upcoming grant deadline: 03/01/2019

upcoming grant deadline: 03/01/2019

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Leeway @ 25: Interview with Sara Milly (formerly Sara Becker)

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?

In relation to Leeway, I’m the daughter of the founder, and I was at one point board chair. I am trained as a writer (I’m not currently writing but that’s part of who I am). In my more recent years, I have come to think about art, for me– not so much as identifying as this kind of artist or that kind of artist, or as having a particular kind of artistic training, but in my own life, there is no boundary between art and my deepest sense of expressing who I am. I am not a dancer, but I love dancing, so the way art most actively operates for me is as a way of being most fully human. As far as my communities, I am definitely aware of being privileged in just about every possible way, and I guess that’s part of my history with Leeway. I am a straight, rich, white lady!

Can you tell the Leeway story from your perspective? How do you see your role in the Leeway community and family?

I don’t really think I can tell much of the story from after I left, so I wouldn’t presume to tell any of that. And I can only tell my point of view. So, the part that I would tell: my mother started Leeway because she wanted to do something for women and the arts. And there’s a history in our family, like with her parents, of generosity – some impulse to give back in some sort of way. She wanted to do something for women in the arts because she identifies as a woman artist. So, she started this foundation as a one-member family foundation, I think partly out of family history. And she brought on a lawyer and an accountant and I think a friend or two, and me because I was her daughter. So, I was not really interested at the beginning – I was sort of like, “whatever, my mom’s doing this thing!”

And then two things happened, one was the executive director at the time put me in touch with Bread and Roses, maybe in the hope of keeping me more interested in what was going on? [Laughs] And, at another point, somewhat later, my mother asked me if I would be president, and I felt like it was sort of my obligation because of having benefitted from being my mother’s daughter. But it wasn’t clear how what I cared about and what Leeway was doing were going to match for me – that was my main concern. There was a bunch of strategic planning, and what was articulated was that, really at the heart of both my mother’s drive and my interest was this sense that injustice around gender and the desire for inclusion really mattered to my mother and me. So, we started to look at it more in terms of social justice, or whatever else you want to call that. And that was something that, if I hadn’t been connected to Bread and Roses and, at that time, Spiral Q Puppet Theater, I wouldn’t even have known how to remotely think about, let alone how to articulate, that work.

So, we started to look at grants in terms of what was happening, if people actually had financial need, what was the need of people getting grants, and then there were changes. It was not an easy transition. My mother decided to have me become president – I guess she had a vision for me! But otherwise, I wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice. There was the question of, how do we as a group – none of us had thought deeply about social justice or community stuff – so how do we, coming from different places, where none of us have thought about this, suddenly do this? And as part of all this, there was basically a total turnover of staff – and that was major, and often painful.

Barbara Silzle was executive director during most of the transition during the time I was there. She was a huge part of what made me able to function as board chair. She was completely behind helping Leeway realize the new vision, and she really helped get the board to a place where they were willing to trust and engage in the change process. At Bread and Roses, Denise became someone I was close with because I was working with the community funding board, and she was doing work with that board. And she and Matty Hart from Spiral Q really helped us move through something that basically no one on the board had any real experience with. And then new staff came on, and they were all amazing in their own ways, and it was a complicated mix of people.

I had a great desire for justice, and a lot of confusion and ignorance and guilt – and because Leeway needed to do this stuff, there were all of these trainings, I got to learn more, which I felt was amazing. And of course, learning is always a process, but it was amazing. A lot of personal transformation happened for the people on the board.

Denise was kind of standing behind during the time I was there, but obviously has emerged since then! But if Denise hadn’t talked to me individually during the final stages of the anti-racism training, then I think everything might have fallen apart. I mean, she was really able to see beyond what people there at the time were doing and have conversations that other people couldn’t have.

Also, doing this interview and thinking about Leeway’s anniversary, I can’t help feeling deeply about [former Leeway board member] Jennie Sike’s profound contribution, and her very recent death and want to express how very present she is in my heart.

So, it sounds like those moments and those trainings were really transformational for you. What happened for you at this point, in terms of being in a position of leadership at Leeway?

