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Belonging: R.A.C.E. Matters SLO creates a monthlong event celebrating local expressions of black empowerment and possibility 

Chatting over beers on the evening of Feb. 1 in The Kinney SLO Library, an event space in the hotel, people waited for the premiere screening of the documentary Kut to be the Best: The Last Black Barbershop in San Luis Obispo. The majority of the attendees were people of color.

As the audience took their seats, the lights dimmed, and Courtney Haile—founder of R.A.C.E. Matters SLO—introduced the director of the documentary, Justice Whitaker; the film; and the kickoff of BELONGING: Local Expressions of Black Empowerment and Possibility.

BELONGING is a monthlong event series meant to give a voice to the members of the San Luis Obispo County community who are of African American descent.

The event is happening during Black History Month, but Haile told New Times that BELONGING isn't about showcasing community members who are exceptionally successful, such as an African American doctor.

"I recognize people who are the first this, the first that, and who have risen high. But, I'm also curious about the average black person ... because we're all so different," Haile said.

click to enlarge CREATIVE HAPPINESS Abbey Onikoyi is a local artist whose work focuses on African culture. His art is currently on display at the San Luis Obispo County Library. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RENODA CAMPBELL
  • Photo Courtesy Of Renoda Campbell
  • CREATIVE HAPPINESS Abbey Onikoyi is a local artist whose work focuses on African culture. His art is currently on display at the San Luis Obispo County Library.

It's about telling the stories of everyday community members, she said. Those individuals—parents, business owners, and teachers—who have stories of their experience of living in a predominantly Caucasian and rural area.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, SLO County is approximately 89 percent Caucasian, 2 percent African American, 1 percent American Indian, 4 percent Asian, .2 percent Native Hawaiian, and 23 percent Latino. Four percent identify as two or more races.

The stories and the event itself, Haile said, are a celebration, a centering, and an amplification of local black voices from all walks of life. It's meant to start a conversation throughout the county to think and look beyond simply talking about diversity, she said.

"Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice heard," Haile said.

click to enlarge HOPEFUL When interviewed by Courtney Haile, Garrett Ferguson said, "My dream one day for San Luis Obispo is to be more diverse, and also for people to accept more and more cultures and traditions and people." - PHOTO COURTESY OF RENODA CAMPBELL
  • Photo Courtesy Of Renoda Campbell
  • HOPEFUL When interviewed by Courtney Haile, Garrett Ferguson said, "My dream one day for San Luis Obispo is to be more diverse, and also for people to accept more and more cultures and traditions and people."

Creating space

R.A.C.E. Matters SLO formed in 2016 in response to national issues of police violence, specifically the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement. Haile said like-minded individuals began to meet and have discussions about race and social justice at the national and local levels. The group saw a need for a larger engagement in those conversations locally.

click to enlarge HEARING VOICES Camille O'Bryant is one of photographer Renoda Campbell's portrait subjects. When interviewed by Courtney Haile, O'Bryant said, "There are still times when the intersection of my privilege—with my role, and title, and degrees—is impacted by the color of my skin." - PHOTO COURTESY OF RENODA CAMPBELL
  • Photo Courtesy Of Renoda Campbell
  • HEARING VOICES Camille O'Bryant is one of photographer Renoda Campbell's portrait subjects. When interviewed by Courtney Haile, O'Bryant said, "There are still times when the intersection of my privilege—with my role, and title, and degrees—is impacted by the color of my skin."

She said the group held different events that focused on anti-black racism, how to be an ally, film discussions, and local resources for the community.

"I definitely reached a point with R.A.C.E. Matters where I thought that our events are informative. It's great, but largely the audience was predominantly white just because of the community, the numbers [of African Americans] we have here, and it was educationally focused," Haile said.

Aside from education and awareness, Haile wanted to do something for the local African American community, so she created Noire SLO. Noire SLO is a social group and space where attendees can be themselves, enjoy each other's company, listen to music, and sometimes enjoy a glass of wine.

"So that was the first, I would say, R.A.C.E. Matters SLO project that directly serves and unapologetically carves out space for black people who live here," she said.

But Haile wanted to do more.

She stumbled on a city of San Luis Obispo Facebook post that motivated her to create BELONGING. Haile wanted it to be a reflection of the African Americans who live within SLO County, their experience with a lack of cultural services (restaurants, barbershops, or hair salons), and their ideas for continued efforts at diversity.

The city had funds from its Promotional Coordinating Committee (a group that advises the SLO City Council on how to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors) and was looking to award the funds to a project that had a cultural benefit for the city. That money would go toward the project's promotional efforts, and R.A.C.E. Matters was awarded the funding.

BELONGING also received $5,000 from California Humanities (a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment of the Humanities) through the Humanities For All Quick Grant—a competitive program that supports locally initiated public humanities projects that respond to the needs and interests of Californians.

