Kayla Smith living the lessons of Dr. King

Jan. 19, 2010

By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

The color black sometimes clashed with the City of Orange for UCSB track and field star Kayla Smith.

"On sports teams, I was often the only black player," she said during Martin Luther King Day at Monday's Athletic Round Table press luncheon. "In our neighborhood, our family was the only black one. And in school, I was often the only black student.

"When other kids would tease me about my skin color or nappy hair, I'd tell them that I am unique, and that God made me this way. I never realized how cruel some kids' intentions really were."

But the education of Kayla, and the appreciation of what Dr. King's sacrifices did for her as an emerging black woman, became accelerated on Sept. 11, 2001 when the memory of his assassination was triggered by another tragedy.

"My mom explained to us how significant that day was," said Smith, a Villa Park High graduate. "She told us about how she heard about the assassination on her way to school and how my grandma did a U-turn in the car and said, 'You're not going to school today, we're going home.' And she explained the significance to her."

No Gaucho athlete is more socially active than Smith, a junior multi-event athlete that throwing coach Keith Baker says is on track to become "one of the best shot putters in school history."

She co-chairs UCSB's Student Athlete Advisory Board, serves on the on-campus Student Resource Building Governance Board and even sings in the university's gospel choir.

Smith is majoring in both psychology and sociology, with a minor in education. She has hopes of getting a PhD some day.

"At times, I had to think big, dream a lot and search for help when no one else was looking, but I'm stronger because of it," Smith said. "Martin Luther King did the same thing. Despite the obstacles, he never failed to think big, dream a lot and seek help."

One of her favorite quotes from Dr. King is, "Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase."

She's found a nurturing environment in Santa Barbara.

"I feel more than accepted and loved by this community and by UCSB," Smith said. "This is where I've been able to plant my roots and grow."

Those roots include a grandfather who stood his ground in Orange County during a time when the fight for civil rights still raged across the country.

"He was mowing his lawn one day and an officer came by and said, 'Hey, sir, I think you need to leave this neighborhood,' " Smith said. "My grandpa said, 'Leave what?' And he said, 'You need to leave this neighborhood.'

"My grandpa said, 'Well, I actually own this house, and you're on my property. I think you need to leave.' Being that bold -- to say, 'No, no, no, no, you need to go!' -- those are the stories that I heard growing up.

"I was never afraid of where I grew up, but it's real. It happens. And it's not just African-American against white. But that's what Martin Luther King did for us. He opened the door."

In every neighborhood.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com

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