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Black History Month events reflect Santa Monica’s values of diversity and inclusion

February 7, 2020
by Rick Cole

Black History Month events reflect Santa Monica’s values of diversity and inclusion

February is Black History Month in Santa Monica.

Our City kicked off the celebration this week with a tribute to the “Divine Nine” – the collegiate fraternities and sororities that have produced a host of influential African-American government, cultural, professional and sports leaders.  Held outside in Ken Genser Square, a panel discussion on the role the organizations played in their lives featured Santa Monica Police Department Captain Derrick Jacob, Taxi Administrator Cheryl Shavers, and Chief People Officer Lori Gentles, moderated by Senior Advisor on Homelessness Alisa Orduña and Communications and Marketing Coordinator Delana Gbenekama. Both Jacob and Gentles referenced a quote about excuses – and how the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Divine Nine influenced their personal and professional pursuit of excellence despite obstacles. Opened with a stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, the event was highlighted by a step show, followed by traditional African-American soul food offerings.

Gbenekama has spearheaded the planning for a series of events this month, including a Celebrating Black Excellence Community Mixer” to be held on the Third Street Promenade (between Santa Monica Boulevard and Arizona Avenue) on Tuesday, February 25 from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.  The Santa Monica Library is also hosting a series of talks, readings and movies during the month and City Council will officially recognize the month with a proclamation at the beginning of next Tuesday’s City Council meeting. The Council contributed $5,000 from their contingency fund for the month’s expenses, matching similar contributions by the Office of Sustainability and the Environment and the City Manager’s Office.

As active participants in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a cadre of City staff have worked to amplify our participation in Black History Month along with a number of other important ethnic and cultural holidays and celebrations coming up later this year.  This volunteer effort drew inspiration from how last year’s first-ever official Santa Monica celebration of Pride Month took off and garnered community support and visibility. 

All these activities reflect the values adopted by the City Council emphasizing diversity and inclusion. They also enrich our common endeavors by deepening the mutual understanding and respect that comes from recognizing individual achievements, group pride and shared struggles. 

America finds itself facing the most searing re-examination of race and identity since the Civil Rights era. Like our nation, Santa Monica has a checkered history of discrimination and resistance.  When Nat Travis was elected as Mayor in 1975, he was one of the first African-Americans to serve as the leader of a majority white community in the country.  Yet he had left the SMPD when told he would never rise above the rank of sergeant because of his race. His life in many ways exemplifies the travails and triumphs of African-Americans, here and across the USA.  The rich local history of the local African-American population of Santa Monica is being explored as background to commemorating the Belmar neighborhood at the site of the new Civic Center Sports Field which was once the setting of a vibrant, but segregated Black neighborhood of residents and businesses.

Whatever your background, I hope you will actively participate in this month of celebration and reflection.  Twelve years ago, some Americans believed that the election of a Black man as President of the United States might mark a time when Martin Luther King’s dream of equality was finally in sight. Today, many Americans worry that we are moving backwards with a reassertion of the ugly past of white supremacy.

When he was campaigning in 2008, Barack Obama was under no illusion that progress would be either easy or inevitable.  In fact, in a speech worth reading today, he observed: “Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.  But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact, we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Those of us in public service together in Santa Monica have a responsibility to play our part in making history. That starts with learning from it – and we can all learn from Black History. There is joy in that shared endeavor and there is also a solemn responsibility. February is the time to lift every voice and sing: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.

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