I’m darker than you now.’ I was always the gauge of darkness during the summer … things like that you don’t realize how hurtful they are at the time.”

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

After graduating from San Jose State and launching a career as a diversity-minded recruiter in Silicon Valley she and a fellow bi-racial friend started a blog called BlendedBridge.com. The goal: connecting “the community of individuals who oftentimes feel like their identities have gotten lost in the middle.”

She admits to having lost focus on her mission for a bit while building a career. And then George Floyd happened.

She and her friend Ariana Jones, who is Latinx, took to action. They sought out other diverse voices in the community via BlendedBridge. Bonner began pushing for those voices to be heard at rallies in town. And then she came up with a crazy idea: “Let’s take over West Cliff.”

What developed on June 3, with just a simple flier posted around town, became the most memorable scene of community togetherness in 2020. Hundreds of people of all skin tones and ages came out to march peacefully from the Dream Inn to Lighthouse Point to hear speakers tell their painful stories and offer support.

Bella Bonner leads the march up West Cliff.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It just blew up,” Bonner said. “And it was the most beautiful experience I’ve ever been a part of. There were so many high schoolers telling stories of the same things I went through when I was in high school.”

A few days later came a massive turnout for the George Floyd Memorial Paddleout, which Bonner assisted on organizing, and was hit with a key realization: There are a lot of people of color who have lived in Santa Cruz their entire lives and never felt comfortable entering the ocean. She was one of them. So she started the Black Surf Club Santa Cruz.

The view from above on June 3.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The West Cliff march’s success led to another emotional Bonner-organized rally in Capitola Village on July 1. And her sudden emergence as a voice in diversity issues brought her to the table with Santa Cruz Police for discussion about police reform.

While some meaningful results have emerged, she admits her toe dip into the political arena was eye-opening. It’s an area — affecting real change — where she’s still learning and growing. Rallying a crowd via passionate storytelling is one thing. Policy change and consensus-building are another.

“That’s a huge part of getting something done, not being too emotional — actually having an ask,” she said. “Otherwise people in politics will write you off.”

In 2020, Bella Bonner found her voice. In 2021, she’ll be working on the ask.

Bella Bonner
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz Salutes: Shoutout someone doing good things for the community


The Santa Cruz community comes together in hard times, which was especially evident in 2020. Do you know of someone who volunteered, donated, or helped the community in some way this year? To give someone a Santa Cruz Salute, fill out the form below with a photo of them and a short description to describe how they are trying to make the community better