Mural movement continues at lunch initiative’s office

on October 13, 2015

Grinning at his colleagues clustered nearby and draping one arm across the shoulders of executive director Amana Harris, artist Justin Metoyer-Mullon cut a red ribbon. The ribbon stretched across the opening to the courtyard of the Marcus Foster Education Center to the right of a large, bright mural depicting the center’s namesake.

 “We’re really using our art to transform our environment,” said Metoyer-Mullon, gesturing to the space behind him.

 The five murals contrast sharply with the fence to which they are attached, a fence that surrounds the former school campus in West Oakland. Colorful brushstrokes depicting oceans and families convey themes of self-love, self-determination, remembrances and cooperative economics, or “Ujamaa” in Swahili, according to Metoyer-Mullon, a member of the Marcus Foster Mural Project.

 Foster was the first African-American superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), elected in 1970. He was murdered three years later by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a left-wing revolutionary group from the 1970’s whose slogan was “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.” The group was also known for its kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst and for bank robberies. The site is a tribute to Foster, and has taken on different roles over the last few decades, from being a middle school to offices for the Programs for Exceptional Children, which are also known as special education programs. Now it is transitioning to another phase of development, and will be a part of the Rethinking School Lunch Oakland initiative, which aims to improve student nutrition.

The Marcus Foster Murals Project has been a collaboration between the OUSD and the Attitudinal Healing Connection, a nonprofit that combats violence through educational and arts programs in Oakland. They chose the Marcus Foster Education site as the murals’ home for different reasons, both symbolic and practical. “This is an opportunity for us to actually transform what has been under-utilized, in a lot of ways,” said school board director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3), who held one end of the ribbon during the ceremony.

Contributing artists were happy to brighten the site with meaningful artwork, particularly when they considered transforming the fence surrounding the new center. “We found out about the Marcus Foster Project, and we were able to do this work on the fence, so that we don’t have this ten-foot construction fence in our community, just looking like a chain-link fence that could be outside of a jail or something,” said Metoyer-Mullon, who works with AHC. “We just wanted to make something positive.”

The Rethinking School Lunch Oakland initiative aims to serve Oakland students more produce-rich meals, create a community kitchen, and establish internships and opportunities for students related to agriculture and culinary arts. “Currently, many of the students receive shrink-wrapped, pre-prepared meals, and they’re not fresh, and as healthy and nutritious as we would like them to be,” said Troy Flint, spokesperson for OUSD. “And that’s really important for a district where so many students rely on school meals.”

To combat the lack of healthy options, the district developed a plan for a central nutrition hub that would include a central kitchen, instructional farm, and education center. The farm would serve to model environmentally sound practices by producing food locally, and the education center would offer learning opportunities to students. This hub will be responsible for connecting the kitchens and nutritional services departments at schools within the district, to help ensure that students receive fresh fruits and vegetables at all schools, and to coordinate nutritional education programs.

But not everyone was pleased about the location selection. According to Flint, some community members expressed concerns that the OUSD did not engage the neighborhood enough in the decision-making process for the center’s location, and they questioned why the Marcus Foster site had been chosen. Discussions between school board members and the nearby community are still ongoing. The murals and partnership with the AHC represent a message to the community as well, said Flint.

“This is really trying to reinforce that bond and trust we want to develop with the neighborhood, to show that we’re going to create a great project, when the new structure is built,” said Flint. Additionally, he said, “Attitudinal Healing has been a great partner in trying to bridge that gap, to orchestrate restorative justice circles, and community conversations about this project.”

AHC is responsible for other murals throughout Oakland as well, such as the Superheroes Mural Project, which depicts superheroes inspired by McClymonds High School students, and the Tree of Life, a mural honoring four deceased children from East and West Oakland, which travels throughout the city.

AHC executive director Amana Harris came to the organization over twenty years ago and began the artistry program there. “I thought the arts was an incredible vehicle to engage young people, and provide a way for them to really, truly express themselves,” said Harris.

The group’s programs fall under the categories of the arts, leadership and community building. AHC holds communal discussions for those dealing with trauma, offers public meditation, organizes the Neighborhood Leadership Institute, which gives community members the training to be leaders in their communities, and hosts Friday Night Live, an entertainment and community event for teenagers that took place on Friday nights during the summer.

During Friday Night Live, the artists and teens sketched out ideas for the murals on paper, said Metoyer-Mullon. It was from these mural activities that the themes for the Marcus Foster Mural Project were born.

For the Superheroes Project, AHC is currently completing murals at six West Oakland/Emeryville locations under the 580 highway. On September 29, Antonio Ramos, one of the group’s artists, was shot and killed while painting at the latest mural.

“It’s been a very challenging and hard week for us, but it’s in the same spirit that we began this work, that we need to finish it,” said Metoyer-Mullon. “And even more so, now that someone’s life has been sacrificed because of it. So—in the same love that Antonio Ramos did his work, with us, we’re doing it with that same energy, and with the same purpose.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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