Arts Based Peacebuilding: A Response to Gentrification in the Mission District

“Àqui estamos y no los vamos”, messages to the gentrifiers of San Francisco’s Mission District are painted in bright colours on walls from 13th Street to Cesar Chavez Street, inspired by a Latino culture of resistance through art. The murals portray the full range of challenges facing the Mission, including drug addiction, injustice, police brutality, unemployment, deportation, evictions and gentrification. (Lettieri, 2001) Artists from Precita Eyes Mural Center see these murals as physical representations of the cultures, people and values within the Mission. As “transplants”, technology companies and their employees move in and take over the culture of the Mission, the murals depict a community that is deeply challenged through mass evictions and the dispersion of the community caused by gentrification. (Norris, 2010)

This project investigates how Arts Based Peacebuilding (ABP) helps to understand the murals on gentrification in the Mission. Through learnings from Banksy, the Arpilleristas, and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I will identify features of ABP that help to understand the impacts of the murals. The murals give access to a political voice to the marginalized, create space for dialogue, and help to re-shape collective memories, and represent both resistance and peacebuilding through art.


An understanding of the history of inequality and marginalization in the Mission District is essential to understanding the Mission’s murals. The 1960s were a turning point as Latino families arrived to work as bracero labourers and the Mission became a community of taquerias and bodegas known for the “colourful Latino murals [that] weave through its alleyways, celebrating indigenous culture and protesting U.S. involvement in Central America”. A distinct “cultura” developed in the Mission as “an act of affirmation, but also an act of resistance” (Goldman, 1997). The Mission became a haven for leftist organization and “an incubator for countercultures”. (Fernando, 2006) A second wave of Latinos from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala arrived in the 1980s, reinforcing the community’s progressive political activism. (Fernando, 2006)

Economic, social, and structural inequalities shaped the Mission. Public and private investment went to white communities, leaving few opportunities and many jobless youth in the Mission. (Fernando, 2006) Social inequalities grew and gangs formed, as did “police brutality that targeted youth, immigrants, and other people of color.” (Fernando, 2006). In 1972, Mission residents were unable to resist the degradations of “urban renewal”. Since the 1990s, “the dot-com boom” tech companies and their employees were drawn into and threatened the Mission’s culture through their gentrification of the community. (San Francisco Chronicle)

The residents of the Mission District could not prevent the enactment of the Ellis Act, which legalized the widespread eviction of tenants with little notice, enabling landlords to sell their buildings to developers of high priced condominiums. This led to mass displacement of long-term Mission residents tat the peak of the 2000 “dot-com-boom”, with over 300 documented evictions in one year. (Fernando, 2006) It was widely accepted that this was not a chance correlation. The causal links between the dot-com boom, the arrival of highly paid tech employees in the Mission, the growing number of high priced luxury condominiums replacing the homes of former Mission residents, and the increased numbers of evictions from existing Mission properties are well documented. (Grover, KQED)

Arts Based Peacebuilding (APB)

Arts based peacebuilding, encompasses “artistic and creative practice that represents, responds to, seeks to transform or prevent the occurrence and negative impacts of conflict and violence”. (Hunter, 2014) ABP includes conventional art, such as music, dance, visual arts, or creative writing, as well as activities that are often defined as “culture” in many communities, including oral storytelling, rituals and traditional practices. (Hunter, 2014) A common element of all types of arts based peacebuilding is that they include “an intentional element of representing, responding to, preventing or transforming conflict as a way to build ‘positive peace’.” (Hunter, 2014)

ABP enables people who are powerless to tell their stories, creates alternative spaces for free expression, helps to shape collective memory, and challenges oppressors through the documentation of a counter narrative. (Hunter, 2014) The arts can enable counter-narratives to surface, empowering minorities so that collective memory can be “rebuilt and retold in a way that incorporates the trauma suffered at the hands of the old regime.” (Hunter, 2014) By giving voice to the marginalized, ABP enables dialogue, rebalances power between victims and abusers, and creates greater accountability. (Hunter, 2014)

There are many difficulties in measuring how arts based peacebuilding affects communities or individuals since it is a newly emerging area of academic study. Few academics such as Mary Ann Hunter and Linda Page have delved into this field, leaving a gap in formal documented knowledge. In order to understand how to implement arts based peacebuilding effectively one can begin to bridge this gap in formal knowledge through the examination of historical and current case studies.

