SEF history

Young author Billy Wimsatt’s article “How I Got My DIY Degree” appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of Utne Reader.  Hundreds of people replied, a few sent money, some sent long letters, most said “let me know what happens!”

I try to support those organizations I believe in, and Billy was talking about something I was actually doing myself. To hear a name and definition put to it was a godsend.”  –Rae B., 25, Los Angeles, CA

I don’t usually give money to causes, but I think the Self-Education Foundation is a good idea. It has the potential to help so many people.” –Herman L., 17, West Lafayette, IN

It burns me up that there is so much discrimination against people who don’t have a degree. There are plenty of well-qualified individuals who get passed over for promotions strictly because they didn’t get a degree. So many successful people are self-educated. College does not ensure success, and there is a wealth of information to access without spending the big bucks to get it.”  –Nora O., 23, NYC

Billy and Emily Nepon decided to start up the organization for real. Karl Muth and Adriyel Paymer were in the founding crew. Karl had been raising money for SEF ever since he met Billy a year before, and Adriyel was our first self-educated webmaster — a life-long homeschooler who had met Billy at Not Back To School Camp. We gave out our first small awards, $100 each to twelve groups and then $500 each to six groups.

Later that year, Billy’s book No More Prisons came out and introduced a lot of people to ideas about self-education, and SEF.

SEF moved to a Philly-based board and working-crew and Adriyel, Karl, and Billy and a bunch of other excellent self-education advocates became our advisory board members. We moved into an office at 11th and Spring Garden Streets in Center City Philly, rented from the Industrial Workers of the World.

SEF’s Working Board Members:

This year, SEF gave out $10,000 in awards and launched our BUILD, Unlocked Minds, and School Funding Equity organizing programs. We received non-profit status on September 21, 2001.

In 2002, SEF gave out $5000 in awards and began fiscally sponsoring other groups. We began a process of restructuring and moved, with the IWW, to an office in West Philadelphia.

Unlocked Minds presented SEFs first video,”60%: The Sentencing Policies of the War on Drugs and their Effects on America” by Sara Zia Ebrahimi at a benefit show at Asian Arts Initiative featuring a screening of the movie, poetry by Taína, and a talk by co-founder Billy Wimsatt.

Unlocked Minds launched a prison writing workshop program.

BUILD got its resources on the internet and began working with young people.

SEF gave out $5000 in awards, and continued our restructuring process. BUILD and Unlocked Minds became separate organizations fiscally sponsored by SEF.

Unlocked Minds concluded its first cycle in a series of writing workshops for incarcerated women. Philadelphia poets and activists Walidah Imarisha and Taina Del Valle conducted a bi-weekly workshop series from August 2002 until January 2003. The project, whose initiation was funded in part by the Samuel S. Fels Fund, received recent funding from the Phoebus Criminal Justice Initiative and support from New City Writing to enable its continued operation.

In April 2003, SEF hosted an amazing Benefit Show. Here’s the review from a “A-listing” in the Philadelphia Weekly:

Take one group of self-described queens of queer Palestinian hip-hop from Hawaii, mix with some Puerto Rican rebel rock rap and simmer with some local flavor, and you’ve got a sweet little benefit for the Self-Education Foundation. A nonprofit collective supporting self-education alternatives through grassroots community organizing and grant-making, the Foundation, started in 199 by local activists Emily Nepon and Billy Wimsatt, supports initiatives for home-schoolers and dropouts and pushes for student-led school reform. The collective also works with incarcerated self-educators and independent media developers. Enjoy performances from queer hip-hoppers Juha, rockers Ricanstruction, spoken-word charmers Walidah Imarisha and Taína Del Valle, and local sweethearts the Reflectors and support a good cause. What could be better?

It was exciting to see that we had brought together a group of performers that had all been touched by SEF’s work. JUHA and Ricanstruction had both received grants from SEF for their organizing work. Taína was an SEF board member and worked with Walidah on the prison poetry project. It was also exciting to bring together a group of amazing performers that crossed “cultures and disciplines” (a quote from our old mission statement). Thanks to all the young people in the front row who made the show even more fun!

SEF gave $6,000 in grants to 14 groups and continued to work with other groups as a fiscal sponsor.

In spring 2005, SEF paid for four young women of color activists in their Philadelphia communities to attend the INCITE! Color of Violence conference in New Orleans, LA. These women, and others who attended from Philadelphia, formed an INCITE! Philadelphia chapter following the inspirational conference.

That year, we closed down SEF’s non-profit status, with this letter:

November, 2005.

Dear Friends,

After seven years, the Self-Education Foundation is shutting down as a grantmaking non-profit organization. Your enthusiasm and support over the years have contributed to an amazing example of young people’s activism and SEF has been able to leverage your support by giving over $30,000 in grants to over 80 organizations, sending four local youth leaders to the 2005 INCITE! (Women of Color Against Violence) Conference, and supporting other organizations as a fiscal sponsor.

Why are we shutting down? A couple of reasons. The first is that it was hard work to try to create and fund an organization led entirely by young people. While the philanthropic community talks about wanting to support emerging leaders and new voices, the only grants we received were from other organizations with youth leadership. For example, we got turned down for one grant before even reaching the grantmaking committee, because they didn’t see us as having enough resources. That was after we had a demonstrated five year history of grantmaking! To be sure, SEF was a small foundation. We were run almost entirely by volunteers, and our highest total annual budget (including grantmaking) was under $35,000. Even though we did receive nonprofit status, we still functioned much like a grassroots volunteer project. We needed a funding boost to take on more non-profit-style work, and to offer salaries that would free up our time to really do this work… and that funding wasn’t there.

Another reason I personally am ready to step out of this work is that I feel I’ve aged out. I started engaging in education activism at 17 years old. A decade later, my memories of compulsory schooling are fading.  I don’t have children, so my relationship to schooling isn’t kept fresh by daily experiences in or out of the system. Like any self-educator, my passions have shifted and turned and grown over the past ten years.  These days I’m attending Goddard’s Individualized BA program, which is something of a deschooling way to attend college, and studying Jewish feminist and queer history. I believe in self-education and youth activism, but I don’t think I’m currently suited to speak to those communities’ needs or act as a “talent scout” in the way I did when we started the organization.

One more reason for the end of SEF is a bit more complicated. With so many crises in the world, it has been difficult to build a movement around a long-term strategy. Our mission, misquoting Paulo Freire, says “We believe that self-education is the practice of freedom.” We believe that people who know how to educate themselves are able to gain real information about their world, read between the lines that corporate media and State-directed school systems offer us, and challenge oppressive institutions while building alternatives. With this kind of organizing,  it’s hard to demonstrate or prove results. People change, are changed by their learning, slowly and deeply. We can track some of the impacts of SEF’s work, but many of the real successes and challenges lie in the life stories of individuals and may take decades to manifest. I know that the Self-Education Foundation changed my life. How about you? I’d love to hear peoples’ stories and reflections on their own life-learning-paths and the impact of SEF. For those seeking self-education resources, our resources are still available, check them out.

Thanks for your support over the years,

Emily Nepon



Leave a Comment »

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: