Alumnae Alex Strada '16 and Tali Keren '16 Continue Lecture-Performance Series, 'Fictive Witness'

BY Angeline Dimambro, December 3, 2020

Tali Keren '16 (left) and Adjunct Assistant Professor Alex Strada '16 (right)

Adjunct Assistant Professor Alex Strada ’16 and Tali Keren ’16 continued their lecture-performance series, Fictive Witness, with a presentation from interdisciplinary scholar Noliwe Rooks called Accounting for Integration. Strada is an artist and educator based in New York City. Her work has been shown internationally at venues including the Socrates Sculpture Park, Anthology Film Archives, Museum of Moving Image, Goethe-Institut, and more. She holds an MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University and was a 2018-19 studio participant in the Whitney Independent Study Program. Most recently, Strada was a recipient of the 2020 NYFA Women’s Fund for her documentary short, truths. Keren also holds an MFA in Visual Art from Columbia and is a media artist and educator based in New York. Her performances, videos, and installations focus on the formation of violence, ideology and political identity. Keren’s recent solo exhibitions include The Great Seal at Eyebeam, New York and at the Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv; and Heat Signature at Ludlow 38, MINI Goethe Institute, New York.

 

Together, Strada and Keren created the Fictive Witness series, which first debuted at the Goethe-Institut in 2018. “The series uses our film, Save the Presidents, as a point of departure. Structured over the course of a day, the film depicts a field of cracked and decaying presidential monuments and the manual labor that takes place around them. We see these cracks as fissures of opportunity to unpack oppressed American histories and to politically imagine what else might be possible. For each performance, we invite a different speaker to present a layer of narration over the film that speaks to themes that lay beneath its surface.” At the latest iteration of the series, Rooks delivered a lecture centered on the history of public education in America. Rooks is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, a Professor in Africana Studies, an affiliate faculty member in the Center for Inequality Studies, and a faculty fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell. Her most recent book, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the end of Public Education, was awarded a Hurston/Wright non-fiction book award, and explores the long history of profiting from the undereducation of non-white children in the United States.

 

For the lecture-performance, Strada and Keren’s film Save the Presidents played simultaneously alongside Rooks’ lecture, which was audio-only. “I have long argued that in the US, land and greed, and notions of racial and ethnic superiority and inferiority are foundational to the educational system. I have likeweise argued that this unequal system generates profit from the chronic undereducation of non-white children.” In Cutting School, Rooks “urged us as a nation to notice that education integration is the only wide-spread, systemic response to unequal education that has, when given a chance, worked.” Since publishing the book, Rooks has spent time talking with predominantly Black, Puerto Rican, and Chicano communities to discuss the “educational apartheird their children experience.” In these conversations, many asked Rooks how integration could help address educational inequality when in their experience, their children have suffered significant trauma at predominantly white schools, and by their white teachers. “I have now heard this question so many times and in so many ways that it has led me to think in more complex ways about the reasoning and mechanics of how and why we integrate, and how and who segregated schools harm.”

 

In response to Rooks’ lecture, Whitney Stephenson, student and co-founder of Teens Take Charge, gave a brief presentation on the work she has been part of. Teens Take Charge members “study present-day educational inequity, its historical roots, develop policy matter proposals to address specific problems, and lead advocacy campaigns targeting the city and school officials with the ability to enact their solutions.” Stephenson immigrated to the US as a child at age four, and while she had already entered a school system in Jamaica when she was young, Stephenson’s mother struggled to place her in a school in New York. More than that, there was little support or guidance from the public school system to help her mother. “The way that [my mother] received information was word of mouth—other family members, people in the neighborhood. It was so important that our community in Harlem was truly one that helped us in different ways.” Later, when Stephenson was in high school, she was asked to share her thoughts about school segregation and inequality for The Bell’s podcast. During the podcast, Stephenson was asked if she had any white friends: “I was surprised at how hard that question was to answer, and I expressed how the only white people I knew were my teachers. In that reflection, I realized, Why is that? Why is it that my school population was predominantly Black and Brown, and our teacher population was majority white, revealing that I don’t have a reflection in the people that I see who are teaching me, and a place I did see as diverse isn’t actually diverse.” This led Stephenson and other students to team up with the podcast to share stories of their experiences at the Bronx Public Library in an event titled “To Whom it Should Concern.” Teens Take Charge has continued to transform and grow in the years since their launch event.

 

You can find a complete recording of the event on the Goethe-Institut website. The series will continue with another lecture-performance on December 12, featuring Native Studies scholar Shari Huhndorf. More information can be found here.