Spring Grant Spotlight: Deep Center

By Rebecca Sutton
High school students sit around a table while one student stands and speaks

Students in Savannah, Georgia, participate in Deep Center's Block by Block program, which has received support from the NEA. Photo by Laura Mulder

“When Savannah tells the story of young people, it tells the wrong story; it's almost always about crime and gun violence,” said Dare Dukes, executive director of Deep Center, a creative writing and arts center in Savannah, Georgia, that recently received one of 1,114 new NEA grants. This story, Dukes said, focuses disproportionately on young men of color, and often adopts the perspective that they and their communities are problems that need solving.

But through intensive creative writing programs and arts programming, Deep Center instead empowers young people to realize that their stories are worth celebrating. They, in turn, help their city understand how the story the city tells about Savannah's children is wrong. Two of the organization’s signature programs—both of which have received NEA support—include the Young Author Project, which helps middle-schoolers turn their lives into published stories, and the Block by Block program, during which high school students research and document the history of Savannah’s neighborhoods, and weave these histories together with their own contemporary experiences. We recently spoke with Dukes about Deep Center, and how he believes it can change the narrative of Savannah.

NEA: What was the motivation for establishing Deep Center?

DARE DUKES: It was started by a couple of professional writers that had just graduated from grad school. Savannah has a very high youth poverty rate—currently, 42 percent of all young people in Savannah grow up below the poverty line. The challenges around growing up poor were negatively impacting literacy in Savannah. We also have a really huge racial achievement gap here. So they began a creative writing program that would center joyful engagement with language, creativity, and writing so that young people could rekindle their innate joy of play with language, and build their literacy while they were doing that.

NEA: I wanted to talk more about some of the challenges the young people you work with are facing.

DUKES: The way that Deep works with young people is by recognizing that they have a unique capacity to tell their stories in ways that no one else does, and that they come into our space full of knowledge and expertise as young people and community members and the protagonists of their own stories, and that they have, especially as young people who are growing up below the poverty line, an extraordinary number of barriers that they bump into day in and day out that they didn't put there. But they are also extraordinarily resilient and resourceful internally and externally in dealing with those barriers.

I say this because the narrative lately has become a new deficits-based narrative about how young people growing up in working-class communities need grit or resilience and things like that. What we see is that they have extraordinary levels of grit and resiliency; the problem is they need opportunities and doors to be opened for them.

So some of the challenges of growing up below the poverty line in Savannah are there’s a lot of gentrification happening locally. Families that have lived downtown for many generations in certain neighborhoods are being pushed to the suburbs. There's a kind of a reversal of white flight; people have called it the "suburbanization of poverty." So families and communities are being disrupted and pushed to places where there isn't a ton of infrastructure. I’d also say that since the creation of choice schools to pull white middle-class families back into our district, as well as the dismantling of Brown v. Board federal oversights, that our public school district has—like a lot of districts across the United States—effectively re-segregated. So we have high concentrations around race and poverty in many of our schools. The parents of a lot of our young people are working hard and holding down more than one job to meet the needs of their families. It puts more stress on their family when that’s the case.

NEA: How do you think writing is the ideal vehicle for building community and empowering these young people?

DUKES: Deep uses creative writing—and increasingly other art forms—as a way to help young people connect their learning to their lives, their lives to their communities, and their actions to positive change. Writing is a tool to help young people and their families tell their stories. There aren't that many spaces anymore where young people are asked to tell their stories in ways where they get to determine what that looks like. Educational spaces’ writing these days is often more about meeting the requirements of the test than it is about self-expression. So when young people are asked to write about whatever they want, it’s an opportunity where they get to bring their full selves into their learning spaces.

At Deep, because we also work in the community not just in the schools, it's an opportunity for them to bring their full selves into their home or into their community where they get to be the masters of their own story and get to be heard and listened to in ways that they aren’t normally. It's an opportunity for young people to gain self-confidence, to connect who they are to their education, and also to see how their story intersects with current events and history.

And also, to see how a lot of the ways that Savannah and the world talks about them can be wrong. It gives them a chance to think about how those stories told about them are wrong, and then tell their own story in response. So they get to project the more positive version of who they are into the world which sets the record straight.

I often say that we have two audiences through our programming. One is the young people that we’re working with directly, and the other one is Savannah and Chatham County, so they can learn what it's really like to grow up in Savannah. Savannah loves to talk about young people, but it almost never has young people at the table when it's having those conversations. So Deep is trying to create venues where young people are getting up and telling their stories, but also creating spaces where decision-makers and policymakers who are having conversations about young people, about education, about crime, about the transit system are given a chance to have conversations one-on-one, face-to-face with Deep’s young people so they can hear what it's really like to be a young person navigating these systems, and the challenges that a lot of these systems create.

NEA: I know Deep Center also has a policy initiative. What sorts of policies do you think need to be enacted in order to more fully support and empower Savannah's young people?

DUKES: We are having conversations where we are looking at the systems in Savannah that are helping and harming young people and their families. This could be the juvenile justice system, the school system, and gentrification issues. We've really evolved this method of using creative practices and storytelling and writing as a way to mine our communities for research and reflection and visioning on how we can address some of the challenges here and adopt solutions that would make Savannah a safer place for young people and their families.

We also have a partnership with researchers from the University of Georgia who are coming in and helping us build our capacity to do participatory action research that’s grounded in these creative practices; where young people are researchers in their communities looking at systems like education and the juvenile justice system and identifying the barriers that they're bumping up against day in and day out. Near the end of the summer when this process culminates, we will start to talk about how we can come to Savannah's leaders and talk about how we could dismantle some of those barriers. We’ll have our University of Georgia researchers and Deep Center youth present to the community, and together they will make recommendations on what policies we could implement to make Savannah a safer place. It will almost certainly be some recommendations around restorative justice.

