History: Santa Monica’s Black History Month will include a mix of online and in-person events. Courtesy photo

After two years of pandemic stress and heightened national awareness and around police brutality and structural racism, this year’s Black History Month programming will focus on much needed healing for Santa Monica’s Black community.

Programming will kick off with an opening ceremony on Feb. 3 and run throughout the month with virtual and in-person events centered around the theme of Black health and wellness. Highlights include an art walk at Bergamot Station featuring Black-history themed exhibits and local students’ artwork, the Black History Greens Festival at Virginia Avenue Park and the Celebrating Black Excellence Awards Ceremony.

“The theme of health and wellbeing couldn’t resonate with me more in this moment. As a Black woman, issues of equity in physical and mental health are real in my community and I commend staff for recognizing this and providing a platform for continued education and empowerment for Black members of our community, as well the broader Santa Monica community so they can better understand the challenges that still exist today,” said City Councilmember Kristin McCowan.

In Santa Monica and across the nation, Black communities face a series of challenges and barriers to their wellness. Maternal mortality rates continue to be extremely high as do rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease when compared to white adults. Pervasive structural racism contributes to generational trauma and income inequality, while the constant stress of microaggressions continues to wear upon Black individuals.

“These events are meant to temporarily alleviate some of the stress, trauma, and negative things people have been experiencing, especially people in the Black community where we are faced with an onslaught of racism coming at us all the time,” said Delana G. Gbenekama, equity and communications coordinator for the City and founder and lead of the City’s Black History Month Committee. “So if these events provide a temporary escape for them, then I think we will have done our job.”

The month’s events seek to provide a holistic sense of wellbeing. There are fun fitness related activities such as a hula hoop competition and dance class in addition to spiritually and mentally soothing experiences such as somatic soul integration stress-relieving workshops. There are also events that focus on relaxation and creativity such as Black history themed paint and sip sessions in Virginia Avenue Park.

“I love how elements of joy and healing are interwoven into this year’s lineup of programming because I know my desire for levity and positive connection is shared by many,” said McCowan. “I look forward to coming together, lifting one another up, sharing resources around wellbeing, and celebrating some of the men and women from the Black community who positively contribute to Santa Monica every day.”

While happiness and wellbeing are a particular focus of this year’s programming, the month will continue to engage with the traditional goals of educating people on Black History and recognizing the contributions of Black residents.

The City, Building Bridges Art Exchange and Quinn Research Center are working with the Bergamot Station Art Center to display a series of Black history themed exhibits. On Feb. 19 there will be a reception and art walk of both the professional galleries and local students’ artwork.

“We think that it’s really important to provide young folks an outlet for expression as they’ve faced a lot of difficulties isolating during the pandemic, so we thought it would be a good opportunity to allow students to use their creativity to showcase how they’re feeling right now,” said Gbenekama. “We have a lot of original artwork that people will not want to miss, it’s really mind blowing how great their artwork is.”

Additionally, both the opening ceremony and awards ceremony will be an opportunity to learn about Santa Monica’s Black history and celebrate the contributions of local Black leaders and professionals.

While Santa Monica had a vibrant Black community during the first half of the 20th century, a huge portion of families were then displaced from their homes through exclusionary housing policies, gentrification and the use of eminent domain to construct the Civic Center in the 1950s and I-10 freeway in the 1960s. There remains a smaller but prominent community of Black residents in the City, who remember this history and continue to contribute their time, energy, activism and professional services to the community.

Several of these individuals will be recognized in the awards ceremony, which honors Black professionals in Santa Monica for outstanding leadership and service. Nominations are currently open and can be submitted at tinyurl.com/BHMnominations.

“There are a large number of community members who have been advocates and activists in Santa Monica for decades, so I think that being honored for their work is a long time coming for them,” said Gbenekama. “Unfortunately a lot of members of the Black community have been displaced, so I think that for the ones who are still in Santa Monica it just means the world to them to see their culture celebrated in such a positive way.”

More information on all Black History Month events can be found at https://santamonica.gov/blog/black-history-month-2022.

Clara@smdp.com