Thomas Sage Pedersen’s journey has taken him from growing up in a white family in Hollister to the life of a Santa Cruz street musician and now a guiding voice in a local Black community that’s vibrating with exploration of arts, culture, philosophy and more. “This place is primed for this,” the organizer-podcaster-entrepreneur says of the momentum propelling a renaissance.
Is there a Black cultural renaissance brewing in Santa Cruz?
Ask one man in a prime position to know, and he’ll tell you, without hesitation, yes there is.
After 2020 and the painful and transformative killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, “there was an awakening in this town,” said Thomas Sage Pedersen.
“And right now, we’re going through a renaissance in the Black community. Art, culture, philosophy, it’s all coming up at this moment. I could name off so many people right now, who are not high-profile people, who are coming up with ideas and thoughts that have not really been explored in Santa Cruz. This place is primed for this.”
Pedersen is a Santa Cruz-based musician, composer, entrepreneur, podcaster and community organizer who launched his interview show “Speak For Change” in 2020 and has since released more than 120 episodes, conducting conversations with activists, artists, writers, environmentalists, mental health advocates, elected officials and others, many with a stake in Santa Cruz.
Last week, when he told me over coffee about the blossoming Black renaissance, it had been only a few days since a peak experience. In front of 1,300 people at Kaiser Permanente Arena, Pedersen shared a stage with bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi and novelist Nic Stone in a sold-out program based on their collaborative book, “How to Be a (Young) Antiracist.” His position as moderator of the event — the local voice, the guiding hand, the conversation starter — was a real-world manifestation of his symbolic position in Santa Cruz’s Black community.
The crowd, which filled up one half of the arena’s bleachers section, was diverse in race and age. Kendi — who wrote the 2019 book “How to Be An Antiracist,” which has become a publishing phenomenon — told the Santa Cruz audience that it was the biggest crowd he and Stone had spoken to on their national tour.
The atmosphere of the event, said Pedersen, was electrifying and he sensed the crowd pushing past performative expressions of anti-racism into something more fundamental and lasting. At one point, the speakers took written questions from the crowd. Pedersen read one from a 12-year-old girl.
“The question was, like, ‘How do you stay hopeful with all these injustices, and when you have so much anger building up inside you?’ So, then Nic [Stone] was, like, ‘Who is that? Who wrote that?’ And this little white girl stood up. And I was like, what the hell is happening? It gave me real hope for young people.”
The title of his podcast, “Speak For Change,” illustrates not only Pedersen’s approach, but the importance of that moment at the KP Arena. You do a whole lot of speaking — much of it leading nowhere — until some of it leads to a real change of mind, a change of heart. A young person, especially, could come away from such a conversation newly reoriented on a different moral and ethical path.
“That’s the power of it,” he said. “People underestimate it. They think, ‘Oh, you’re just talking, right?’ But if you’re in those audiences and you feel something, that is when change is happening, and you could affect the whole course of someone’s life.”
Pedersen, 31, has emerged as that kind of conversational catalyst. On Feb. 21, he’ll be on stage again, this time at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center with composer and flutist Elena Pinderhughes to talk about musical traditions across the African diaspora.
“Speak For Change” is a product of the pandemic. Shortly after the pandemic shutdown in the spring of 2020, Pedersen began looking for a new direction in his life. He was the founder of a music school in town, and the shutdown turned all his in-person lessons into maddening encounters with long-distance communication technology. He was restless and frustrated. He remembers the date — April 4, 2020 — when he began “breaking out of the norm,” as he called it, waking at 4 a.m., exercising and meditating, searching for a new path. Someone suggested a podcast. Taking the first tentative steps down that path, he incorporated recording himself into his daily routine.
“I would just make myself talk,” he said, “and in my head I justified it as something that would help me with public speaking.”
At first, he started with monologues and then graduated to interviews. He brought in a number of voices from the community — activist and former city councilmember Drew Glover, dancer and organizer Cat Willis, activist Bella Bonner, artist Abi Mustapha, musician Etienne David Franc, and many others. His commitment to social justice morphed into chronicling an emerging culture.
Pedersen’s own back story is a tale of gradual racial awakening as well. He grew up in Hollister — less than an hour’s drive east of Santa Cruz, but a few light-years distant culturally speaking, or at least that’s what it felt like to him. He not only grew up in a nearly all-white community, but in a white family as well. His dad was a political conservative who enjoyed Rush Limbaugh on the radio, and Bill O’Reilly on TV.
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“I’ve been to a George W. Bush rally, as a child,” he said. “When I hear Rush Limbaugh’s voice, it’s not like any kind of hatred or anything like that. It’s just nostalgia. I don’t even know if I ever said the word ‘politics’ growing up. This was just my culture.”
In school, he was bullied and teased in an environment where Confederate-flag iconography was common. With one of the only other Black kids in his school, he formed a band called Africo. The irony of that, he said, is he was largely oblivious of his racial identity: “I wasn’t trying to find other Black folks at that time, or anything like that, because no one taught me that I have a culture beyond [Hollister].”
He looks back now in wonder at how he could have so blind to the dominant fact of race in his life. “I just didn’t know,” he said. “I was like being gaslit, right? Y’know, why am I always the one that’s standing out? Why are people looking at me strangely? No one told me that race could be part of it. It was like, I’m just weird.”
Even then, he viewed Santa Cruz as a kind of promised land, a place where he wouldn’t feel so isolated. “There were beaches, people doing interesting things, quirky people everywhere, street musicians,” he said. “It was this magical place.”
He eventually ended up in Santa Cruz, playing as one of those street musicians, living a life of spartan defiance, a la Christopher McCandless from the book and movie “Into the Wild.”
Today, Pedersen occupies the kind of central role in a community that he’s never experienced before. He recognizes that growing up in a white environment affords him a kind of privilege, and he’s still searching for that space where conversations about race don’t devolve into hostility and defensiveness.
“We need to live with each other,” he said. “I resonate a lot with MLK’s non-violence perspective. That’s all about using strategies that don’t involve isolating and humiliating each other, or causing pain to folks.”
He’s careful to not paint Santa Cruz as an oasis of racial harmony. Nearly every day, he hears from friends and acquaintances about racially charged and incendiary incidents that happen locally. During our conversation, he was getting texts from a Black woman whose son was facing racist taunts at his school in Santa Cruz.
“There’s a lot of Black folks in this community who have that experience, who are constantly being ridiculed and being called racist slurs — in Santa Cruz,” he said. “And to go around [and say], ‘Oh, this place isn’t racist,’ it’s insulting.”
But the big picture, he insists, is turning in a different direction: “2020 was such a catalyst, on so many fronts. Historically, we’ve never seen things like this, a culture shift this dramatic, not only nationally, but internationally.”
What’s next? If a Black renaissance is at hand in Santa Cruz, then, said Pedersen, it’s time for the mainstream community to step up and support it.
“The Black renaissance is happening,” he said. “And if you want to be part of it, start being like the people who supported the [European] Renaissance. I hate it when people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to just throw money at it.’ No, go ahead and throw money at it. Support these artists, these musicians, these writers. They need that support.”