upcoming grant deadline: 03/01/2018

upcoming grant deadline: 03/01/2018

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Leeway @ 25: Celena Morrison

Leeway @ 25: Interview with Celena Morrison

In 2018, Leeway Foundation celebrates twenty-five years of grantmaking and community building among Philadelphia-based artists, cultural producers and organizers. To celebrate, we're highlighting some of the change makers and visionaries within Leeway's community who have helped to set the course for Leeway's own transformation.

Who are you?

I am a very down-to-earth country girl that came to the city. I was a little uneducated about the community that I was actually a part of, due to being from the south. I rose above the barriers that continued to marginalize me, and now I am the woman I knew I had the potential to be. That’s an advocate, sometimes an activist (occasionally), an educator, a sister, a mother figure to some. I guess in a nutshell, I never really know who the day is going to call for me to be, and I try to conform to what is needed because I tend to feel the need to want to please, and to want to help, and to want to satisfy, and to want to put a smile on people’s faces, and so there are times I can be very catering. That causes me sometimes to be a sort of shape-shifter.

How did you come to do the advocacy work that you do today?

Well, a lot of people don’t know this, but I was working for a trucking company before I started doing this work. And doing that work I dealt with a lot of sexualization – there was a lot of sexual harassment. And I don’t know! I wanted a change, so my mind began wandering to, you know, what else can I do? I wanted to give back and I wanted to do something meaningful, so I started to volunteer at the Trans Health Conference. So that was my first step into the nonprofit realm. My volunteering with the conference gave me insight into what was going on. And I was only a room monitor, and no one told me that – I wasn’t expecting to have to say anything like that, but the person who was actually conducting or facilitating the workshop, wanted an introduction! [Laughs] So I had to welcome people and do a little talking and then introduce this person and I was like, okay… You know, I didn’t know if that’s how things were typically done at the conference or not!

So after that, someone approached me and was like, have you ever done this kind of work? You know, speaking in front of crowds and stuff like that. And I was like, no. And they were like, “I like you and your personality – I have a position that may be coming available soon,” and it was at Mazzoni Center. And that was my first experience. That’s what got me into it. Several months went by because at the time there wasn’t a position available. So, I went back to my little trucking job, and I would look for ways to volunteer and do little things with the homeless and stuff. But I got hired at the Mazzoni Center to do part-time outreach work. From there, I started to do just outreach, then we had Sisterly Love and I facilitated that, and I learned how to put together a workshop, and do presentations and all that stuff. As time went on I just wanted to learn more and more, and the more I got involved, the more I saw a need for, you know, folks from our own community to get involved.

How did you come to be involved in the Leeway community?

It was during the time early on, when I was working at the Mazzoni Center and the Trans Wellness Project received a grant from Bread & Roses [Community Fund]. That was my initial introduction to the community, and then I started to attend the networking events that Leeway would have. I would kind of keep up, because I was really intrigued by the organization when I went to an event that was focused on women artists that were incarcerated. And being from the south, I continued to be so intrigued by all the resources and the events and the things that trans folks were actually included in. And I remember seeing that there were trans women included in that exhibit and in that program, and it put a warm spot in my heart.

And then, on top of that, I started to engage with the folks who work at the organization. I was like, “these folks are really amazing!” And it made me want to learn more, it made me want to engage with them more. I would try to be at their events that they would have where people from the community come and talk about the work that they were doing. I was always wanting to find a way to work with them or to engage with the organization, even though I’m not an artist. But I’ve always been a fan of the work that Leeway has done.

And this past year (2017) I finally got the opportunity to meet Lee Alter (Leeway founder). And that was exciting! So, I developed a real love for Leeway and the people that work there. I was invited to Lee’s apartment for an event to talk about the things going on at William Way. It was a small little networking thing with about 12 of us – we talked about programs at William Way and what brought us there, because Lee sits on our arts committee. It was a really really nice event! And her apartment was nothing short of amazing. It was really close-knit and personal – it was one of the best things that I was a part of in 2017. Because she showed us some of her art, and she told us some of the stories that were behind the pieces she showed us, and I got the feeling that I was experiencing something that not a lot of people get to experience because I know for artists it’s really personal to invite people into their space. So, to be a part of that really spoke volumes to me – furthering my love for Leeway!

How has Leeway played a role in your own evolution?

When I first started doing this work and I started attending events at Leeway, um, I really didn’t know what I was doing [laughs.] I didn’t really have a lot of experience in advocacy work. I didn’t know much about being an activist. I knew right from wrong. I knew how to express my feelings. But, I didn’t know much about networking. Attending those networking events at Leeway helped me get comfortable with talking about the work that I was doing to people that I didn’t know. And also, being able to talk and be comfortable in my skin, with my experience or lack thereof compared to others in the room. And I never felt less-than – and that also spoke volumes to me.

You know, it meant a lot to me that I was in there with people with degrees and had been on their jobs for many years and all of these experiences, and they’re well off and all of these things that I don’t have a history of being or experiencing or having. But it didn’t matter in that room. You know, we were there to talk about the work that we’re doing and to possibly see overlapping opportunities and opportunities to help our communities. And that’s what was – that was awesome to me. And it made me want to keep coming back.

If Leeway was a playlist, what song would you be?

It may not make sense to you, but it’s such a feel-good song for me, and it kind of describes the feeling that I get when I’m at Leeway. It’s “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. That song just fills me with – I don’t know I just feel so clean and happy! And that’s the way I feel when I’m at Leeway. 

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