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New Santa Rosa mural spotlights women activists fighting for equality

Artists Feven Zewdi and Rima Makaryan were doing their best to secure several huge canvas sheets on the ground as wind gusts swept across the Roseland Village Shopping Center parking lot on a warm afternoon in late July.

A handful of volunteers aided this effort, providing some extra body weight while everyone sketched larger-than-life outlines of three Sonoma County women on what will be a roving mural, initially to be displayed on the southern wall of the 3 Disciples brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa.

With their bold, stylized portraits, Zewdi, 34, and Makaryan, 18, said they wanted to raise the profiles of the three women — activists Bernice Espinoza, Rose Hammock and Joy Ayodele — who they said fight for equality, often away from the public eye.

Ayodele, an 18-year-old Santa Rosa native, has emerged as a leading voice for young people and the Black Lives Matter movement in Sonoma County this summer. She’s led marches, created the group What We Are Fighting For and helped push Santa Rosa City Schools to add ethnic studies into its curriculum.

Espinoza, a former county public defender, now works to connect immigrant families with low-cost legal representation. In the past, she’s reached out to immigrants to educate them about their legal rights and stepped up to help after the 2017 fires by serving as a translator to share emergency information with Spanish speakers.

And Hammock, as a descendant of two Native American tribes, has been a leader in her community, as a dancer with Pomo Youth Dancers and as an educator, organizer and motivational speaker. At Santa Rosa Junior College, she helped lead the initiative to designate Oct. 12 as Indigenous People’s Day at the school, to recognize and celebrate Indigenous culture.

“These are all women who have made an impact in our community and they’re not always highlighted or always on the front lines,” said Makaryan, founder and executive director of The Monarch Project. “We want to make sure they’re recognized.”

Art for equality

This isn’t Makaryan’s first large-scale project with a message. Last year, as a student at Montgomery High School, she led the creation of the “Dreamer” mural at the school, a majestic 12-by-32-foot work depicting a woman with long, colorful hair, her face made of different shades of brown. Monarch butterflies, a symbol of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, flitted around her. The idea was to celebrate the beauty of the immigrant experience.

The current project, made during a time of national discussion about racial inequalities and police use of force, has a secondary aim. Nearby in the Roseland shopping center parking lot was the multi-panel “Healing Mural” dedicated to 13-year-old Andy Lopez, a south Santa Rosa boy fatally shot seven years ago by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who reportedly mistook his toy gun for a real weapon.

With this mural, the artists said, they want to ensure there isn’t another Lopez in Sonoma County.

For Zewdi, who works in nonprofit education, the piece is a visual extension of the ongoing discussion about systemic racism and injustice after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.

She hopes it inspires women to speak up and seek local office to help make greater strides in the fight for equality.

“We’re continuously in the midst of devastation as a nation,” said Zewdi, whose family immigrated from Eritrea to Santa Rosa in the early ’90s. “We need to make greater attempts to create opportunities and elect people in positions of power who actually resemble our future, which is us.”

Future mural planned

The mural is the first piece created by a new group called Sonoma County Artists Propelling Equity, or SCAPE, a grassroots collective of local artists who want to use portraits of leaders in the region’s communities of color to raise awareness for social justice causes. The Monarch Project, which uses art to humanize immigrants, is a partner in that effort.

SCAPE raised about $3,000 for the Santa Rosa mural to help cover supplies and pay the artists, said group co-founder Remi Newman. They are developing plans for a second mural in Sonoma and hope to continue their work across the county so long as funding and willing sites emerge, she said.

It was important for SCAPE and the artists to channel the spirit of Santa Rosa’s vibrant Latino community in Roseland into the piece while they worked on it, Newman said. Over the course of six days, the team worked on the mural at multiple sites, including Old Courthouse Square during a Black Lives Matter protest Ayodele helped organize.

Ayodele said she was “touched beyond words” to be included in the mural.

“Sometimes there are moments of discouragement and fatigue, so it’s really special to me to feel uplifted in this way,” Ayodele said.

Espinoza and Hammock echoed those sentiments.

Until last month, Espinoza was a county public defender for 14 years. She now works full time for the Secure Families Collaborative which helps immigrant families meet legal challenges and obtain government services.

Espinoza said her activist spirit first sparked when she was in the fourth grade and joined a strike in support of a teacher who was fired. Helping people without means is part of her identity and aligns with her faith, she said. Being depicted in a mural is an honor.

“I don’t do the work I do for any kind of thanks or fame,” Espinoza said. “I do it because it’s the right thing to do, making sure that families are together, making sure we look at some of the most marginalized people and making sure their constitutional rights are addressed.”

Hammock, 24, is deeply involved in her community as a descendant of both the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians in Lake County and the Round Valley Indian Tribes in Covelo. Her mother’s family hails from Nicaragua and Mexico.

She radiates pride for her people and takes great care to soak up knowledge from her elders. Even though she’s young, Hammock said she carries a mantle for the region’s Indigenous communities, ensuring they are represented.

Being included in this mural was a way to continue that effort, she said.

“When we see ourselves in a different way (through art), that could be anybody in my community,” Hammock said. “I hope if people in my community see that, they’re going to think, ’If Rose could do it, my kid could do it. I could do it.’ Although I’m honored (to be picked), it’s more the artists honoring my community.”

The realization of the piece came almost a week after the words “Black Lives Matter” were painted across the walkway of Sebastopol’s town plaza on July 24, inspired by street murals that have cropped up in cities around the country. Several artists have been commissioned by Petaluma’s public art committee to paint a similar mural in front of the city’s public library.

If there’s wider community support, Newman is hopeful their art series can persist and help capture the beauty of Sonoma County’s diverse communities through portraits of its overlooked leaders, she said.

“There’s so much that can be done in this community, and I always come back to that,” Newman said. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed by what’s going on the world. ... But I ask, ’What can I do, and where can I make a difference?’ I do try to do what I can.”

The SCAPE organizers hope to raise money for additional murals and public art through their ongoing GoFundMe campaign, at gofundme.com/f/sonoma-county-social-justice-mural-project.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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