Key feature of arts based peacebuilding: Dialogue and Banksy

Arts based peacebuilding, as noted, can be understood as the intentional use of art in order to address the nuances of conflict. Banksy, a graffiti artist, is known for provoking public discourse through his work. For example, in January 2016, a graffiti of Cosette from Les Miserable engulfed in tear gas appeared near the French Embassy in London. (Ellis-Petersen, 2016) This graffiti appeared after French forces were alleged to have used tear gas against refugees in the informal refugee camps in Calais. Banksy aimed to stir debate by including under his work a smartphone-scannable QR barcode linking the viewer to a video of the French forces in Calais using tear gas. (Ellis-Petersen, 2016) Banksy created space for and demanded dialogue, through one form of APB.

Similarly, the Mission’s most effective murals generate passionate exchanges of views, particularly on the murals’ calls to action. Muralists “use purely local iconography and symbolism as part of their strategy to stimulate identification” with local concerns (Goldman, 1977). For example, Sirron Norris’ iconic mural in Balmy Alley, Victorion - Protect the Mission, catalyzes dialogue through the images of a machine stomping on San Francisco’s Victorian houses with “For Sale” and “For Lease” signs on their lawns. Provocative statements in the mural mock gentrifiers. The mural contains billboards with signs advertising “Organic Fair Trade Condos” and a storefront coffee shop sign that reads “Hipsters - Unique Together”. Norris offers his mural as a warning: “If we keep this up, the Mission will be represented by recent transplants and people that are not familiar with any kind of true struggle.” (Never Elsewhere) His warning raises awareness and generates non-linear patterns as community members view the mural and respond.

Key features of arts based peacebuilding: Accessibility and Arpilleristas

Arpilleras are a traditional Chilean woven cloth that express the struggle of the oppressed and give voice to the marginalized. In the 1970s and 1980s, during the violent Chilean dictatorship, this type of art was popularized by weavers – working class women known as “Arpilleristas” – who created “an alternative language for documenting personal and national histories” through a medium that was accessible even to those denied a voice by the oppressive regime. (Seidner, 2013) Through woven cloth, a divergent collective memory that stood up to the regime emerged. (Seidner, 2013) Since weaving was a commonplace activity, the political voice of the Arpilleristas could emerge wherever weavers worked. Chile’s Arpilleristas showed how APB can make political expression accessible.

Similarly, the murals in the Mission District provide a highly accessible response to gentrification, making political expression accessible to every passer-by on the street. The murals served both as honest expressions of concern and as educational tools for Mission residents. Lucia Ippolito’s and Tirso Araiza’s famous anti-gentrification Mission Makeover mural in the Mission’s Balmy Alley is a good example: it depicts the contradictions of police action within the community. On one side, a police officer is having coffee with a white resident, while on the opposing side officers are arresting two faceless darker skinned men. White families move into a large gentrified home on one side of the mural, while a foreclosure notice looms over faceless riot police on the other. At the individual level, this mural enables the artists to connect with each passer-by. At a group level, the community is educated and empowered through images that push back against the status quo. The political sphere finds its way onto the streets and becomes more visible through a highly accessible art form, as with the Arpilleristas.

Key features of arts based peacebuilding: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Another key feature of Arts based Peacebuilding is the reshaping of collective memory through counter narrative. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Indigenous people affected by the intergenerational trauma of residential school made 15 recommendations related to arts in the peacebuilding process. It recommended that the federal government give $20 million to art projects featuring commemoration ceremonies. (TRC, 2015) These recommendations and funding enabled Indigenous peoples, particularly survivors of residential schools, to generate an arts-based counter narrative with their communities and with non-Indigenous people who would have no memory or a different public memory of residential school trauma. (TRC, 2015)

For example, Kairo’s Blanket group was funded to use playback theatre, an interactive and expository type of theatre, to share stories through an activity called the Blanket Exercise. Audience members stand on blankets that gradually shrink in size, physically depicting the historical loss of rights of indigenous people. The exercise demonstrates, in present time, a history most Canadians never learned, creating space for a counter-narrative to emerge, and showing how APB can reshapes public memory.

Similarly, the murals in the Mission provide the Latino populations with an alternative to the mainstream narrative. As artist Leo Tanguma stated, “even until recently our people were depicted in the US with stereotypical images that tended to dehumanize our community”. Families, artists and residents counteract the phenomenon where “young people go to school in the United States and are not told anything of their own people’s participation in History.” (Lettieri, 2001) The mural Nicaragua Before and After celebrates a collective memory that represents key aspects of the community’s collective identity - the dehumanizing reality of Nicaragua during the 1980s Revolution. This two part mural shows on the left a farmhouse on fire. Women stand with images of women who have disappeared, while a man paints “Resiste” on the wing of a bird. The evocative, public nature of the art etches a new collective memory into the memory of those who pass by, just as Kairo’s blanket exercise does in Canada.