When Savannah talks about young people, especially young people of color, especially African-American boys, it's almost always inside of a crime and punishment narrative. Deep hopes to do narrative change where we’re advancing a health narrative. In Chatham County, we have nearly twice the number of court-involved youth as any other county in Georgia, and that includes Atlanta. Those are real numbers, not per capita numbers. That's not because our kids are twice as bad. It's because we have a culture of sentencing young people when we should be serving them. Increasingly, the people who are making decisions understand the negative impacts of this phenomenon, and are working to shift culture and shift policies away from sentencing and more towards serving. Deep’s young people are often in these spaces telling their stories—with juvenile court judges, with police officers, with probation officers—so that the people in these systems can see our young people as full human beings, and as worthy of a system that treats them with dignity rather than disrespect. So the storytelling element becomes like really important.

NEA: We've been talking about storytelling a lot. What I love about this program is young people are encouraged to tell their own story; they're being helped to find their role in Savannah’s story; and you're also trying to change Savannah’s story at the same time. Why do you think storytelling itself is so powerful, especially in this type of situation?

DUKES: I will tell you this one quote that I cite a lot. There's this literacy and poverty expert named Dr. Patrick Camangian who teaches at the University of San Francisco. I heard him say once that young people who are experiencing the compound daily trauma of growing up below the poverty line and experiencing the kind of challenges that marginalized young people experience often see themselves as victims inside of fractured narratives, and that it's the role of teachers and teaching artists to apprentice them through a process whereby they are able to construct a coherent narrative of hope.

That's often what we see happen with our young people who come in exhibiting trauma, or other kinds of challenges. Maybe they had a learning disability that was never fully addressed, so they've always struggled inside of learning spaces. Some of our young people are profoundly creative with language, but they struggle to put their words on the page. So we really meet them where they are. If we need to start with dictation, we’ll start with dictation. But at the end of this process the goal is for our young people to be able to know what their story is, and envision themselves as strong healthy thriving protagonists inside of their story, and know that a lot of the challenges that they're bumping into are challenges that call for them to rise up as storytellers in their communities and to work in their communities to make change. Some of their challenges are internal and a lot of them are external.

NEA: Deep hosts a lot of community readings. I wanted to talk about the importance of not just creating these stories, but of telling them publicly.

DUKES: It's important for young people to see themselves as powerful cultural agents in their own community, and know that they have the right and the power to get up on a stage or to take pen in hand and publish their story, their perspective. That they don't need somebody's permission. That they are enough coming into the space, and they are valued for who they are and what they bring.

I can say that what I just said very much reflects our pedagogy. When we construct learning spaces, and we have adults and youth in the room, everybody is in the room as a co-learner, a co-storyteller with a unique fount of knowledge. We build community and knowledge together, rather than having one smart person in the center telling everybody what to do.

And it's important for Savannah because I already said that the narrative that is very dominant in Savannah around youth of color, specifically black boys, is a certain crime and punishment narrative. And so when Savannah tells the story of young people, it's almost always about crime and gun violence. Part of the work in shifting this narrative to a narrative of health and reformation is by empowering young people to tell their first-hand accounts and to help someone understand that there are countless examples of thriving young people here that just aren't making it into the narrative.

Data is super important and that's part of how we make the case for policy reform. But people can always discount data and you need a strong story and a strong account by an individual to ground that conversation and to create the framework and to create the heart for it. I would say for anybody working to do policy it’s important to be able to tell first-hand accounts what it's like to pass through some of these systems when you're trying to convince people that the system need to change.

NEA: What do you hope Deep Center’s story will be?

DUKES: I would like Deep to be the place where people come to think about how to love on all of the young people and families in Savannah, and how to make sure that we hold and carry them all across the finish line. That [happens] through educational spaces where our young people are honored for who they are, and get to joyfully engage with their culture and their surroundings. It's also about being the organization that does the hard work of really engaging our community in the conversations that a lot of people don't want to have for whatever reason, so that we can really get down to business of shifting culture and policy to make it a safer place for young people and their families. I want Savannah to be an arts and culture-based micro think tank for youth and families. So people come to get services and heal and experience joy and to build confidence and rise up as leaders. And people come to do the critical policy and systems-change work that needs to be done.

NEA: Are there any particularly memorable experiences from your time at Deep that really embody what this work means to you?

DUKES: One of the most moving ones was this young woman named Joi, who was in our Young Author Project. At the end of every semester in our Young Author Project, we have this event called Deep Speaks where selected youth who are voted on by their peers come and read their best work onstage for an intergenerational audience of about 500 people. It's one of the most diverse cultural evenings all year long in Savannah. Joi was voted on by her peers to come read her story.

About a week before the event, she lost her sister to gun violence. The family, of course, was rocked by this experience. Deep’s staff and volunteers spoke to her and her family and said, “We know this is a hard time, but we would love to have you here so we can celebrate your work at this really important moment in your life.” After the reading, I found her in the audience. She said one of the ways that she's been dealing with the loss of her sister is by writing. She said, “I just I wrote this poem about her. Would you like to hear it?” She recited to me this beautiful poem that she had written. I was incredibly moved by her feeling that she could share this with me. But also, as an educator, I was like this is what it means to support a young person in a way that writing becomes [a part of] who they are and how they see things and how they make meaning in the world and how they heal and how they find agency and power. All of that was embedded in this moment where she used writing as a way to wrap her mind and her heart around this horrible event that had happened to her. And then she shared it with somebody, so she then was given this profound tool for having a really deep conversation with somebody using that writing. I just thought, “Oh my God, this is so profoundly exemplary of what's possible when you use creative practices to touch people's hearts and minds.”