A series of vandalism incidents at the Sinsheimer Laboratory building that began in 2020 and continued through 2021 left black students at Science and Engineering Hill feeling unsafe and unwelcome. As part of the healing process, a new mural by artist Paul Levin now illuminates the first floor entrance to Sinsheimer Labs.
Juliana Njongo, a graduate student in microbiology and environmental toxicology who serves as a student representative on the graffiti committee, said the response to the graffiti has been very positive. “Some people go there every week or every morning just to look at it, and a lot of people say it gives them a sense of peace in the building,” she said.
The students met with Levine twice before deciding he was the right artist to create the mural. “It felt right to go with Paul Levine — I thought he would represent Blackness in a way that could help black students in science feel a sense of belonging, like it’s their community, because we’re not so much in science. Hill,” Nzongo said.
Levine’s art, which is featured on the cover of a novel by science fiction writer 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 life have always been inspired by science,” Levin said. “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, Levine was based in Oakland for many years and currently lives in Miami. He was one of several potential actors suggested to the committee by film and digital media professor John Zota Lenos, who met Levin in San Francisco.
“When John first approached me about the mural in March of this year, I was really impressed with the backstory,” Levin said. “It was very effective for me to hear the students tell their stories directly. I wanted to create an image with a strong representation of blackness in science that spanned multiple generations, from ancient Africa and other indigenous communities to current and future black students at UC Santa Cruz.”
Ocean science professor Christina Ravello, 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 of color.
“Murals need to be seen as part of the process of change we’re working on, not as a sign of where we want to be,” she said. “The vandalism and other incidents were very stressful in the midst of all that was going on nationally. 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 pressing research and essential experiments were allowed to use their laboratories at Sinheimer, but access to the building was restricted. When Black Lives Matter posters were defaced and torn down in the Sinsheimer elevator, students felt threatened, especially since they were often in their labs with few other people around.
“Someone who had access was saying ‘you don’t belong here’ and that made a lot of students feel insecure,” Njongo said. “A good friend of mine had to come late at night to do some time points for her experiment, and we had to keep in touch via text to make sure she got home safely.”
The campus has since installed more security cameras, including in the elevators. Ravello also said that a growing number of departments in the sciences have organized or scheduled anti-racism training programs for faculty and staff.
However, Nzongo said the students felt angry and frustrated at what they felt was the slow response of the campus police and administration to the incidents. “Students had a list of things they wanted to do to feel safe at Science Hill,” Njongo said. “Murals were the one thing we were able to get money and support for right away.”
The mural committee sought an artist to create a mural that “captures UCSC’s vision of science excellence, innovation and creativity, which can only be achieved in an environment that is mindful of diverse identities and life experiences, and which embraces a vision of cultural humility and collaboration. Mutual respect.”
Nzongo said she recently brought a group of high school students who were on campus for a COSMOS event to see the mural.
“They loved it, and they all wanted to take a picture in front of it,” she said, “so it touched not only those of us on Science Hill, but others who stop and think when they see the mural. What does it mean to them.”