Life Learning Magazine, November/December, 2002

Interview with Emily Nepon, Director, Self Education Foundation


From Life Learning Magazine, November/December, 2002

Life Learning: What does the SEF do?

Emily Nepon: The Self-Education Foundation (SEF) is a youth-led nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting individual and community empowerment through self-education. It originally began as a philanthropic fund, giving small grants to self-education resources and communities involved in self-education.

In the last year or so we have grown into an organization that also pursues our mission through community organizing and outreach. We have published and nationally distributed a variety of educational resources, including a pamphlet for self-educating teens in Pennsylvania, a directory of progressive prisoner self-education resources, and a video that has screened at several locations throughout the northeast which breaks down the hype about the war on drugs and its effect on sentencing policies and the colorline of incarceration.

We have also been a part of several coalitions, most actively in the local struggle against the privatization of the Philadelphia public school system by Edison, Inc. We also plan to begin programs for incarcerated people and are hoping to sponsor writing workshops in area women’s prisons.

A big project that we have been working towards lauching is the BUILD (Building Uncompromising Inspirational Lives Directly) program. BUILD will be a community-based guidance program that empowers Philadelphia youth who are either in or who have dropped out of high school to find resources for continuing their education. Using our learning library and resource files, our Internet access, and trained staff who are available for one-on-one counseling, the program will direct youth to resources for finding jobs, internships and apprenticeships, community organizing resources, entrepreneurial support and so on. We plan to launch an on-line resource as well.

We’re working in a lot of different areas, trying to make the connection that self-education is a uniting thread between these different movements for social justice. And we’re doing this work with a tiny budget. Last year we worked with $35,000 (it’s an almost all-volunteer org). We want to double that budget this fiscal year, and even so we’re working a shoe-string and a lot of in-kind donations.

Life Learning: What is the SEF’s history?

Emily Nepon: It started with a guy named Billy Wimsatt. He wrote an article called “How I Got My DIY Degree”, which appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of Utne Reader. He described how he had wanted to homeschool in high school, but his parents told him it was illegal. After finishing high school and enrolling in Oberlin College, he found a copy of Grace Llewellyn’s book The Teenage Liberation Handbook in a bookstore. It inspired him to drop out of college and set up his own curriculum. His Utne Reader article listed 12 things that he was doing to pursue his self education and one of them was to set up a “self schooling” foundation designed to help more young people, especially poor kids, to educate themselves outside of school. He wrote that he was looking for highly successful dropouts as well as enthusiastic volunteers and donors with an interest in selfeducation. Hundreds of people replied, a few sent money, some sent long letters, most said “let me know what happens!”

A year later, he and I 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. Later that year, Billy’s book No More Prisons came out and introduced a lot of people to ideas about self-education, and SEF. In 2000, SEF moved to a Philadelphia-based board and working-crew, and Adriyel, Karl, and Billy and a bunch of other self-education advocates became our advisory board members. We moved into an office in Center City Philly.

Life Learning: How and why did you get involved in SEF?

Emily Nepon: I was unschooled from birth in 1978 through “5th grade”, in a very child-centered and learner-respecting model of learning of home. In 6th grade I entered public school, left after 11th grade to go to an alternative college, studied deschooling at college for 3 semesters before becoming overwhelmed with the ridiculousness of that idea and have been a self-educating learner since then.

My education about self-education included being a summer intern for Growing Without Schooling Magazine and helping with their 20th anniversary conference, and working with the Dropout Resource Center and Magazine (for and by dropout youth) in Sacramento, CA. In 1999 I had moved back to the east coast, tracked down Billy and convinced him I was the right person to start SEF with. At the time I had no interest in fundraising, but that changed quickly.

I don’t like going to school, and I learn better by teaching myself. I’ve seen over and over again how people’s lives change when we feel in control of our learning, and I’ve seen schools fail miserably (including Liberal Alternative colleges). I’ve also seen a lot of the failures of the homeschooling community: especially the failure to responsibly address issues of accessibility, class, race and the question of autonomy versus selfishness. I’m largely motivated by wanting to challenge the homeschooling community — the community that I thank for my critical thinking abilities — to get with rest of the social change movement and start building coalitions and sharing resources.

Life Learning: What is SEF’s definition of self-education?

Emily Nepon: People and communities having power over the way they learn and the information they can access. People and communites accessing knowledge as a key to empowerment and power over our own lives.

Life Learning: You said one of SEF’s issues involves school funding. How does that relate to self-education?

Emily Nepon: The issue of school funding equity and the fight against the privitization of public schools is, though maybe not at first glance, a total self-education issue. It’s a situation where Student Unions, Parent Unions and School Employee Unions are joining to educate themselves about the conditions that affect their educations and demand input and power over their own lives and their childrens’ lives, on a neighborhood level.

Life Learning: Tell me about some of the other projects SEF has funded.

Emily Nepon: Some groups we’ve given mini-grants to that Life Learning readers may be familiar with include Genius Tribe (Grace Llewellyn’s publishing company) and GWS magazine. Here are a few other stories:

In 1999, we gave a grant to Seeds of Many Nations Homeschooling Collective. In 1996, SOMN put together the Leothy Miller Owens Homeschool Conference, the first ever conference for homeschoolers of color.

Also in 1999, we funded United Parents Against Lead in Chicago. UPAL is an organization of and for parents of lead poisoned children who have had to educate themselves about the dangers of lead. Many have continued on to educate their children at home.

The Black Radical Congress in Philadelphia got a grant in 2001 for a day-long conference on “Education Not Incarceration” that they hosted in coalition with the Criminal Justice Program at the American Friends Service Committee and the Brown Collective.

A support group for men and women living with HIV/AIDS called Heterosexual Infected Persons Support received a grant in 2001.

In 2001, Whispered Media out of San Francisco was funded. They are a collective of self-educated video/independent media activists who have worked together since 1996 to create documentaries and videos which aim to inspire people to take action.

We funded Youth United for Change in 2001 to organize high-school students in Philadelphia to work on education reform issues from the inside.

This year, we have funded the Youth Action Coalition in Amherst, Massachusetts. Their latest project is a little free school — free afterschool workshops/discussions/classes or whatever you want to call them on topics like body image, racial identity, the prison-industrial complex, and helping friends deal with abuse.

Life Learning: How does the grant process work?

Emily Nepon: Essentially, we give mini-grants of $100 to $500 to groups (not individuals, unfortunately) working in five areas (with preference to groups overlapping multiple areas): Homeschoolers and Dropouts, Student-Led School Reform, Incarcerated Self-Educators and their Supporters, Independent Media-Makers and Distributors, and Popular Education. We prioritize groups marginalized from the existing support systems that the homeschooling movement offers, but try to make connections with the homeschooling movement, too — which is why your magazine is so exciting to us!

Some recipients apply to us and some are nominated, and the SEF board members consense on who to give grants to and how much, trying to take into account a balance between our funding areas, geography, need, and whether or not a project could inspire other people to do something similar.

Life Learning: What is your role in SEF?

Emily Nepon: I’m the co-founder and have played the role of Director until recently — we’re working on sharing power and responsibility more horizontally within the group.

Life Learning: Who else is involved and how?

Emily Nepon: Sara Zia Ebrahimi is technically the outreach coordinator, which translates to media outreach and fundraising roles. Erica M. Lee is in charge of the School Funding Equity program. Taina del Valle and Adrien Lowe look after the BUILD Program. And Nicole Meyenberg runs the Unlocked Minds Program.

These are five fierce people under 30 with a lot of experiences in public education including a grad student, a teacher, and a homeschooling parent. We are a multi-racial group, also diverse along lines of class and sexuality.

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