Community Building Through Art 

This week’s blog is contributed by Community Empowerment Activist (CEA) and Critical Diversity Studies major, Alaia Zaki ’23. The year long CEA course analyzes systems of oppression and movements of resistance while working with grassroots organizations in San Francisco. Learn about the recent mid-year retreat and mural walk and from Alaia, and how it connects to their class experience.

On a beautiful sunny Saturday, the current cohort of the Community Empowerment Activists (CEA) program spent their mid-year retreat embodying joy as resistance, learning about the intersection between murals and organizing in San Francisco. Whether it be poetry, murals, food, or other mediums of artistic expression, the beauty of art always comes from the heart. This class, or more accurately this family, strengthens relations and love for each other and the world through art in different ways every day. 

After spending the morning cooking breakfast and being in community, we were guided around the Mission District by Chris Gazaleh, muralist, organizer, writer, and much more. The tour began at a mural on the outside of Reem’s California Mission, an Arab cuisine restaurant founded on a vision for building and uplifting community. Reem’s is located in Little Palestine, a block of the Mission where you can find deep roots from local business owners from San Francisco to Palestine. Spending the day with Chris, learning about the journey of his artwork and how deeply woven his art is to liberation work, was an inspiration to our family.  

The second mural we traveled to was a piece about youth, knowledge, and Palestine. The mural depicted a woman embodying an ancestor holding indigenous knowledge and a key, representing the right of return for all Palestinians to their homeland. Chris being Palestinian himself, his work is naturally a manifestation of the call for reclamation for all settler states. Through this tour, he takes the time to familiarize us with the reality of apartheid for Palestinians on their land.

Continuing on our trip through the Mission, we saw many pieces highlighting the struggles of the youth and the fight for land and liberation in Palestine, connecting struggles of oppression across lands and power. One of my favorite pieces Chris showed us was an illustration of two people murdered by the police on distant lands but with similar forces. Breonna Taylor and Eyad Al-Hallaq were two beautiful lives, unarmed, their voices taken by militant violence. This piece reminds us that the key to liberation is your tied to mine, and our liberation is tied to all. 

The last mural we visited was located near the freeway entrance to Elgin Park near Market Street. A powerful message of Palestinian presence, resistance to erasure, and the fight for liberation stands tall over this busy freeway, serves as a constant reminder to all. This mural’s force lies in the details of symbolism including the woman holding a key, an orange tree, a concrete wall, all leading back to cultural roots, indigenous lands, knowledge, and freedom. 

While every CEA class is different than the last, there is the central theme of learning about systems of oppression and how we see the community mobilizing in the name of love and liberation. Our mid-year retreat embodied our learning this past year and left our class filled with gratitude and love. 

I want to take the time to thank Chris Gazaleh for the stories and knowledge shared with us as we visited many of his works of art that continue to keep the truths of Palestinians and the call for liberations across lands alive. Also, I send gratitude to Jacqueline Ramos, the CEA program director, for continually showing us what community looks like and teaching us the beautiful roots and history of San Francisco. 


About: Our Core Values. Reem’s California. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2022, from

Read more pieces from our Community Empowerment Activists here.

Chris GazalehCommunity Empowerment ActivistsCritical Diversity StudiesmuralsSan Francisco art

Leo T. McCarthy Center • April 28, 2022

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