Monument Lab: “Reflect on history. Imagine the Future. Change the Present.”

October 21, 2017

Curators Paul M. Farber & Ken Lum spark critical social justice conversations across Philadelphia through their city-wide project and exhibition Monument Lab, which is open from September 16 – November 19. The team implemented multiple “Monument Labs” from Norris Square to Marconi Plaza to inspire viewers to question: “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” 20 artists worked to create a total of 10 prototype monuments, and one monument is displayed at each lab. Viewers are not only encouraged to view and discuss the prototype monuments, but also to submit their own ideas for a proper monument for Philadelphia. This project urges the public to discuss the social justice issues arising in our current society. Moreover, it empowers the many marginalized voices in one of the United States’ largest and most diverse cities, Philadelphia.


I had the opportunity to visit Site 03: Logan Square, and explored both the lab itself and the prototype on display. The prototype at Logan Square is a sound-oriented monument by artist Ursula Rucker to represent the voices of Philadelphia. Rucker collaborated with the Chestnut Singers and many Philadelphians to create a sound-piece that would compliment a voice recording o her poem Ode to Philly. The aim of Rucker’s work is to commemorate the city through his own thoughts in a joint effort with the general public. I’d encourage readers to listen to or read Rucker’s poem, as this particular monument can serve as a centerpiece of the project as a whole because it encapsulates the very goal of Monument Lab.


I walked into the lab; a small, approximately six by six shipping container that houses a map of the sites across Philadelphia, general information pamphlets, two informational guides that provide an interactive explanation of the project, and a pile of blank forms intended to enable participants to contribute to the project. The blank form asks participants to design a monument that they think should be displayed. Participants can draw, describe, name, and even determine a location for it in Philadelphia. This platform enables participants to really consider and highlight the issues that they believe deserves greater recognition in Philadelphia.


The prototype monuments and ideas put forth by the community portray a variety of social justice topics prevalent in Philadelphia (and the world) and led me to contemplate the issues that I would like to see highlighted. The current prototypes depict issues such as African American’s historical struggle for freedom, women’s rights, and other various systems of oppression. While it is critical to pay attention to these issues, one group I found to be very misrepresented was the children of color in Philadelphia.


While the Malcolm X Park aims to celebrate the youth of Philadelphia, artists DJ King Britt and Joshua Mays are only doing this for a one-night performance on October 14th. Furthermore, the focus will mainly be on generational legacies and a utopian future. While this is a nice idea, and it may come to life in an entirely different way on October 14th, I think that its current description fails to highlight the real issues at hand for the youth of Philadelphia. I believe that the health and education crisis of Philadelphia’s youth needs the most recognition.


Every week I drive a van of freshmen to tutor children in West Philadelphia through Villanova’s RUIBAL program. Through this program, I have learned a great deal about Philadelphia’s flawed system of healthcare and education for these children, causing them sicknesses and leading them to drop out of school or commit crimes. This healthcare and educational epidemic is drastically negating the children’s ability to succeed, and the government fails to properly explain, control, and fix the issue.


In May 2014, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health published their Community Health Assessment which included a pie chart of the determinants of health and their contribution to premature death. The chart claimed that health and premature death were determined by the following factors: 40% Behavioral Patterns, 15% Social Circumstances, 10% Health Care, 5% Environmental Exposure, and 30% Genetic Disposition. This leads people to view health and premature mortality as mainly determined by one’s genes and most notably their behavioral patterns. This leads the reader to view health and mortality as a function of one’s independent behavior. However, when the paper defines behavioral patterns, it explains how these patterns are largely if not mostly rooted in one’s socioeconomic status. In the fine print, social circumstances, health care, and environmental are completely controlled by socioeconomic status because it determines their environmental exposure, social circumstances, access to health care, and thus, behavioral patterns. Through understanding the fine print, we can see that in reality, health and premature mortality rates are not simply 15% social circumstances, but more accurately 70%. This chart paints a completely false picture of the true factors that lead to health problems and unjustly places the blame on the people rather than the system. This ideology not only affects the public’s view of healthcare, but can lead people to place the blame of crime and lack of education on the “behavior” of Philadelphia’s youth rather than the system itself.


In December 2016, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Community Health Assessment demonstrates the devastating impact of this current healthcare and educational systems on the youth of Philadelphia. Because Philadelphia tends to be very racially separated geographically, the following statistics among racial groups correlate significantly to the differences in education and healthcare among different planning districts. The 2016 Community Health Assessment shows that while only 3.9% of white, non-Hispanic report limited access to healthy foods, 10.7% of black, non-Hispanic children and 12.4% of Hispanic children report limited access. These statistics carry over into poverty rates, as 23.8% of white, non-Hispanic children live in poverty Philadelphia, while 45.9% of black, non-Hispanic children and 34.9% of Asian, non-Hispanic children live in poverty. Furthermore, over 50% of Hispanic children are living in poverty. Asthma rates and Firearm Homicide rates follow similar trends: people of color experience higher rates while White, Non-Hispanic people face much lower rates. These drastic disparities between white children and children of color are not only horrific but also demonstrate the gravity of the situation and need for attention. These children are under the age of 18, and left with no voice and little support.


It is our responsibility to use our voices to empower these marginalized voices and encourage the government and the people of Philadelphia to recognize and support these children. It is crucial to understand that these drastic differences among racial groups is not the fault of each individual group, but a systematic problem that must be confronted. Without stronger healthcare and educational systems, these children will continue to suffer. I believe that Philadelphia’s newest monument should celebrate these silenced children and call attention to the need for better systematic support through the government and greater Philadelphia community.


As students of an Augustinian University, it is our responsibility educate ourselves on these issues and use our education to its fullest capacity to help change this oppressive system. I encourage everyone to take advantage of Monument Lab to better educate themselves on the various social justice issues impacting Philadelphia, think about the issues that you are most concerned about, and contribute your own ideas to the project and society.  



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