The monthlong event series includes a documentary following the influence that a local barber has on the community, portraits of local African American community members, a listening exhibit, live storytelling, a business forum, and an African drumming event for kids.

Haile wanted to use different media to give a voice to local community members, and one of those mediums was photography. She recruited Renoda Campbell, who owns and operates Renoda Campbell Photography, to take portraits around the city while Haile interviewed the subjects.

Campbell specializes in wedding and special events photography but welcomed the challenge of capturing portraits that give glimpses into the people being photographed.

With every photo came a different story from the person in front of the lens. Campbell said the view was more different than she had imagined.

click to enlarge EXPERIENCES Charles Bell, a portrait participant, said during his interview with Courtney Haile, "My presence ... working in the career that I am, and the way I appear ... I think that continues to educate the community on our culture and what we can accomplish." - PHOTO COURTESY OF RENODA CAMPBELL
  • Photo Courtesy Of Renoda Campbell
  • EXPERIENCES Charles Bell, a portrait participant, said during his interview with Courtney Haile, "My presence ... working in the career that I am, and the way I appear ... I think that continues to educate the community on our culture and what we can accomplish."

"I thought that there would be a lot of camaraderie with what people were saying, but almost everyone that I listened to just has a very different bend to it. It just really shows the diversity, even within the black community," she said.

Haile and Campbell said some subjects talked about experiencing overtly racist incidents or being ignored or followed in a store, while others had a more positive experience in the area.

"I definitely asked if they felt a sense of belonging here and what would that look like to them," Haile said.

The question, they said, enthused people, and the response was simple: More. More diversity, more people of color, more recreational places—such as a music scene focused on jazz, soul, funk, or hip-hop music.

The portraits and interviews are literal snapshots of some members of the local African American community and are on display on the first floor of the San Luis Obispo County Library.

Kutting community space

Another way Haile wanted to put the community out there through BELONGING was by profiling a local business owner.

The celebration started with the sold-out premiere of Kut to be the Best on Feb. 1 at The Kinney SLO, and because the demand for the documentary was so high, R.A.C.E. Matters hosted a second showing on Feb. 2 at the Downtown Centre Cinemas.

Kut to be the Best is the journey of local barber Terry Guilford, who created a hub for the community at large but specifically for the African American community at his barbershop of the same name as the movie.

click to enlarge COMMUNITY BUILDING Filming Terry Guilford's (top, left) role in the community and his eviction was also a journey for filmmaker and Central Coast native Justice Whitaker (top, right). - PHOTO COURTESY OF RENODA CAMPBELL
  • Photo Courtesy Of Renoda Campbell
  • COMMUNITY BUILDING Filming Terry Guilford's (top, left) role in the community and his eviction was also a journey for filmmaker and Central Coast native Justice Whitaker (top, right).

Director and Central Coast native Justice Whitaker told New Times the initial idea for the film was meant to be a profile piece on Guilford because he is the only African American barber in San Luis Obispo County and his shop was unique. Men of all races and ages walk into his shop not only for a cut but for conversation—and the ambiance of hip-hop and rap playing in the background. Without trying, Guilford's shop at 590 California St. in SLO became a community space.

In the film, Guilford says he has three practices to share with his clients: hygiene, community responsibility, and self-esteem.

"If you sit in my chair, I'm not going to just put something on the outside of your head but also on the inside," he says as he sweeps the floor of the shop.

In the middle of the seven-month filming process, Whitaker, who lives in Brooklyn, said as he was about to fly to California for a scheduled shoot, Guilford received a 30-day eviction notice from his landlord.

The notice changed the story completely. Guilford takes a step back, realizes his role in the community, and explores ways to reach out to the city to possibly create another community space for people of color in the future. He envisions opening a barbering program and community space.

After the screening, Guilford, dressed in a black suit with a red dress shirt, shook hands and spoke with the attendees. He told New Times he was nervous about putting his life on display but felt it was important to share his story.

"I think people need to see it. Especially young men, because you may not be a movie star or an athlete but you can still be an important person in your community. I hope that that got conveyed as well," Guilford said.

The film, he said, now feels like a springboard to creating a place where he can teach the barber trade and more importantly community building. The future location of the barbershop that doubles as a barber school would also be a space where people can just be themselves. Although the exact location has yet to be determined, Guilford said he feels strongly that the San Luis Obispo community will be supportive.

Throughout the film, Whitaker also spent time interviewing Guilford's clients. One in particular, Charles Matthews, talks about raising his children who are half African American and half Caucasian and about having to drive to Lompoc to get a haircut because the barber there knew how to properly cut and care for his hair.

It wasn't until Matthews' wife found Guilford that Matthews didn't have to drive 60 miles for a cut. Aside from having a local barber, Matthews found a place to talk about raising children of color on the Central Coast. One of Guilford's children, Saqqara, works with him in the shop, sanitizing combs or sweeping.

