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Dare Dukes: Deep impact 

New director takes on afterschool literary program

MANY Connect readers will recognize Dare Dukes as the soulful indie rocker who occasionally regales club audiences with songs from two original albums, including 2012's critically-acclaimed Thugs and China Dolls.

Literary types see him at board meetings for the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. Others know him as an activist who early on pushed the efforts to establish a community radio station, coming to fruition next year. Those in the playground set can peg him as the lanky dad chasing two kids around local parks.

A few may be familiar with his profound commitment to social justice: For 11 years the Minnesota native worked as development and communications director for Global Action Project, a media-arts youth leadership program in New York City. He also managed the philanthropic arm of the Brennan Center, a law firm that works to protect the poor in the criminal justice system.

Now Dukes’ many roles have converged as he steps into the position of executive director of Deep Center, the non-profit afterschool writing program that serves nearly 400 middle school students a year, many of whom come from Savannah’s toughest neighborhoods.

Each student spends 11 weeks writing stories inspired by their personal lives, which are then published and performed at semi-annual Deep Speaks book launches. The experience not only improves their performance on all-important test scores but is life-changing for many.

Dukes takes the reins from Joanna Dasher and will work closely with Deep program director Megan Ave’Lallemant.

“I am grateful to our board of directors for their thoughtful work in finding such a qualified new leader for our organization,” said Dasher, who will continue as one of Deep’s volunteer writing fellows.

“Dare’s expertise in non-profit leadership and his passion for the arts and education make him a perfect fit.”

While his name may sound like some kind of superhero (there’s certainly something Clark Kent-ish about those horn-rimmed specs), Dukes fights for social equality the ordinary human way: By listening with earnest humility, collaborating with others and working in the trenches.

He jumped right into the fray last Tuesday, when over 250 local leaders gathered for a day-long discussion about afterschool programming and educational opportunities. Hosted by Mayor Edna Jackson and organized with the help National League of Cities, America’s Promise Alliance and the U.S. Department of Education, the event addressed the ways that cities can help underserved public school students both academically and socially.

Dukes spoke with Connect the next day as he began his second week at the helm of one Savannah’s most successful afterschool programs.

Deep is already a jewel on the afterschool programming landscape. What’s your first move as executive director?

Dare Dukes: Deep at a pivotal moment right now. It's built up a lot of cultural capital in this city and people really love us. Though I'd not been intimately involved with Deep until now, I've been watching it. Small non-profits come and go, and Deep kept staying and getting bigger. Every time I would talk to someone who'd interacted with Deep in any way, they would always just gush.

There’s a lot of love for Deep in the community, and a lot to build on. There are also still opportunities to create visibility. As beloved and well-known as Deep is, there were still people—Board of Education members—in the room yesterday who had never heard of it.

Is Deep funded in any way by the school system?

D.D.: No, all the programming we offer through the public school system is free: Free for the youth, free for the schools, though they do provide some really important support. Teachers are on the front line of recruiting and they do logistical things that would otherwise be a burden to us, but no, there's no money. We do get significant funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs.

We serve all 17 middle schools and we have the capacity to run in 13, so it’s first come, first serve, with a focus on Title I schools. The next stage is to reach populations that it’s not reaching. I wish I could be more specific, but y’know, it’s my eighth day on the job [smiles].

What drives your personal passion for social justice, even though it’s a real mess out there?

D.D.: Well, because it's a real mess out there [another smile].

From a very young age I was called to both work creatively and to learn to be of service to people in need. I was kind of mess myself in middle school—as many of us are—and I very much found a place of solace and strength in creative work, in music and writing. I had a couple of great teacher/mentors who made the world feel safe for me, as a kid and as a learner. They also made learning fun—another thing I love about Deep.

What is your take on yesterday’s educational summit?

D.D.: I have a learning curve in terms of getting to know the educational ecosystem in Savannah so it was useful.

I really care about young people who easily fall through the cracks. The systems that are in place, and the institutions that are meant to serve them, are not, and that’s what everyone was there to address.

One thing that was glaringly apparent though, despite of all the good will and smart people—most with more experience than me—was that there was no educator on the stage, and only one young person. There were panels that included a judge, a cop, a politician, a preacher and an administrator, but not a single teacher. That seemed like a hole.

Also, much of conversation was about discipline, punishment and bad parenting, as opposed to identifying the assets that young people have and building off them.

We’re very serious about social justice in Savannah, with our task forces and six-hour long workshops. What are your ideas about fostering the connection between creativity and social change?

D.D.: Again, I'm very new at this. Our institutions that work for the greater good are really important, because they stick around and they keep trying. They build expertise and experience and places for people to care and to congregate.

I also think that real change happens on the ground with real people doing things that aren’t always pleasant. In fact, they can be messy and make people uncomfortable when people raise their voices and tell their stories when they’re not expected to. The Civil Rights Movement is major example.

I want to hear those stories that don’t always get told. With young people, there’s a lot of talk about discipline and correcting behavior but not a lot about meeting them where they are and helping them connect with their communities in meaningful ways. That’s what Deep does.

So the stories are the key.

D.D.: One of things crucial to the success of the organization I worked for in New York was that we helped those young people foster their own voices and tell their own stories. That counteracted the negative stories that were being told about them in the media and the community.

I think young people thrive when they’re given the opportunity to tell their own stories instead of being told what they are, which they get a lot of—“we are here to build your character, we are here to give you job skills”—and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s good.

But when they’re given the space and support to figure out what they believe about themselves—and that it’s OK to express it, even they make other people uncomfortable—I think they make things happen in their communities. And Savannah is in real need of young leaders.

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Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

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Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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