A large display was set up outside the civic center showing African American activists from history. Photo by Brandon Saglam

The U.S. political climate is rife with controversies surrounding electoral politics, subtle aggressions of anti-Blackness and a lack of interracial solidarity. These were the ideas at the forefront at the 36th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation, held at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Feb. 10.

Speakers, social justice organizers and performers explored ways to contribute to current strategies and ideas in pursuit of a better future.

“Just like an artist tends to their craft, we have to tend to the craft of organizing,” said keynote speaker and community activist Charlene Carruthers. “That means that you have to study [past movements].” 

Opening Ceremonies

The Convocation began with a performance by Jennifer Taylor Daniels singing “Nothing More” with Jordan Garnett on the drums and Kate Alm playing the piano. Photo by Brandon Saglam

A melodious combination of smooth jazz and rhythm and blues welcomed guests into the auditorium. A performance by drummer Jordan Garnett and pianist Kate Alm illuminated the room, creating a comfortable environment for members of the Santa Cruz community.

UC Santa Cruz’s African American Theatre Arts Troupe kicked off the evening by performing an excerpt from the play “Skeleton Crew,” displaying the hardships and uncertainties that industry workers in Detroit withstood during the Great Recession of the 2000s. Economic instability causes great trauma in the lives of blue-collar workers, who go through personal difficulties in addition to living paycheck to paycheck.  

Next up was the Tony Hill Memorial Award for Community Service. Tony Hill was a prominent leader and activist in the Santa Cruz community and was a member of the Convocation Planning Committee for many years until his passing in 2007.

The award is given out annually to a Santa Cruz community member who demonstrates the qualities of the late Tony Hill — leadership, initiative and active involvement in the local community. The Hill family felt that George Ow, Jr., and Geoffrey Dunn, two of Hill’s closest friends and colleagues, were the perfect recipients for this award. 

Keynote Address

Keynote address featured a discussion between assistant professor of anthropology Savannah Shange and Charlene Carruthers. Photo by Brandon Saglam

Applause rang through the auditorium as Charlene Carruthers made her way on stage for the keynote address. Carruthers responded to questions from Dr. Savannah Shange, an assistant professor in the critical race and ethnic studies department at UCSC. 

As a Black, queer feminist organizer and a leader in today’s Black liberation movement, Carruthers discussed topics such as solidarity work and challenging anti-Blackness.

At the end of the convocation Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings presented Charlene Carruthers with the key to the city. Photo by Brandon Saglam

“It may start with brick-by-brick relationship building and people having to be brave enough to be uncomfortable and be honest,” Carruthers said. “Don’t just come in here feeling guilty about what has happened and what your people have done. Especially white folks. I don’t have time for that. Guilt can only get us so far. You can’t organize out of guilt.” 

Following Carruthers and Shange, Mayor Justin Cummings wrapped up the event, giving Carruthers the key to the city, which is given to notable figures from, or who have played a positive role in, the community.

“Given that we are still organizing around liberation, it means that we are still not free, and we must continue to fight for our freedom,” said Cummings. “Thank you for your words of inspiration because we’re striving to continue to be an inclusive and diverse community. The words you have shared with us tonight will be carried with us in the work that we do moving forward.” 


The assembly touched a multitude of people of different ages, races and genders. Carruthers’s address and the work of everybody involved in setting up the event inspired attendees.

This was drummer Jordan Garnett’s first time attending the convocation. He said the talk was enlightening and emphasized the importance of events like this given the current political climate we are in.

Meanwhile, Garnett’s colleague and pianist Kate Alm is a regular at the event and has attended 26 MLK Convocations. Alm praised the enthusiasm the audience had throughout the event and expressed her gratitude toward the Convocation for having a queer keynote speaker. 

UCSC third-year Rachel Freeman-Cohen is a part of the MLK Convocation committee and attended last year’s event. She is an avid fan of Carruthers’s work and incorporates the information learned into her own life.  

“When I think of a better future, as long as I continue the work intentionally, doing what I need to do to be able to uplift and empower my community is where my emphasis stays.” Freeman-Cohen said.  

But community empowerment doesn’t come easy. It takes hard work and dedication, a lesson that Carruthers learned through her years of organizing. 

“Are you in it for the long haul? Ask yourself that question,” Carruthers said. “What do you want to accomplish in the time that you are here?”