20 Artists In Inaugural Class Of Disability Futures Fellows Receive $50,000 Grants

Oct 14, 2020
Originally published on October 14, 2020 4:04 pm

Riva Lehrer is a painter who reimagines "socially challenged" bodies with often fantastical imagery. John Lee Clark, a DeafBlind poet, is a leader in the Protactile movement, a language that communicates through touch. Tourmaline is a filmmaker whose work explores "the capacity" of Black queer/trans social life "to impact the world."

These are some of the artists in the inaugural class of Disability Futures Fellows, a new initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford Foundations (both donors to NPR). All 20 artists will each receive unrestricted grants of $50,000. The fellows work in a range of disciplines including architecture, dance, multimedia and journalism.

Back Power Naps, 2019, is an elaborate arrangement of plush beds and bean bags in a spacious, black box theater by interdisciplinary artist Navild Acosta. "The deliberate fragmentation of restorative sleep patterns was used to subjugate and extract labor from enslaved people ..." Acosta writes. And today, "a state of constant fatigue is used to break our will."
Da Ping Luo / Performance Space New York/Cultural Counsel

You might call this initiative part of a reckoning within the Ford Foundation. Darren Walker, its president, was candid in a 2016 blog post when he said the Foundation had not been considering, "people with disabilities in our broader conversations about inequality" and vowed to "redress an issue we didn't get right."

The learning curve was steep, according to Margaret Morton, Director of Creativity and Free Expression at Ford. She says, while the Disability Futures Fellows is part of a broader goal to "pierce the veil of who counts," they took about a year to listen and research what would most benefit disabled practitioners.

"We really didn't have the language or tools that we needed to engage with this community," says Morton. So they formed a group of about 60 advisors, many of them disabled practitioners themselves. Among the lessons learned: It's better to say "disabled" than "people with disabilities." "Access" doesn't just mean building a ramp. They also relied on this group for nominations.

The Sound of Obsessing is a 2020 large vinyl print filled with hand-drawn "P"s by Christine Sun Kim. "When people obsess over something, they return to it over and over again in their mind," Kim writes. "There's a rhythm to it. As time goes on, the obsession quickens, represented by the shrinking distance of p's. Finally, at the end, the p's are crowded and your mind is racing non-stop."
Peter Harris Studio / MIT List Visual Arts Center/Cultural Counsel

"We really are indebted to that process that was not top-down but came from the community itself," she says.

For fellow Rodney Evans, the best part of the Ford/Mellon initiative is "no strings attached." Evans is a filmmaker whose work includes the documentary Vision Portraits. He says the unrestricted grant allows him and the other recipients the chance, "to hone our craft any way we see fit."

Tourmaline's 2017 short film Atlantic is a Sea of Bones follows performer Egypt LaBeija in the '80s, '90s and 2000s in New York City.
Cultural Counsel

While one in four U.S. adults live with a disability, a 2019 study by the organization RespectAbility found that 75 percent of philanthropists and nonprofits said they wanted to include disabled people in their work but didn't know how. Evans thinks this fellowship could be a "watershed moment."

"It's maybe proof that disability has now officially entered the diversity and inclusion conversation," he says. "And that funders kind of understand that and are stepping up to the plate."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The head of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, was candid when he said in 2016 that Ford had not been considering, quote, "people with disabilities in our broader conversations about inequality." Well, today Ford, along with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, announced that 20 disabled artists, filmmakers and journalists will each receive $50,000 grants. Ford and Mellon, we should mention, are also donors to NPR. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more on this program, the Disability Futures Fellows.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: One of the fellows is poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. This is her poem "Cripstory".

LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA: (Reading) You don't read about the freak show, the ugly laws, the million indigenous words for disability that have nothing bad in them. You just know your brain's weird, and you can't ride a bike. And you fall down in the shower and get sick all the time and see visions, and you're lucky to have bad HMO health insurance - cripstory.

BLAIR: To get this program right, the staff at the Ford and Mellon foundations realized they had a lot to learn, says Margaret Morton, Ford's director of creativity and free expression.

MARGARET MORTON: We really didn't have the language or tools that we needed to engage with this community.

BLAIR: They formed a group of about 60 advisers, including disabled practitioners themselves, and spent about a year listening and doing research. They learned that these days, it's better to say disabled than people with disabilities. And access doesn't just mean building a ramp. They also relied on this group for nominations.

MORTON: We really are indebted to that process, you know, that was not top-down but really came from the community itself.

BLAIR: Filmmaker Rodney Evans is one of the fellows. His documentary "Vision Portraits" is a kind of first-person exploration of what it means to be an artist who is partially blind.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VISION PORTRAITS")

RODNEY EVANS: I think I'm trying to figure out what it means to work as a filmmaker where vision seems so central, you know, knowing that mine will eventually go away.

BLAIR: Evans says the unrestricted grant will allow him to hone his craft any way he sees fit. A recent study by the organization RespectAbility found that 75% of foundations and nonprofits surveyed said they wanted to include disabled people in what they do but didn't know how. Filmmaker Rodney Evans thinks that could be changing.

EVANS: If anything, it's maybe proof that disability has now, you know, officially entered the diversity and inclusion conversation and that funders kind of understand that and are stepping up to the plate.

BLAIR: As one adviser to the fellowship put it, having big players like Ford and Mellon in the game might inspire others to follow.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.