Matthews tells the camera he has to teach his children about always getting a receipt so they're not accused of stealing or that people may not want to be their friend because of the color of their skin. Matthews is originally from the East Coast, but he and his wife moved to the Central Coast to raise their children because they wanted to raise them in a safe place where they could "ride their bikes in the neighborhood."

The different experiences shared by Guilford and his clients struck a chord with Whitaker because he grew up on the Central Coast and knew exactly how they felt.

"I think that there were some challenges for me as a filmmaker because I think that the experience of being black in San Luis Obispo today is not that different than it was in the year 2000 when I left," he said.

After high school, Justice moved to New York to attend New York University and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film and TV Production. This is the first documentary that he's done about the Central Coast that focuses on the question: How does an entire city or community move toward greater diversity and inclusion?

Moving with love

At a table in front of Linnaea's Cafe, Roberta Richey is sipping on the drink she just ordered as the sun sets behind the buildings across the street. Richey is an Navy brat who moved around California growing up, but she considers herself a Southern California native—where she spent the last 23 years of her life. She was one of Campell's portrait series subjects and is a current resident of San Luis Obispo.

click to enlarge LOVE Roberta Richey moved to San Luis Obispo about six years ago, and while the transition has been anything but easy, she's determined to stick around and be part of the diversity movement. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RENODA CAMPBELL
  • Photo Courtesy Of Renoda Campbell
  • LOVE Roberta Richey moved to San Luis Obispo about six years ago, and while the transition has been anything but easy, she's determined to stick around and be part of the diversity movement.

Richey said she moved to the Central Coast for love. Six years ago her partner at the time, now husband, was tired of living in Southern California and wanted to give San Luis Obispo a try. He's a Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) golf professional and knew he could use his skills to teach others, so he planned a trip to find job opportunities.

"He had asked me three days before he left, would I come with him if he landed something, and I said yes," she said.

Richey describes it as the right time in her life to make the move. Her mother had recently died, and Richey was a breast cancer survivor going through her last radiation treatment.

"It was time for me to take what I call, my season of breathing," she said.

She wasn't worried about finding employment as Richey had 15 years of experience working in the insurance industry and worked in the entertainment industry as a dancer, actor, and singer.

When Richey submitted her application and résumé for jobs, she would get called for an interview, and felt the interview went well but never got a job offer. She said employers would tell her they were looking for a "good team fit."

"I'm seasoned in my life so 'team fit' to me meant there's nobody that looks like me on your team so you don't know how you're going to deal with me, you don't know how to react, and you're not comfortable," she said.

Richey wasn't undeterred. It's not in her character to give up. She shifted gears and landed a position with Cal Poly.

"I just wanted to be in a place where I could share in, plant my seed, be inspired, and continue to grow. I just wanted to give it all that I have been given and I have gained," she said.

The transition to life on the coast continued to be somewhat of a struggle. Finding a salon that catered to her hair type or a store that carried beauty products for her skin type was "like finding a needle in a haystack," she said.

"I am an ebony queen and everything here is not catered to that tone," Richey said.

With time, she found a nail salon within city limits that she frequents, and she drives to Lompoc for a woman who knows how to give her braids or a short cut that suits her.

Although Richey has adjusted to life here to an extent, she still feels like an outsider.

"When I'm out in public, I can never just be," she said. "I know someone is watching me or listening to my conversation."

On more than one occasion as Richey was being interviewed by New Times, the average passerby would take a long pause to look directly at her.

But she says she doesn't have time to be judged.

"I think there's so many people with a small-town mentality. It's very close-knit," she said.

When she and her husband go to functions or even just out to eat and they meet someone new, Richey said the first thing that's asked of them is if they're visiting from out of town.

She said they always politely respond by saying, "No, we live here." But she said that it's offensive that an interracial couple is assumed to be from out of town, and it happens to her and her husband all the time.

Richey doesn't want that to be the norm for herself or for future generations of people of color in San Luis Obispo. She firmly believes that if there are more businesses and places to hang out that differ from what is already out there, the culture could shift. But Richey said she and the rest of the community who want change can't just ask for it, they have to be the ones to put things in motion.

She recently realized that she's been yearning to get back into the arts—acting, singing, or dancing. When Richey did her research about dance studios and programs in the area, it was generally tailored for youth. Richey did find adult classes, but she said they were usually less than an hour long.

Richey used to teach an adult dance class after college and said about 45 minutes is not enough time to stretch, practice a routine, and cool down.

"So the one thing I have on my mind is I would love to put together a movement for health," she said.

It would be an adult class where people could dance and mingle. An environment for people of all different races, ethnicities, and cultures to just be, she said.

At the end of the day, Richey said love brought her to Central Coast, and love will establish her here.

"Love takes work even though it's unconditional. It's an action word, a verb, so we have to put it into action and do something about it," she said. "Love is going to keep me here, and I'm in it for the long haul." Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

Correction: The article has been updated to reflect the changes made to the name Charles Matthews. The article incorrectly stated that his last name was Williams.

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