In 2018, Leeway Foundation celebrates twenty-five years of grantmaking and community building among Philadelphia-based artists, cultural producers and organizers. We approach this milestone as an opportunity to share Leeway’s story – a story grounded in the founder's feminist principles that explore the intersection of art, culture, community, and change. Over these twenty-five years, Leeway has become more inclusive in how it defines its community in terms of who (practitioners) and what (practice) the foundation supports; initially funding women identified artists, then expanding its criteria to embrace women, trans, and gender-nonconforming artists with a vision for social change. These changes came about as a result of the vision of those in the Leeway community committed to the use of art and culture as vehicles for social change and community transformation.
To celebrate this history, we’ll highlight examples from a series of conversations and interviews about this landmark anniversary. Each month, we’ll talk to former and current staff and board members, grantees and panelists, including Leeway’s founder Linda Lee Alter and her daughter, Sara (Becker) Milly, whose path-breaking choices set a course that allowed Leeway to transform over the last twenty-five years. We hope these conversations provide some insights into the important changes that Leeway has undergone, while giving space to celebrate the individual contributions and accomplishments of a range of artists, change makers, and visionaries.
Who are you?
Denise Michelle Brown
The only child of Bernice C. Lewis and William Alfred Brown, Jr.; the eldest grandchild of Mildred, Edna, Clement and William Sr.; seeker, artist, cultural organizer and strategist; and Executive Director of the Leeway Foundation.
How would you define your relationship within Leeway’s community?
I come into the Leeway story out of my experience at Bread & Roses Community Fund with Sara Becker, who is the sort of second generation [of Leeway] as the founder’s daughter. I invited Sara to be a part of what was then called the Community Funding Board at Bread & Roses, folks from the community that were making the grant decisions. At that time I was managing the process, and folks on that committee were separated into working groups, they would review certain applications in-depth, do site visits, and then report back to the full body on decision-making day. Sara was part of a group that was looking at cultural organizations.
I think it was likely that she was already thinking about this, but I think her experience on the funding board of Bread & Roses really piqued her curiosity about community arts and transformation. So this is the early aughties, like 2002, 2003, and she was being invited to be really active in the leadership of Leeway at that time. So, it was really through her that they embarked on this process of investigating what it would mean to support women whose art was about community transformation – that was sort of how Sara framed it.
They went through a process that engaged a lot of people, they started going to national convenings where people were talking about this nexus of art and social change and social justice. Places like Alternate Roots and spaces in Philadelphia; they did focus groups with people who were institutional representatives and individual art practitioners and talked through this idea, through more convenings; and in 2003 a consulting team of three women presented what was called the program design report. It was after that that I was invited to be part of the discussions with the then-board.
I kept saying, you know, you gotta be really clear if you want to do this, this is really going to shift this organization in a lot of different ways, and if you’re not really serious about it, you shouldn’t engage it! Because at that point the conversation was really about marginalized communities, and given that the mission was explicitly about women at that point, it was more about the inclusion of people of color, or people who claim certain ethnic identities. As they moved on in the process, new staff were brought on, all who had authentic relationships and connections to the field. And the transition began bringing on certain advisors (I was one of those advisors) – setting a course to shift the organization from being this family-run foundation, this one-member structure, to more of a community-based foundation.
It wasn’t long after that that the conversation began about gender. New programs were implemented in 2005, and this idea of trans inclusion became [prevalent] in 2006. The initial shift was related generally to the criteria: we support women and trans artists doing this work. And some work was done in terms of shifting the guidelines. If we had been a different kind of organization, a different kind of family foundation, that had a larger or more entrenched board, it would have been a different set of conversations. It likely would have taken longer. So we moved from that and engaged with our first community board.
Now you have an organization that’s made this decision and commitment to this constituency, that hasn’t really trained or educated itself to engage that. And so I think in my experience of it, there was some hesitancy – we had to catch up with the commitment we made... how do you do that internally, right? At different points in the process – and we’re talking about over the course of a few years – there were things like, "oh my god, I need to review the personnel policies, to make sure they’re gender neutral." There was a lot to consider – especially in terms of the internal dynamics of the organization. How do we not continue to marginalize folks – that became part of the process. It had to be more than, “we’re saying that this constituency can apply for a grant,” but, “how do we create the same space for everyone?” And also to not think about Leeway as a trans organization; I guess we could say it’s a feminist organization that funds women and trans artists, right? I’m using feminist right now, I don’t know if we’ll come up with something else – maybe it’s about looking at gender inclusivity in a different way. And holding that as well – so the work becomes about how to build community from those constituencies.
What role has Leeway played in your own evolution?
I think of Leeway as an incubator kind of space. We can be experimental, and I want to be able to expand while maintaining that. But that’s a question for the future. The experience of how much I’ve grown in my time here really moves me, and thinking about what a privilege it is, really, truly. I think I have this way of talking about Leeway as a learning community or at least that’s kind of how I’d like to envision it. And the learning is for everyone who’s involved with the organization. It’s not the notion of what we give grantees, its sort of what – what is everyone involved in this organization bringing to it?
So, that’s staff, board, interns, and volunteers, right? And what is each of us learning? I always say to people who work here that the goal is to support everyone’s leadership development because it’s ultimately not about Leeway. You know what I mean? In this way it’s sort of like, we’re all passing through, right? If there’s a way in which this organization can support your growth as a community leader, that you then go off and do remarkable things in other spaces, in other communities, it’s all good! So I think we can provide that kind of grounding for people, to sort of test things out about themselves.
I think for me, I found my voice in a setting and an organization [that] was primarily an all women’s organization. It was a really safe space for me to experiment with my leadership and my voice and all – and explore conflict and all that stuff. I think it was really important for me to create something similar here. We don’t and can’t always agree about everything – that’s an unrealistic expectation. But when you know, when you push back, just have thought it through! You know what I mean? Anything is possible! So creating that is always really exciting to me.
If Leeway was a playlist, what song would you be?
Hmmm… I’m Every Woman. The Chaka version of course!