Diagramming APB

Lisa Schirch and Michael Shank have created a guide to strategic ABP which aims to channel conflict toward resolution. They summarize that guide through the diagram below. Applying the diagram to the murals in the Mission, conflict that is a consequence of gentrification includes features of violence such as verbal attacks, displacement, and exploitation of power dynamics. As seen in Schirch and Shanks model, public murals suggest that the conflict over gentrification is at a point between escalation and management, located at a median conflict intensity. Applying this analysis, the commonality of expression in the Mission’s public murals suggests that conflict as a consequence of gentrification is not yet ready for the reconciliation process.

Strategic arts based peacebuilding guidelines in relation to the conflict intensity and stage
Types of conflict in relation to the conflict stage and intensity

However, reconciliation efforts and opportunities to create long-lasting peace may also emerge. Arguably, as the community evolves and addresses conflict in new ways, the Mission may see a shift from its focus on murals to more installation art, chants, drama therapy and visual arts therapy as conflict management, shifts to conflict transformation, and eventually to conflict prevention.

As the murals create space for dialogue, new public memories, and a more accessible political sphere, more tangible community solutions can be created, including possibilities for community mobilization around political or community causes. Greater awareness and empowerment enables the mobilization of groups such as MAC, the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition, a group that arose from the mural-inspired criticism of politics in the 2000s and focused on affordable housing and community healthcare. Therefore, a critical measure of ABP is how art drives community organization, action and ultimately solutions to the conflicts created by gentrification. Peace building through the arts may be a starting point to further recognition and reconciliation.

I have explored how the arts allow for dialogue, access to political expression, and the reshaping public memory. From these examples, it is possible to generalize that art and culture can help to build a foundation for peacebuilding within the Mission and beyond.

However, ABP must be continuously questioned in order to be improved. Schirch and Shank’s strategic arts based peacebuilding offers a trajectory towards more progressive peacebuilding options. As the gentrification murals create political and social awareness, they also create some of the conditions required for community peacebuilding action. In the words of the title to one of the Mission’s murals, “Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance which Blossoms into the Flower of Liberation”.

Work Cited

"A changing Mission - The Story." San Francisco Chronicle. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

"A changing Mission - The Story." San Francisco Chronicle. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

Boom! The Sound of Eviction, by Francine Cavanaugh and A. Mark Liiv.

Dignity in Chicano Mural Art: An Interview with Leo Tanguma.” Confluencia, vol. 16, no. 2, 2001, pp. 136–146. www.jstor.org/stable/27922802.

Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. "Banksy's new artwork criticises use of teargas in Calais refugee camp." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 24 Jan. 2016. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

Elsewhere, Never. "11 Questions: The Sirron Norris Interview."

Goldman, Shifra M. “Resistance and Identity: Street Murals of Occupied Aztlán.” Latin American Literary Review, vol. 5, no. 10, 1977, pp. 124–128. www.jstor.org/stable/20119069.

Never Elsewhere. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

Marti, Fernando. The Mission District – A History of Resistance . Rep. N.p.: Asian Neighborhood Design, 2006. Print.

"Murals and The Conversation." Exploraspective. N.p., 17 Nov. 2016. Web. 23 Jan. 2017. <https://exploraspective.wordpress.com/2016/11/18/murals-and-the-conversation/>.

News, Dan Grover for KQED. "Impact of the Ellis Act in San Francisco." The Ellis Act and San Francisco's Housing Stock. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

Rolston, Bill. ‘Trying to reach the future through the past’: murals and commemoration in Northern Ireland. Rep. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Shank, Michael, and Lisa Schirch. "Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding." Peace & Change (2008): 217-42. Web. 8 July 2015. Page 231.

Seidner, Ann. Storytelling and Transitional Justice in Latin America: The Roles of Truth Commissions Ans the Arts in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala. Rep. Hartford: Senior Thesis, Trinity College, 2013. Page 70.

TRC. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. Rep. no. ISBN 978-0-660-02078-5. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, May 2015. Web. 24 June 2015. Page 37.

Lettieri, Mónica, and Leo Tanguma. “Cultural Identity and Ethnic Dignity in Chicano Mural Art: An Interview with Leo Tanguma.” Confluencia, vol. 16, no. 2, 2001, pp. 136–146. www.jstor.org/stable/27922802.

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