Simone Ruskamp and Krystle Farmer Sieghart. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

On the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Santa Barbara’s City Council invited the four women leading Santa Barbara’s Healing Justice movement to give a presentation on their efforts to create a Black and African-American Cultural Center.

After providing a rundown on what they’d accomplished in the past year — a virtual Juneteenth celebration visited by 13,000 people, the creation of a commission to explore what kind of police review board the City of Santa Barbara would have, and the first step in an effort to chronicle the architectural history of Black Santa Barbara — Simone Akila Ruskamp got straight to the point. The group needed $500,000 from City Hall over a two-year period to cover the rent for a building that could function as the repository for the Black history being created today.

In the year since Floyd was killed, Ruskamp stated, many people have expressed support for the goals of Black Lives Matter, many proclamations were issued. “But what have you done?” she demanded, adding, “No more of these empty statements; we need meaningful participation.” 

Healing Justice pitched a $500,000 Black Cultural Center to the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday. Clockwise from top left, Simone Akila Ruskamp, Krystle Farmer Sieghart, Leticia Forney Resch, Mariah Jones-Bisquera. | Credit: Courtesy

The council was then given a video presentation of several prominent Black cultural leaders who expressed their support. Pastor David Moore noted that the city’s Black population had shrunk in the 38 years he’s lived in Santa Barbara. “It’s as if we’ve been ghosted,” he said. “We are not heard. We are not seen. And it’s as if we’ve not made a contribution to the community.” Poet and historian Sojourner Kincaid-Rolle said such support was “long overdue,” adding, “Now is the time.” Such a center, she stated, would support the “discussion, documentation, and dissemination of our cultural history.”

Councilmember Kristen Sneddon — who along with Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez put the item on the agenda — asked for elaboration as to how the $500,000 figure was arrived at. The council, she stated, was not prepared to make such a financial commitment at the meeting because the matter had not been agendized.  

Ruskamp stated the money would pay rent for two years. She also expressed frustration at having been referred from one government agency to the next over the past year without getting any commitment. “You made a commitment,” she told the council. “Now we’re here to cash the check.”  

Speaking in support of this proposal were 21 members of the public. Many speakers noted that the amount sought was a small fraction of the $80 million the new police station is estimated to cost. One speaker, a UCSB professor of communications, stated it was only 0.6 percent the cost of the police station. Terrence Wooten, an assistant professor of Black History at UCSB, argued that a commitment to the Black cultural center was a commitment to public safety, but a small fraction of the $250 million spent on what he described as an “anti-Black carceral system.” 

By the meeting’s end, Krystle Farmer Sieghart had grown choked up by the support they’d received. “I was crying. I was in awe,” she said. Councilmember Sneddon praised “these incredible women” for their commitment to Santa Barbara. Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez called the testimony “inspiring.” 

Mayor Cathy Murillo noted that City Hall has been forced to dip into its reserves to the tune of $15 million and that the new police station — if built — will be paid for out of a separate revenue stream than the general fund. She suggested that councilmembers Sneddon and Gutierrez  form a subcommittee that might help Healing Justice raise private donations. The matter will come back to the council on June 9, at which time the council will deliberate over how much it can contribute.

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