Digging Deep

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Deep Center gives Savannah’s youth a platform for their voices and stories

Photography by Laura Mulder

 SINCE OPENING IN 2008, Deep Center has helped more than 4,000 young Savannahians find their creative voices. Using writing, arts and culture as a springboard, Deep Center, affectionately dubbed “Deep,” builds learning and agency for Savannah’s marginalized youth through the art of creative storytelling.

“Deep disrupts dehumanizing narratives with firsthand stories about thriving through individ­ual growth and collective action,” says director of development and communications Coco Papy. “We celebrate who [our students] are, challenge them to express themselves powerfully, and support their critical awareness of how their stories intersect with their neighborhood, their city and the world beyond.”

Many of Deep’s youth come from working-class and overlooked communities, Papy says. Deep strives to lift them up, giving the youth and those in their village — family, caretakers, friends and neighbors — the best tools for success. As such, Deep’s programs range from literary initiatives, such as the Young Author Project for middle school students and Block by Block for high school students, to Adult Learning, which is expanding this year to include justice work with the school district.

Deep Center students at a writing workshop

Deep’s most diverse programming comes from its drop-in workshops, where students might learn cupcake decorating in one session and music vide­ography in the next. In each program, students work with mentors (known as “teaching artists” in Deep’s parlance) to hone their crafts.

“I was intrigued and inspired by Deep’s mantra, ‘Our Stories Matter,’ ” says Ariel Felton, a teaching artist and publications manager who started as a volunteer. “It sounds so simple, but in truth, I don’t think a lot of youth feel like their stories and voices do matter. I’m proud to be a part of turning that around.”

At events like Deep Speaks, the Young Author Project’s end-of-semester book launch and live reading, students share their writing with the Savannah community. Each summer, Block by Block students have their own showcase. According to Papy, attendance for a single Deep event can reach up to 600 people.

Last year, Deep Center published its first policy brief, outlining youth-powered policy recommen­dations for a more equitable Savannah. Deep’s action research team spent a full year develop­ing the brief, which is being presented to city governments, police departments, school boards and legislators.

“Deep’s youth disrupt the stereotypes, challenge bias and structural inequities, and create the possibility of change,” Papy says.

The center’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed: Deep received a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2015, the nation’s highest honor for this type of organization. In November, the center also received a $150,000 grant from Forward Promise, a division of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Such lofty accolades are certainly welcome, but Deep is first and foremost a youth-centered organi­zation. During a recent Block by Block workshop, teaching artist Marquice Williams left his writing students to consider a novel idea: “Your greatest work of art is yourself, and who you are becoming,” he said. As Deep youth evolve as creative storytell­ers, they also learn to see themselves as leaders in their communities — with all the tools they need to remove any barriers to success.