Hundreds turned out in Aptos on Friday night for the Rise Together kickoff.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Diversity united: Official kickoff of Rise Together initiative celebrates a team approach to the equity fight

“We are the people who will build our community’s future — everyone who’s here,” Community Foundation leader Susan True told a crowd of more than 300 that had turned out for a full schedule of talks, activities, music and performances to inspire philanthropy and accomplish more as a community.

When George Floyd was murdered last summer, activists from around the county came together in shock and horror. In a county that is 87% white, it was an aha moment for how fragmented the efforts to bring voice to the more marginalized communities of color truly were in Santa Cruz County.

What the county lacks in racial diversity it makes up for with a diverse mix of strong leaders across groups trying to steer the country forward on the issues of racial, health, economic and social equity. That’s what got the Rise Together movement rolling a year ago, as a collective of 17 leaders of color and a team from the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County began the initial work of combining forces.

Susan True and the leaders of Rise Together on Friday night at the Community Foundation.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Friday’s festive scene in Aptos was the culmination of that work and an impressive kickoff party. “We are the people who will build our community’s future — everyone who’s here,” Community Foundation leader Susan True told the crowd of more than 300 that turned out for a full schedule of talks, activities, music and performances to inspire philanthropy and accomplish more as a community.

Erica Padilla-Chavez, CEO of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, Inc., said he was grateful to see so much connection with other community leaders, after working with some members over the past few years. At the height of the racial narrative following Floyd’s death, Padilla-Chavez said it was clear that equity and philanthropy needed to be elevated to assist in the community.

“We really lent each other support over the last nine months,” she said. “We were already a community, but we built a community of even greater trust and respect for each other.”

She is further excited that the collective allows for an elevated conversation about equity between community leaders, instead of having separate and smaller conversations.

Over the past year, the group has received $423,000 through state and federal grants, which will be used to increase upward economic mobility, celebrate marginalized communities’ stories and cultures, and improve essential services for communities of color.

Dancers from Senderos perform Friday night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

True expanded on how the group’s partnership with Rise Together proved the need to go further in addressing local inequities for marginalized community members following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

“I just kept thinking, our job is to bring people together — how do we move forward from this moment that probably none of us will ever forget and think about a new future?” she said. “The only way I could think of was to bring smart, strong, loving leaders together and ask what we need to advance equity.”

Over the coming months, True and the Community Foundation worked to create long-term goals for the collective and the community, with five primary actions and goals. At the same time, True says, the collective’s leaders also needed to get to know one another, and the collective worked to build trust among one another through regular virtual meetings and planning sessions.

Local activist Joy Flynn came to the event primarily as a community member, and was excited to see the turnout for the collective’s launch. Over the course of the past year in particular, Flynn was working diligently herself to bring a more equitable and teaching mindset about allyship for community members, which further proved the importance of this event and the collective’s work moving forward.

Dancers from Estrellas de Esperanza.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Part of what I wanted to have happen is for us to be seen by one another, and also be seen by the whiter community,” she said. “We need to be able to move forward in looking at everything we do from a position of allyship and through an equity lens … when you can’t see a problem or admit that there’s a problem, you can’t do anything about it.”

Flynn said the necessary changes surrounding these movements can be challenging, but it starts with an open mind, which was completely on display through the large turnout on Friday.

“Now is when the work needs to be done — we’re working with clay instead of cement, but there’s still some muscle into shaping what the future will look like,” she said.

Ultimately, the collective and its partners believe that this event is only the start of what’s to come for the county.

“We’re creating space for community engagement around the equity and inequity factors that we’re all contending with,” Padilla-Chavez said.

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