“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 

In the auditorium at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, a poster displaying this famous quote and the face of Martin Luther King Jr., hangs above the stage. 

On Jan. 28 in the aftermath of California’s recent devastating storms, King’s image was visible above the heads of dancers, spoken word performers, singers, and speakers from local organizations as they performed at Martin Luther King Youth Day 2023 (MLK Youth Day).  

MLK Youth Day is an annual event hosted by the Santa Cruz branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Resource Center for Nonviolence, a local organization founded in the ’70s to organize nonviolent social change. The event also serves as a networking opportunity for local youth organizers, and a showcase of performances that center young BIPOC.

Amanda Altice, the Resource Center for Nonviolence’s Administrative Assistant, emphasized the important role the events play in engaging younger community members. 

“There [were] a lot of young people involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and it probably would not have been the movement it was without their organizing,” Altice said. “It is vital that we encourage students to get involved locally in something that speaks to their lived experience.”

MLK Youth Day 2023 was originally planned for Jan. 14, two days before a citywide MLK Day March on Jan. 16. However, disaster struck in the form of catastrophic storms. The devastation shifted organizers’ priorities from event planning to disaster relief.

“It didn’t feel like a time of celebration,” said Santa Cruz NAACP President Elaine Johnson. “One thing about [Martin Luther King, Jr.] was that he was really big on service. We felt it would be best to be in service at that time.”

Still, neither event was canceled. Youth Day 2023 was postponed a full two weeks, and was held on Jan. 28 instead of Jan. 14. The march was initially canceled, but is now being planned for Feb. 20, Johnson said. 

With two extra weeks to spread the word, Youth Day 2023 was able to pull in a much larger crowd than it did in 2022, Altice said. Inside the Resource Center, attendees lined up to talk with representatives from tabling organizations. Outside, people gathered under canopies to chat and eat burritos from a local food truck. 

“We’re always so focused on the work that we don’t get to just hang out,” Altice said. “It’s an interesting dynamic, where we don’t have the space to get to know each other personally […] This [event] feels like there’s more time and space to just sit and have conversations with people.”

Johnson had the same sentiment. “The more organizations we invite, that allows people to get to know the community more, so we can partner together in the future,” she said.

A range of youth-focused local organizations came together at the Resource Center for Youth Day. The event’s co-sponsors tabled next to organizations like the UC Santa Cruz Black Student Union (BSU), the Santa Cruz County BSU, Santa Cruz Public Libraries, and Cabrillo College’s Umoja Community. 

At 1 p.m., about 50 attendees gathered in the Resource Center’s auditorium for performances. 

Contemporary dancers from the Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center kicked off the showcase. They were followed by a performance from the Harmony Youth Choir, capped off by a passionate solo rendition of Adele’s “Easy On Me.” Finally, folklórico dancers from Watsonville’s Ballet Folklórico Ollin took the stage. The crowd clapped to the rhythm as the young performers danced to classic songs like “La Raspa” and “La Flor de la Canela.

“Just watching the singers and dancers, watching the community coming together with all of their resources, it was really beautiful,” Johnson said.

Now, Johnson is looking forward to getting people to turn out at the postponed MLK Day March on Feb. 20. “Let’s come out to honor each other and celebrate each other, especially with everything that’s been going on in the world these past few days,” Johnson said, referring both to January’s storms and the widely reported killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. 

Even in the aftermath of natural disasters and violence, the speakers on the Youth Day stage spoke about love, joy and self-expression. 

“That’s the importance of this,” said Graciela Vega, the dance instructor at Folklórico Ollin, on stage at Youth Day. “When you have a dream, when you have an idea, you have to bring people together.”