#NEAOurTown Spotlight on Deep Center

By Felicia Bowins
Children holding signs in front of a paper mural

Youth show their support for a mural they're designing through Block by Block. Photo courtesy of Deep Center

Located in Savannah, Georgia, Deep Center is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the literacy of low-income children through creative writing. The NEA recently awarded Deep Center an NEA Our Town grant to support Block by Block, a project that encourages students to use research and writing as a way to engage deeply with their neighborhoods.

Block by Block is collaborative in nature, with as many as 25 participants under the instruction of local artists. Students are required to explore the cultural makeup of their neighborhood by going on site visits and researching and conducting interviews. The experience is self-reflective as well, asking the young people to think about their unique role as a stitch in the fabric of their community. At the culmination of the yearlong program, the participants’ findings are presented in arts-based projects, including works of creative writing, visual art, and even a celebratory march. In every stage of the Block by Block program, the importance of community is essential, with the final event bringing the community together through art to celebrate the creativity of the youth and all that makes the neighborhood unique.

We spoke with Deep Center Executive Director Dare Dukes to learn more about the project.

NEA: How do you define creative placemaking?

DARE DUKES: I define it as using art and culture to create vibrancy and purpose in a community.

NEA: What exactly prompted the creation of Block by Block?

DUKES: The overall project is to build vibrancy in the neighborhood through arts-centered programming and [by] engaging the youth that we normally work with with adult artists. Savannah has a poverty rate of 30 percent. That means that every three people live in poverty here. Our programming is directed at giving kids from low-income communities the chance to tell their stories to greater Savannah. One, so they increase their own literacy and abilities to communicate effectively, but also to give Savannah the city the chance to hear young people from those communities tell their own stories and their own perspectives of what is going on in the city. Usually when people talk about the youth we serve, you rarely hear the young people themselves having a chance to weigh in and it’s always way more interesting when they do have a forum.

[When applying for] Our Town I was thinking of a way to leverage what we already do and focus it on a really particular place, Savannah's West Side, which is one of Savannah's neighborhoods that has an amazing history of thriving despite structural barriers to its economic prosperity, but also has a really high poverty rate. There are actually pockets of that neighborhood that have a poverty rate over 80 percent. Cuyler-Brownsville is an interesting neighborhood to talk about because it's on the National Register of Historic Places. It once embodied the potential for African Americans to rise to great heights of prosperity and cultural success because there was a district there in the 50's that was largely African American and Jewish, an arts district that had jazz clubs and small businesses. Because of a couple of bad development decisions in the 50's and 70's, neighborhoods were razed and an interstate fly-over was put in, which is the story we hear in a lot of inner cities across the country with the interstate system. People were displaced and the neighborhood was erratically altered. That neighborhood is a really interesting place to have young people dig into the stories that have taken place in the past and connect them to stories that are happening now in the present, including their own stories and then give those kids and [the teaching] artist and the creative writers a chance to respond and create really interesting creative writing and art around those stories.

NEA: Who are you partners for this project?

DUKES: The Savannah Public School System is one of our partners. We have a longstanding relationship with them and they help us integrate fully into the public school system and run our programs smoothly. The schools are in many ways the proxies for the communities where we work. Having a visible presence there and making sure that institutionally we are a priority there is really important. It gives us a place at the table in the community.

Another community partner is an organization here called Art Rise Savannah. They are a collaborative group of young artists, and most of them are Savannah College of Art and Design graduates. One of the things that they do is have an online part where they talk about arts-related events… But the main thing they do and the most visible thing and the reason why we are partners with them is because they run a monthly art march. Art Rise is really good at getting people in Savannah to come out regularly to see examples of vibrant, temporary art in all genres. They are well known at this point and they are good at doing what they do. They are the folks who will be in charge when we have the public art events that features the kids’ writing.[The final art display] will be built by adult artists, but feature the stories and the writing of the young people.

Art Rise will have guided walking tours of the public art. The art that is created will be largely youth-driven…. What we are envisioning is a kind of map of the landscape in the neighborhoods where stories and assets that the kids have learned about and written about and highlighted in their own writing will then be further highlighted with temporary works of public art. Art Rise will facilitate a guided art march around those temporary pieces for community celebration. There will also be a reading by the young people and, hopefully, as a community, members that participated in the research project process will be named.

NEA: How important is NEA funding to the success of your project?

DUKES: Huge. It wouldn't be happening without it. The youth programming exists, but [the grant] will help us significantly build out the way that we are engaging young people, the length of time that we are engaging young people, the quality [of the engagement]. There will be visiting artists that come into the workshops. It is essentially a writing workshop, but we also ground that writing in practicing multiple literacies because we know that literacies don't happen often in a vacuum. Multiple literacies are developed in tandem so, bringing in other literacies and giving kids a chance to make meaning around issues in a variety of forms actually increases the likelihood that they will become better writers.

The NEA funding will allow us to bring in more artists. Most significantly it allows us to create a partnership with working adult artists to interpret what the kids have uncovered and build out with public art in the community. It will be a visual community celebration in addition to the one that we normally have which is [writing-based]. It adds this other layer and it will make it possible for the community to come together in one place and all of Savannah to come together in one place. The other thing importantly, is that it will act as a strong arts-based magnet to get all of Savannah to go into neighborhoods that they don't normally go into.   

To read more about creative placemaking projects supported by the NEA, visit Exploring Our Town on arts.gov.