In West Oakland, the “Tree of Life” traveling mural project urges neighborhood healing

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On a barren West Oakland corner, amongst homes where the windows and front yards are gated and dead-bolted protectively from the world outside, now stands a “Tree of Life” — the Attitudinal Healing Connection’s debut traveling mural project. The mural and all seven of its transportable panels were unveiled Thursday afternoon at the West Oakland Youth Center’s construction site on Market Street.

Construction on the facility, currently a skeleton of drywall, scaffolding and timber, isn’t expected to be complete until April. Until then, the mural—depicting a community nurturing a deeply rooted tree in a verdant park amidst an urban backdrop, blooming flowers and butterflies—will add color to the construction site until the youth center is complete. Afterwards, all seven of its 8 by 4 foot panels will travel throughout the city to be displayed in areas that have yet to be determined.

The mural was created by young people who live in the Hoover Historic Corridor in West Oakland, as well as by members of Attitudinal Healing Connection’s (AHC) Youth Leadership Now program. The non-profit hopes to end violence through programs and workshops that teach creative expression, like art and mindful drumming classes, as well as the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, a series of six planned murals throughout West Oakland and Emeryville depicting superheroes and storylines central to Oakland.

While the “Tree of Life”—which measures 8 by 28 feet—represents a recommitment to establish West Oakland as a safe community, it also serves as a reminder of those who still fall victim to violence there. It is dedicated to young victims of gun violence throughout East and West Oakland.

Because of its proximity to the Emeryville and Oakland border, Thursday’s debut brought out supporters from both cities. “We need more joyful noise in the community,” said Emeryville Mayor Kurt Brinkman, speaking in front of a packed room at the M. Robinson Baker YMCA on Market Street before the mural’s unveiling. Brinkman, a supporter of the project, hopes it will bridge the interests between the two cities’ young people. “It’s easier to get bullets than cigarettes; violence has no boundaries. Forty percent of our kids come from West Oakland,” he said referring to the city’s school system. “They’re our kids.”

Roughly eight volunteers, ranging between 18 and 24 years old, helped develop the mural after surveying the West Oakland community about what they would like to see depicted. Daniel Sparks, 24, took the lead in establishing the mural’s concept, which focuses on forgiving a community for its cycles of violence, as well as on the ability to rise above hardship.  “It means a lot to me,” Sparks said. “To be from West Oakland, I know I’ll see something I helped to create.  A lot of people know me around here, so hopefully they’ll see I’m doing something good.”

Sparks also worked alongside Daniel Panko, 27, who used community input for the mural’s design to establish a blueprint for it. Panko, who has been making murals since he was 13—starting first with chalk pieces and then moving on to buildings and larger storefronts—said being able to create art for the community has made this one of his most gratifying projects yet.

The “Tree of Life” represents the idea that though parts of the community are in distress, they not downtrodden, said Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney (District 3), who was also spoke at the unveiling. “AHC honors and elevates our artists, and is breathing life into us as a community and into our young people,” she said. “These are the healing waters in our community. I want to challenge to you all to envision with me—it’s not here yet, but it will come—when Oakland is the safest city in the Bay Area.”

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