Funded by an initial gift from Philadelphia-based artist Linda Lee Alter in 1993, Leeway Foundation was established “to promote the welfare of women and to benefit the arts” in the five-county Philadelphia area and “encourage their increased recognition and representation in the arts community.” The foundation’s current commitment to funding women, trans, and gender-nonconforming artists and cultural producers creating work at the intersections of art, culture, and social change came about as the result of the foundation’s intention of finding ways to more fully live out its mission.
In the late 1990s Leeway’s leadership began to engage with artists who were actively working toward community transformation, and over time began to reflect on how the foundation might support this work and express its commitment to art as a vehicle for achieving social change. Inspired by regional and national organizations and activist groups that were dedicated to working at this intersection and to making the connection between art, culture, and social change, as well as board and staff who believed in the powerful potential of this link, Leeway’s leadership saw an opportunity for the foundation to contribute to larger movements for social justice by supporting artists and cultural practitioners.
In 2002 Leeway embarked on a review of its grant policies and programs that led to a program redesign process and a set of recommendations for refocusing the foundation’s programs in 2003. As a result of this work, two new grant programs — the Art and Change Grant and the Transformation Award — were introduced in 2005.
With the shift in focus and active commitment to work at the intersection of art and social change through community transformation, Leeway’s leadership turned its gaze inward and began an examination of its institutional policies and practices. Over the next few years and with the active engagement and support of the Leeway community (its donor family, board of directors, advisory council, staff, artists, activists, and community partners) and other supporters in the region and beyond, the foundation transformed from an almost exclusively white, woman-focused foundation to one that engages people of color in positions of influence; committed to a process of examining the dynamics of race in organizational relationships, practices, policies, and programs; changed the governance and decision-making authority from a family-run, one-member structure to a board comprising community members committed to an active framework of personal and political transformation, including former grant and award recipients; and in 2006 expanded the eligibility criteria to include trans* and gender nonconforming artists as an extension of the foundation’s feminist roots, which were grounded in its efforts to support artists underrepresented because of their gender.
Today, as Leeway continues to explore ways to build new partnerships, deepen relationships, strengthen existing alliances, and engage with its mission, vision, and values, it continues to move forward and push itself to refine its vision and deepen its social impact with the hope that other funders, organizations, and communities might be inspired to take their own paths to transformation.
*Leeway is a trans-affirming organization committed to gender self-determination, and we use the term “trans” in its most inclusive sense, as an umbrella term encompassing transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, Two-Spirit people, and anyone whose gender identity or gender expression is nonconforming and/or different from their gender assigned at birth.