"We are the Future. We are Powerful!" SEASAW Mural Unveiling

After yet another mind-numbing day of online job searching, I finally left the confines of my bedroom to join the ARTogether staff at the SEASAW mural unveiling in Peralta Hacienda Historic Park. During the drive over, I couldn’t have been more disarrayed. My water bottle had leaked all over the floor of ARTogether’s Development Director, Miles Markstein’s car, while I hungrily wolfed down a Trader Joe’s microwavable meal. Additionally, my thoughts were consumed by existential ponderings resulting from my search for a job in the nonprofit industry. 

We arrived just in time to catch a few of the beautiful opening speeches shared at the unveiling. A few tents were set up around the park to provide shade for attendants, and under them, ornate rugs spread out over the green grass, imbuing the park with a feeling of home. Soon, the air was filled with conversation between friends and family, the introductions of strangers, and children chasing each other through the garden. People lined up along the garden fence for food and left with full plates. Meanwhile, hovering above everyone’s heads, like a protective icon, was the mural. The painted girl’s eyes closed in peaceful meditation as she floated atop a lotus flower. 

 This inspiring mural is the cumulative outcome of SEASAW or the Southeast Asian Street Art Workshops. The SEASAW program was created by ARTogether and CERI’s (Center For Empowering Refugees) youth program and was ultimately funded by California Art Council’s “Jump StArt” grant. All twenty participants are at-promise and ICE-impacted youth (all under 24 years old) from refugee and immigrant backgrounds. The program consisted of weekly meetings focused on exploring the art and culture of murals, graffiti, and street art, and ended with creating their very own mural. ARTogether’s Executive Director, Leva Zand, explained, “We wanted this program to offer new ways of thinking about civic engagement and social justice, and I think we were successful.” 

ARTogether and CERI began their pre-project planning in October 2021. After two months of outreach and hosting training sessions for designated project leaders, SEASAW was launched in late December/early January of the following year. The program was divided into three two-month modules: Arts and Social Justice Education, Identity and Storytelling, and Mural Art. Throughout each module, participants learned about different art-making techniques, cultivating self-expression through art, and even attended a few field trips, including the Oakland Museum of Art. 

Polina Marso, ARTogether’s Program Manager, shared, “The reality is that many young people are drawn to gang culture, especially from marginalized communities, simply because they long for belonging, connection, and a sense of safety, which we all crave. Our hope from the beginning was to provide an alternative community, space, and activities that would provide youth with much-needed support, guidance, and an opportunity to learn. Especially during COVID, we have seen, and continue to see, a surge in mental health crises. It was crucial to offer an alternative space full of support.”

Leva adds, “It is important for these youth to see their faces in public places to cultivate a sense of belonging and ownership to their city.”

The mural itself is a stunning depiction of resilience. A young woman meditates on top of a lotus flower while protesters gather around her, all holding signs with messages such as, “End Gun Violence.” The background depicts semblances of the participants’ cultural roots, including an Aztec temple. I spoke with Khmer-American mural artist Pat Kong, who single-handedly turned the participants’ creative ideas into this beautiful work of art. When I asked him about his process, he shared, “This program, and ultimately the mural, involved a lot of critical thinking and learning about what kids think about these days: mental illness, depression, being misunderstood, social media.” He later added, “One thing I learned was just sit down and listen; they have a lot to say. All that listening brought the mural concept to life.”

Many of the program’s facilitators, including Kong, noted that the biggest challenge to the program was the pandemic, specifically having to shift many in-person meetings to Zoom. However, this did not stop SEASAW from becoming a truly impactful program. Polina expressed, “The biggest reward was watching youth grow, learn, and open up, and of course hearing them proudly talk about the completed mural. Their faces lit up.”

At the unveiling, I interviewed a few of the program’s participants about their experience in SEASAW. At the end of each interview, I asked them what they believed the message behind the mural was. Here are some of the answers I received: 

Robert explained, “This program is about getting together! To try and connect with people.”

Yaya said, “We wanted to show things in our community that we could improve on. There’s a lot of hate in the world, and we wanted to show peace.”

Jesus remarked, “We wanted to represent Oakland.”

Finally, Paula declared, “We are the future. We are powerful!”

Throughout the final celebration, and especially while speaking with the participating youth, I couldn’t help but feel this growing sense of hope. I watched small children play games with their siblings alongside circles of elders chatting over their plates, and reminded myself: this is why you moved to the Bay. In these spaces, the feeling of community and care is palpable. 

ARTogether is finishing another mural in San Antonio Park and hopes to continue offering long-term programs with educational benefits for youth.

Emma Grover is a freelance writer from New York City who recently moved to the Bay Area after completing her degree in English and Creative Writing at Wesleyan University. She is passionate about the healing powers of written and artistic expression as well as highlighting the voices of underrepresented and diasporic writers like herself. She has a background in non-profit work and education. 

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