25 year old activist, Thairie Ritchie talks about his personal experience with homelessness
Thairie Ritchie speaking in front of a crowd. He organized a community forum for this Saturday about the issues that have faced residents in 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

‘Where do we go from here?’: Activists will hold community forum to address racial, social issues

Activist Thairie Ritchie is hosting a discussion Saturday, seeking to engage the larger community about the traumatic issues Santa Cruz County residents have had to deal with this year. It will be held from 1 to 6 p.m. at Mission Plaza in Santa Cruz.

The defacement of the Black Lives Matter mural on Center Street. The theft of the El Camino Real bell ahead of its ceremonial removal. The killing of a student at Aptos High School.

Activist Thairie Ritchie said these, as well as other issues — racially tinged and otherwise — that have faced Santa Cruz County over the past few months require discussion and a reckoning. In response, he has organized a community forum for Saturday at Mission Plaza in Santa Cruz.

“I hope every community member from all different backgrounds [comes to the forum], no matter what side of Santa Cruz County people come from,” Ritchie said. “Social issues have been happening around the county that have affected not just a certain segment of the community but all pockets of the community.”

Esabella Bonner, the founder of Black Surf Club and Blended Bridge, said a community forum of this kind is long overdue. She said Ritchie came up with the idea about a year ago, but the CZU fire and the rapid spread of COVID-19 stopped it from coming to fruition.

“I hope that [people who attend] get a sense of community and a sense of healing,” she said. “One of the things that a lot of folks have continued to say after 2020 was, how many people were able to find each other through all of the protests, actions and community grieving. And so my hope is that people are able to continue to come and build community with each other and just be able to heal together.”

Bonner put on a wetsuit for the first time in 2020 for the George Floyd paddle-out event after living in Santa Cruz for over 15 years. Being out in the water for the first time gave her a sense of joy and community she had not felt before, especially at a time when Black Lives Matter protests were happening across the country.

“It really was like the reset that I needed and I was realizing that, you know so many of our Black, Indigenous and POC have been forced out of that and don’t get the benefit and privilege of disconnecting,” Bonner said. “We’re always on the go, we’re always on defense mode, our nervous systems are always activated and there’s nowhere to go, to ‘be.’”

Thomas Sage Pedersen speaks at a community meeting
Thomas Sage Pedersen speaks at a community meeting following July’s vandalism of the Black Lives Matter mural in front of Santa Cruz City Hall.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In addition to Bonner and Ritchie, Thomas Sage Pedersen, the founder of Speak For Change podcast and Black Kings of Santa Cruz, is scheduled to speak along with a dozen others.

“Definitely the goal for me was to spotlight organizers, activists who had really been doing the hands-on work in the community for the last year, tackling a lot of these issues,” Ritchie said.

Pedersen said he created the podcast as a response to feeling burned out last year.

“Interviewing different leaders and community members really allows me to learn what community is, what culture looks like and how we can change culture,” he said. “And so, highlighting these voices in our community, really helps us bring us together.”

Ritchie, Bonner and Pedersen each said they were disappointed with the Parajo Valley School District’s decision to reinstate school resource officers at Aptos High School following a fatal stabbing on Aug. 31. The school district had defunded the SRO program a year prior to the incident.

“The voice of the greater public isn’t always reflected in decisions like that,” Bonner said. “And I think that there was a lot of fearmongering and preying on vulnerable parents who were scared for their children’s safety, as they should be. And I think that we as a community really missed the mark on a meaningful conversation.”

For Ritchie, the defacing of the Black Lives Matter Mural further highlighted the racial divide within the larger Santa Cruz community.

Bella Bonner
Esabella Bonner, speaking at the pre-Juneteenth paddle-out.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It kind of felt really disheartening to see this happen because, just in that exact same space, I had the Juneteenth march in front of city hall and so, you know, for me it felt really significant. And I was really honored to be invited to that space and also be a speaker in that space for the second year in a row. And then to see that happen, it felt disheartening.”

Ritchie says these recent events paired with the overall community trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic and the CZU fire brings up the questions of “does this reflect our community?” and “where do we go from here?”

He says now more than ever is time for the community to come together and discuss these questions.

The community forum will take place Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m. Admission is free, but masks will be required. Handwashing stations and extra masks will be available.

Hanna Merzbach contributed to this story.