A series of vandalism incidents at the Sinsheimer Laboratories building, beginning in 2020 and continuing into 2021, left students of color at Science and Engineering Hill feeling unsafe and unwelcome. As a step in the healing process, a new mural by artist Paul Lewin now illuminates the first floor entrance to Sinsheimer Laboratories.
Juliana Nzongo, a graduate student in environmental microbiology and toxicology who served as the student representative on the mural committee, said the response to the mural has been very positive. “Some people go there every week or every morning just to look at it, and a lot of people have said that it brings them a sense of peace that comes into the building,” she said.
The students met with Lewin twice before deciding he was the right artist to do the mural. “I thought it was right to go with Paul Lewin – I felt he would represent Blackness in a way that could help Black students in the sciences feel a sense of belonging, because this is their community too, because we don’t have many from us at Science Hill,” said Nzongo.
Lewin’s art, which is featured on the covers of novels by science fiction author Octavia Butler, is inspired by Afro-Caribbean and African folklore, nature, science fiction and Afrofuturism. The mural features a variety of images related to science and nature, including motifs that appear in many of Lewin’s paintings.
“My art and my life have always been inspired by science,” said Lewin. “In the mural, there is a central figure, an ancient ancestral spirit, performing a ritual that celebrates the interconnectedness of all life on earth.”
Born in Jamaica, Lewin was based in Oakland for many years and currently lives in Miami. He was one of several potential artists suggested to the committee by John Jota Leaños, professor of film and digital media, who had met Lewin in San Francisco.
“When John first contacted me in March of this year about the mural, I was really moved by the back story,” Lewin said. “Hearing the students tell their stories firsthand was very impactful for me. I wanted to create an image with a strong representation of Blackness in the sciences that spanned multiple generations, from ancient Africa and other indigenous communities to current and future students of color at UC Santa Cruz.”
Ocean Sciences Professor Christina Ravelo, who serves as associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, said the mural is just one step in the division’s efforts to create a more supportive environment for students With color.
“Afrena should be seen as part of a transformation process we are working on, and not as an indication that we are where we want to be,” she said. “The vandalism and other incidents, in the midst of all that was happening nationally, was very stressful. It was a bad time.”
It began in June 2020, when campus buildings were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and researchers conducting rapid research and essential experiments were allowed to use their laboratories at Sinsheimer, but access to the building was restricted. When the Black Lives Matter posters in the Sinsheimer elevator were defaced and destroyed, the students felt threatened, especially since they were often in their labs when few other people were around.
“Someone who had access was saying, ‘You don’t belong here,’ and that made a lot of students feel unsafe,” Nzongo said. “One of my good friends had to come over late at night to do some time points for her experiments and we had to keep in touch via text to make sure she got home safely.”
Since then, the campus has installed additional security cameras, including in the elevator. Ravelo also said that a growing number of departments in the sciences have held or planned anti-racism training programs for faculty and staff.
However, Nzongo said students felt angry and frustrated by what they felt was a slow response to the incidents by the police and campus administration. “Students had a list of things they wanted in order to feel safer at Science Hill,” Nzongo said. “The portal was one thing we were able to get money and support for right away.”
The mural committee sought an artist who would create a mural that “captures UCSC’s vision of scientific excellence, innovation, and creativity, which can only be achieved in an environment that is mindful of diverse identities and lived experiences, and that approaches cooperation with cultural humility and creativity. mutual respect.”
Nzongo said she recently brought a group of high school students who were on campus for the COSMOS Program to see the mural.
“They loved it, and they all wanted to take pictures in front of it,” she said, “so it’s not just affected us at Science Hill, but others who, when they see the mural, stop and think about what it means. for them.”