Last week, Seattle-based writer, organizer and educator Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha was announced as one of 20 members of the inaugural Disability Futures Fellowship cohort, which includes individual $50,000 fellowships for this group of disabled artists and practitioners.

Piepzna-Samarasinha is the author of “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice” and poetry collections like “Tonguebreaker,” and they are co-editor of “Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement,” along with a memoir. Their literary work is vital and transformative, but it is only one arm of their deep, dedicated work in the disability justice space.

As such, they had mixed feelings about the grant.

To be sure, the Disability Futures Fellowship, funded by the Ford Foundation, acts as a major new resource for people who often live and work in chronically underfunded spaces. But disability justice, like all social justice, has a tenuous relationship with capitalism, the writer and activist said. And philanthropy exists because of capitalism, and the wealth gaps it creates.

“I’m an abolitionist, brown, disabled feminist who is aware of the effect the Ford Foundation has had on funding and then withdrawing funding from and destabilizing movements I’m aligned with and a part of, like INCITE! Feminists of Color Against Violence,” Piepzna-Samarasinha said. “As disabled people, our biggest power is in our relationships with each other. Disability justice so far has been a largely unfunded and grassroots funded movement, and my biggest concern is that this money would harm our relationships with each other.”

But, the writer said, as they weighed the pros and cons of applying, they made a complex decision to go for it. “I like and respect what [fellowship administrator] Deana Haggag is doing at United States Artists as a disabled, North African femme arts administrator, to get money to under- or nonfunded communities of artists.”

The role of philanthropy will always be complicated, and in the U.S., there is almost no arts funding at all, let alone specifically for disabled artists.

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“Some of my friends said, ‘There’s no such thing as nondirty money,’ which I agree with up to a point, but I also think there are ethical lines I will not cross,” Piepzna-Samarasinha continues. “A central tenet of disability justice … is, ‘We move together, with no one left behind.’ This has to be a daily practice.”

Seattle-based writer and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is among the 2020 cohort of the Disability Futures Fellowship, which includes 20 individual $50,000 grants for artists with disabilities working in the United States. 
Image description: Wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt with a shark graphic, a Sri Lankan, Roma and Irish nonbinary femme with tan skin, curly shoulder-length turquoise and gray hair, purple lipstick and tattooed arms, smiles brightly at the camera in front of a blooming jasmine vine. (Jesse Manuel Graves)
Seattle-based writer and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is among the 2020 cohort of the Disability Futures Fellowship, which includes 20 individual $50,000 grants for artists with disabilities working in the United States. Image description: Wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt with a shark graphic, a Sri Lankan, Roma and Irish nonbinary femme with tan skin, curly shoulder-length turquoise and gray hair, purple lipstick and tattooed arms, smiles brightly at the camera in front of a blooming jasmine vine. (Jesse Manuel Graves)

Part of this ethos involves building lateral power, and talking a lot with the community, Piepzna-Samarasinha said. “[My friends and I] talked about how if we didn’t apply, the money would likely go to white disabled artists who weren’t having these same conversations and responsibilities to our communities. We talked about how we needed the money — for tens of thousands of dollars of medical, student loan and other debt, rent, survival and also to just maybe write for a while without working three jobs. It’s not lost on me that mainstream, white, abled, straight writers mostly don’t have these conversations.”

Piepzna-Samarasinha, who has also lived in Canada, said the comparison between available funding across the border is stark. Much more arts funding is available in Canada, including arts funding specifically allocated for disabled practitioners.

But Piepzna-Samarasinha is putting their fellowship funds to use with the same ethos that drives their art and activism work. “I am redistributing some of my fellowship and working on using some of the rest of it to buy a house on land where I can create a small, accessible writing retreat for BIPOC writers,” they said, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color. “I’m a writer who is part of a collective movement and I want this funding to support the ‘we,’ not just the me.”

This new fellowship is co-funded by the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and administered by United States Artists. It is “designed to increase the visibility of disabled creative practitioners across disciplines and geography, and elevate their voices individually and collectively.”

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It is the only national award for disabled practitioners.

The fellowship’s recipients were nominated by peer disabled artists and cultural leaders across the country. Fellows can use the funds as they see fit to advance their practice. The Ford and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations, according to representatives, were looking for ways to respectfully and directly fund disabled practitioners, which was one reason they partnered with United States Artists.

“Arts are a fundamental human expression,” said Emil Kang, who oversees the arts program at Andrew W. Mellon. “Institutional structures don’t serve disabled artists. As a funder we should be better advocates. There is no justice without disability justice.”

Margaret Morton of the Ford Foundation agrees.

“Our vision was to create a program that lifted up these artists and practitioners to be in community with each other, as well as raising the visibility of voices that have not been heard by virtue of inequality,” Morton said, and to “have and impact among funders.”

“Intersectional and diverse representation was something we were mindful of, across geography,” Morton continues. “We want to learn from fellows and their frank transparency about what they valued and what they didn’t want, and build on that.”

Piepzna-Samarasinha laid out their values in the context of this new grant.

“My vision for the future: I want the many rich worlds of disabled BIPOC/queer/trans writers, artists and activism that already exist to be supported and thriving, on our own terms,” they said. “We already do an incredible job of supporting each other as peers and mentors. My vision of success for us is not for us to be seen as the next target market for corporations to tokenize, exploit and divide from each other.”

Hopefully, the Disability Futures Fellowship will help bring this vision to the wider arts and justice landscape.