Community organizer and UCSC researcher Ayo Banjo was relaxing on a local beach when he began reflecting on the local Black community in Santa Cruz County. The 22-year-old alumnus of UCSC realized that aside from Juneteenth, the annual holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves in 1865, the county did not have many other events highlighting his community.
“Blacks here make up about 1% of the county population,” Banjo says. “And those numbers are around the same within UCSC. And there’s a lack of connection between the campus and the larger community. So my question was, ‘How can I bring together those relationships that have been so fundamental to me here in Santa Cruz?’”
The first thing that came to Banjo’s mind was to host a cookout, a gathering where a meal is prepared and served outdoors with neighbors, friends and family. The tradition formed and is still popular today within the Black community in the U.S.; it is distinctive from a simple barbecue.
“A cookout is a very special event for a lot of Black people,” Banjo says. “It’s where they find a lot of healing and joy.”
Banjo’s original idea for the Cookout started small. He first reached out to the Santa Cruz County Black Health Matters Initiative, a community initiative aiming to improve the health, equity and overall quality of life for Black residents in Santa Cruz County.
Cat Willis, founder and director of Black Health Matters, says she had already been aware of Banjo’s political work at UCSC and with the Santa Cruz County Black Coalition for Justice & Racial Equity.
“He was saying how important it is to replicate the experiences he had had growing up in a Black community,” Willis says. “That feeling when you’re at a cookout, with your aunt and uncle making food, the dancing, the joy … those memories, you don’t forget. Knowing he wanted to do that here, Black Health Matters was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re definitely supporting that.’”
Black Health Matters had recently received a grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Black Freedom Fund and offered to use some of the funds to bring in the resources and leverage needed for the Cookout.
Word quickly spread from there, and soon the London Nelson Center, the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department and others were contacting Banjo to be part of the event.
“It transformed. It went way beyond what I thought it would be,” Banjo says. “What initially started as a small cookout within our tight-knit community came to represent something larger, that could take on a life of its own.”
The Cookout will be held this Saturday from 2-5pm at Harvey West Park, 326 Evergreen St. Word of Life, one of Santa Cruz’s oldest Black churches, will prepare a meal of barbecue ribs, chicken, cornbread and greens. Two local musicians, August Lee Stevens and Alexandra the Author, will perform throughout the afternoon.
Oakland-based Negus in Nature will be on hand holding relay races and track and field events. Insight Global, a talent and staffing agency from San Jose, has agreed to donate and come to the event to recruit more Black youth into their summer internship roles. And the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce will be offering services for Black-owned businesses.
The event is open to everyone, and will be family-friendly, with activities for kids such as face painting, balloon animals and more. No alcohol will be served on the premises.
“We definitely want kids to feel safe,” Banjo says. “I want to feel a sort of Disney energy—that kind of magic is what I’m going for.”
For Banjo, bringing together his UCSC family and Santa Cruz’s Black community was a major reason why he wanted to create the cookout.
“I have had so many different people who keep me grounded, who help me navigate my space here in Santa Cruz,” he says. “Those outside community connections are crucial. My job is not only to create a cookout, but I want to create something where we’re really bringing in the actual identities of Santa Cruz.”
Willis says she was looking forward to seeing what Ayo puts together.
“He’s so incredible, so meticulous as a community organizer,” Willis says. “I’m really excited to see people show up and experience this.”
Banjo’s biggest hope is that this will become an annual event, continuing to garner more support from the rest of the greater community while giving black folks a place to feel heard and seen.
“I want people to let go of the restraints we have on ourselves,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to feel like an imposter in this community, or feel like they don’t belong. I want them to feel included, that they have a stake and role to play in Santa Cruz. I don’t want us to just tolerate diversity—I want us to encourage it, embrace it and understand that it’s actually a benefit.”