Who are you?
I'm Ezra Berkley Nepon. I write, make theater, and perform. The most tangible version of my writing is two books: Dazzle Camouflage: Spectacular Theatrical Strategies for Resistance and Resilience (2016) and Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda (2012). Lately, my creative writing and performance has mostly been about devising and producing theatrical productions around the Jewish holidays of Purim and Sukkot, with my local Jewish Voice for Peace chapter. I'm passionate about musical theater, Jewish theater and comedy histories (and current developments), theater design choices, and a theatrical methodology of Ethnographic Surrealism developed by Jenny Romaine (referencing a concept developed by scholar/historian James Clifford). My writing has often been non-fiction, often documenting subcultural Jewish and queer/trans stories, but my hope is to shift more into the realm of magical realism that I feel myself moving towards.
In another part of my life, there's a theme of organizing around moving money, which also brings me into relationship with Leeway. Many (20!) years ago this looked like co-founding a small public foundation called The Self-Education Foundation, which brought me into relationship with the early young donor organizing work of Resource Generation, while also learning/practicing fundraising skills through ACT UP Philly, the Philadelphia Direct Action Network, and then R2K Legal following the 2000 Republican National Convention protests, arrests, and legal battles. Over about seven years, Self-Education Foundation raised and distributed over $30,000 in small grants and served as fiscal sponsor for many other programs. My fundraising trajectory lead to working as Director of Grassroots Fundraising at Sylvia Rivera Law Project for three years in NYC, and then at William Way LGBT Center when I came back to Philly. Since 2016, I serve as Program Officer of Global Philanthropy Project, a collaboration of funders and philanthropic advisors working to expand global philanthropic support to advance the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in the Global South and East.
What is your relationship to the Leeway community?
I received an ACG grant in 2007, which supported a research process that resulted in a play called "Between Two Worlds: Who Loved You Before You Were Mine." In 2014, I received the Transformation Award, which I used in part to complete and publish my Dazzle Camouflage book. I also applied for the LTA in 2013 and didn't receive it - so sharing this reminder that it can be worth the effort to receive feedback and keep applying!
Over the years, I've worked with Leeway in a few other ways: co-facilitating a workshop with Yaba Blay on crowdfunding strategy; being a Change Partner to other grantees a few times; hosting workshops and other cultural events for a few different groups in the Leeway meeting space; last year I was one of three members of the grant advisory committee for the WOO grants; and a few days ago I co-hosted the Changemakers Cabaret with Catzie Vilayphonh (ACG ’14, 10, LTA ’10, WOO ’02). Mostly my relationship to this is that I LOVE being part of the Leeway community, LOVE being part of this network of transformative, creative, brilliant world changers.
How has Leeway played a role in your evolution? (And how have you seen Leeway evolve in your time involved in the community?)
I was somewhere on the fringes of the Leeway transition processes that included hiring Denise [Brown] as Director and clarifying its values around both racial justice and trans inclusion -- I remember I would hear little pieces of update about it from friends closer to the work. Through my Self-Education Foundation grantmaking and fundraising work and through fundraising for the RNC protests, I had met Denise in her role at Bread and Roses Fund and basically begged her for advice - I really remember her generosity at that time, and I had experienced her powerful leadership. I knew that her new role at Leeway would be a gamechanger in the possibilities of this organization as a resource for Philadelphia. I didn't really know it would have such an impact on my own life. I remember that Matty Hart (who I still work closely with) helped me strategize about applying for the ACG grant I received, explaining that I could ask for funding for a research phase and didn't have to know the whole project yet. It was mind-blowing to me that an institution would trust artist’s process that way. Receiving the grant was deeply affirming, and lead to one of the most important creative processes in my life, which continues to have ripple effects now over 10 years later. Later, Leeway invited me to a "Learn more about the LTA process" event designed to encourage ACG grantees to apply for the Transformation Award - I wouldn't have applied without that encouragement. The application process and receiving the award enabled me to shift the ways I take myself seriously as an artist.
Where do you see Leeway going in the next 25 years?
Leeway really is a radical model in the world of philanthropy. From where I sit in conversations about global funding flows, it's clear that this is a very special, transformative community and that the story would be impactful across many circles. I would love to see Leeway's leadership expand across bigger regional, national, and international stages over the coming years.
If Leeway were a playlist, what song would you be?
The first that comes to mind is "22nd Century", which is a powerful, prophetic song written and first recorded by Bahamian musician Exuma in 1971 and also recorded by Nina Simone in that year, which foretells a timeline of simultaneous cataclysm and liberation from the 1970s through the end of the 21st Century. I first heard the song being sung by Justin Vivian Bond in the mid-2000s and it has always cracked something open for me, and I think it really tells different layers of a story across the different artists singing it.