Education reForm in the community
Two years after thousands of students lost their school and had to be relocated as part of the school closures that impacted Philadelphia, comes an art installation that goes deep into the social and emotional effects of displacement.
The project entitled "reForm" was inspired by the shuttered building of what was once Fairhill Elementary School, one of the 23 public institutions closed in 2013 in response to the school district budget cuts.
“I began to notice this monster, this architectural ghost that existed in the neighborhood. The structure was very present but was not being used in any way,” said Pepón Osorio, the artist commissioned to develop the installation.
The Puerto Rican artist said he was struck by the effects of the abandoned building, not only on the immediate population, but the effects far beyond the people involved in the daily activity.
"I think the school district looked at the school closures in a very pragmatic way. But there is a human element in the situation affecting the future of these students," Osorio said.
A professor of community art at Tyler School of Art, Osorio said the exhibit aims to reflect the effects of the closures through dislocation and physical displacement.
The exhibit comprises furniture, objects and images brought directly from the school to a classroom at Tyler School of Art. There are 16 video monitors throughout the installation, 13 of them feature former Fairhill students that collaborated on the project.
“I would say 95 percent of all the materials you see come from Fairhill. Once you walk in you recognize all the elements because you spend time with them at your own school,” the artist said.
The project came together in response to Osorio’s community efforts and the involvement of civic leaders Pedro Ramos, Johnny Irizarry, Marangeli Mejia-Rabell, Tim Gibbon and former Fairhill staff members Robert Harris, Marilyn Rodríguez, as well as Darlene Lomax, former principal at Fairhill Elementary School.
“The majority of students are relocated, going to another school, but there is no process, no option, no dialogue, no interaction, no exchange between the two schools in preparation,” said project collaborator Mejia-Rabell. “It is not just a displacement, is a displacement that has no sensibility towards the dynamic, the ties and the relationship within the community.”
According to Osorio, the installation gives students an opportunity to look at what they have lost and begin to think about education in a different way.
“(The closure) happened so suddenly. They received a letter and immediately everybody was dispatched right after that. They never had an opportunity to come full circle,” Osorio said. “I thought it was obvious that I had to bring the school directly to Tyler, a place where students, teachers and everyone could find closure.”
Mejia-Rabell said it is possible that other schools or students in the city might go through a similar situation and it is important that this be a lesson learned.
“To me what is important is that even in the most desperate times we have to empower ourselves and see that we do have an option. The option is: How do we respond? How do we manage? What do we take from this experience?” Mejia-Rabell said.
Osorio hopes that the project sparks dialogue within the community and a new perspective on education that is not under externally dictated by the school district, “but an education that reflects the culture, the needs and priorities as the community sees them.”
“I am not putting all the blame on the school district because I think that the community has the ability to demand,” Osorio said. “And the question that I am asking with this installation is ‘What are the demands?’ and ‘Where do I prioritize education in my life?’”
"reForm" opens Friday Aug. 28 at Tyler School of Art in Temple University. For more information visit reForm-project.