The Diversity Center Youth Program and Santa Cruz Teen center finished their “Unify, Decolonize, Thrive” mural at Louden Nelson Community Center in March after months of work. The mural is the first of its kind in Santa Cruz—representing past and current persecution and an idyllic future for queer youth and other underrepresented communities. Many participants said the process made them feel more included, supported and visible.
But soon after its completion, someone painted over a quote and “Go Home Trannys” appeared in black marker under the title. In retrospect, Diversity Center Youth Program Coordinator Jamie Joy says the vandalism wasn’t surprising.
“It won’t be the last time that someone decides to vandalize or deface the mural,” Joy says. “This was always a part of the conversation from the very beginning—we needed to make sure we set aside enough money for anti-graffiti coating.”
The coating hasn’t been applied yet—Joy says they have been waiting for the weather to clear up.
“The whole mural feels vulnerable to the public until it has been sealed,” Joy says. “I’m hoping that hearing about how it has impacted people positively will change people’s mind, but if they are already set in their ways, I’m not here to change their minds. My job is to uplift the people I work with.”
For the 40 or so youth, muralists and facilitators that worked on the mural, the vandalism is far outweighed by the amount of support they’ve gotten. Since the site is so public—right on Laurel Street across from the Santa Cruz Police Station—it received a lot of feedback and positive reinforcement. Joy remembers passersby honking horns, stopping to compliment them, or helping paint while waiting for the bus.
When planning out the mural, local artists Emmanuel Garcia and Oliver Whitcroft helped lead workshops with youth around the county. They heard overwhelmingly that the youth wanted to broaden the scope of issues to encompass underrepresented and marginalized groups, not just LGBTQ+.
“A lot of the projects that the youth are working on aren’t coming from the self, they are coming from educational institutions,” Joy says. “There was a lot of ownership that young people took from the project, and that was the goal from the beginning, that engagement.”
From start to finish, the planning and painting process took around a year. The final product is a timelapse from past to present and future that begins with WWII Japanese internment camps, Chinese indentured labor, slavery and sale of tribal lands—all of which occurred in Santa Cruz County. It then transitions from grayscale to vibrant colors, where intersectionality and equality frame the DAPL protests, a Black Lives Matter activist at the Baton Rouge protest, the Stonewall uprising, the Aids Memorial Quilt, and former Santa Cruz Mayor John Laird—one of the first openly gay mayors in America. Amid the forest, rainbows and sunlight, the mural transitions to the future, where diversity and nature are celebrated and embraced by everyone.
But the project wasn’t at all easy. Joy remembers the biggest milestones being the funding part. Since they had never spearheaded such a mural project, they said that they really underestimated the funding.
“With its very public placement, we recognized that it was going to create a shift in Santa Cruz culture,” Joy says. “As soon as we realized that, we were like ‘we need more money.’”
They were awarded a grant from the arts council, but were in need of more financial support. The group of youth, artists and coordinators went to the Santa Cruz City Arts Commission, where they presented their mural idea and intent.
“It was intimidating because this predominantly white affluent group of people was going to decide whether our people’s history was going to get represented or not,” Garcia says. “Things are changing and the voice of youth is so powerful, that’s hard to deny when you see how passionate and aware they are.”
When they went before the SCCAC, their project received not only approval but applause from the commissioners. They then had what Garcia remembers as a celebratory “mini dance party” in the parking lot.
“It was just so validating,” says 18-year-old Sadie Reeve, one of the presenters who has been part of the Diversity Center Youth Program on and off for the last six years. “To say we are here, there is a reason for this mural and the fact that they said ‘yes, we agree,’ was so important to all of us.”
Once the mural was complete six months later, the Diversity Center held a celebration in honor of the mural and those who made it all happen. There were hugs, laughs, rainbow tape, impressively large scissors and lots of moms crying.
“I know that our county is one of the safer places in California, but it still has its challenges and problems,” Reeve says. “To showcase our history in the mural, whether its countywide or countrywide, has brought forth a change in a way that people view the youth here.”