I feel like what happened to me in having found myself the president of Leeway was probably an extremely unusual situation to begin with. I mean, utterly not wanting to lead, but feeling a sense of obligation – I didn’t really have leadership skills, and I didn’t make the money, so I didn’t have money-making skills at all, so I was just this person from a family with money who found themselves president of this foundation. That was weird--and fortunate in a way, because I never wanted to hold on to any kind of power, I always felt I was the wrong person to have it. I mean that was sort of in line with my mother’s thinking, but it wasn’t structured that way. It was really just a question of, like, how do you make the transition to having the people who Leeway is designed to benefit be the same people who lead? And then, you know, even if you do have that clear intention, there’s the question of “are you guys really sincere?” And then beyond that, there was still a lot buried history: even if you’re completely sincere, there’s the foundational beliefs and structures of power that the foundation grew out of, so even if it’s moving there’s still this history.

Conceptually, it wasn’t hard for me or my mother [to let go of the money and decision-making power]. We’re both control freaks, it’s true, but control freaks about our personal space, not about the world. [Laughs.] I think we both have a lot of experiences of helplessness and oppression of ourselves, even though we’re both super privileged. It’s always been really important to both of us to make sure that we each do as much as we can to lessen that, (though it’s not as if we don’t also perpetuate it with our ignorance)! But when it came to the money, there wasn’t a lot to talk about! I mean the transition with the board and staff, that was super, super hard. You know, because you have this idea, but then there are all of these amazing people who are trying to work through this difficult transition and it brings up everybody’s conscious and unconscious stuff. So, there were some interpersonal challenges. I wasn’t there for that whole transition, but I felt like it was hard for the facilitation team to hold the dynamics in the room. All of the people in the room were not necessarily feeling safe or able to express themselves.

At what point did you feel like you could look at Leeway and say, I feel good handing off this organization?

I mean, I think Denise had a huge amount to do with that. In that moment, Denise was the only person who was able to speak to everybody. This is my view, but I felt that Denise was the only person who could talk to everyone. So, I felt like we were moving in the right direction, and that my being there was making things harder. It wasn’t helping for me to stay at that point.

How would you see Leeway playing a role in your own personal transformation?

It was huge, it was just huge. I so didn’t want any part of it, and it sort of like put my life into a crazy place, but everything that I love the most right now is because I went through that! I can’t even imagine what my life would be like without that experience. Because I had had this desire for rightness or justice or love, but I had absolutely no analysis of what that was or how that related to anything in the world. I was pretty much like, “let’s just all be nice to each other,” and Leeway gave me an opportunity to have really difficult conversations with people who were different than myself, begin to think systemically, and question just about everything about who I thought I was and what I valued.

What would you like to see in the next 25 years for Leeway?

You know, I’m just thrilled to think about the people who are here now, asking those questions. I think back to fifteen years ago and who was asking then, and the people asking now are people I only had the foggiest vision of fifteen years ago. I feel like there is an intention to continue to cultivate inclusiveness and justice and art – you know, art in the sense of broadly defined expressions of creativity and humanity. I see that as evolving and deepening and expanding, not in the sense of getting unfocused, but as it is lived and as people who are currently holding that charge. Because, who you are and where you all come from – it’s like a river of people! It’s not like there’s one group of people, and then bam, another group of people, but it’s like a flow of people, and that flow of people is embodying and holding – this flow will bring it to the next stage in a really beautiful way.

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

There’s this song – I think its origins are African, I don’t actually know beyond where I encountered it, but it was really helpful for me in the space I was in [when I worked with Leeway]. I went to Alternate Roots – that was my favorite conference I ever went to when I was at Leeway. They were singing this song – the version of it that moved me went: “We are going/ Heaven knows where we are going/ But we know within/ And we’ll get there/ Heaven knows how we will get there/ But we know we will.” (the song is Woyaya written by Ghanaian drummer Sol Amarifio), It really moved me because I had a feeling that something was possible, but I had no idea how to do it, and knew we were not the people to do it – but it was like, “let’s just aim ourselves in this direction, and see what happens.”

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Leeway Transformation Award

The Transformation Award provides unrestricted annual awards of $15,000 to women and trans* artists and cultural producers living in greater Philadelphia who create art for social change and have done so for the past five years or more, demonstrating a long-term commitment to social change work. [read more]

deadline 05/15
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