A year of living and dreaming with Emergent Savannah

First week into the year, and I’ve already had two traffic tantrums and eaten my weight in chocolate croissants.

So much for resolutions.

Meh, unreasonable expectations rarely lead to success anyway. When it comes to creating positive change, I’ve decided instead to adopt a new strategy for 2016: Flood my psyche with magnanimous adoration, preposterous possibilities and glorious speculations and see what sticks.

That philosophy seems to be working stupendously for Emergent Savannah. The grassroots advocacy group launched last January with the intention of empowering local citizens to shape the future, a lofty goal in this Age of Apathy.

To get a handle on a workable plan, its first action was to ask Savannahians what we love about and what we dream for our city—and we had to answer not with Facebook posts but Post-it notes.

Organizers set up colorful writing stations at the Sentient Bean and shlepped pads of paper and pens all over town to various festivals, elementary schools and far-flung neighborhoods. Thousands contributed their scribbles, and the sticky squares festooned the Bean until it looked like the walls had been attacked with Tibetan prayer flags.

The low-tech medium not only brought opportunity for plenty of face-to-face interaction, it provided a rainbow of raw data: The Love/Dream Project identified trends that cross Savannah’s numerous cultural and economic divides, showing that most of us love Savannah’s history, its natural beauty, its diversity, its potential. We all dream of safer streets, better schools, more art, less crime, higher paying jobs, a responsive local government.

“Looking at it from the perspective of our hopes and dreams, we found that we really aren’t that different,” says Emergent Savannah’s head coordinator CourtnayCoco" Papy.

“So we took that information and have tried to create conversations that matter to everyone.”

Coco, along with sculptor Betsy Bull, painter A.J. Perez, photographer Emily Earl and musician Alex Raffray, catalogued those paper declarations and quickly morphed them into dozens of jam-packed events in 2015: Emergent Savannah’s monthly “Monday Means Community” panels attracted standing-room only crowds at The Bean, the longtime community gathering spot that Betsy calls a “beacon of acceptance.” (It is also a bastion of delicious baked goods, specifically chocolate croissants.)

The themes of economic development beyond the minimum wage tourism sector and the establishment a sustainable arts economy came up repeatedly throughout the year, and a unique “un-debate” for City Council candidates was roundly lauded as one of the most informative interludes of the local election season.

“There was all this talk about Savannah growing, but we saw what was happening and were not necessarily feeling like we were a part of it,” recalls Coco, who returned to her hometown in 2014 on fire for social action and has lent her passion and skills to many other good works, including Deep Center’s Block by Block and the Flannery O'Connor Book Trail. “We wanted to understand our place and provide a space for people to learn.”

She adds with a grin, “We’re trying to make civics sexy.”

These artsy types in their 20s and 30s classify themselves as progressives, though they managed to stay remarkably neutral through the fall’s super sparky political lightning storm, focusing instead on inclusivity. Recognizing that social connection is arguably Savannah’s greatest currency, they sought counsel across cultural, partisan, generational and racial boundaries to build a consensus of Savannah’s unheard voices.

They found lockstep with veteran insurgent Tom Kohler, who has helped bridge relationships with some of Savannah’s most invisible residents for decades.

“The core idea in my mind was if we keep using the same processes, we’re going to get the same outcomes,” says Tom, who serves as something of a den papa at the Emergent Savannah clubhouse inside community arts collective Sulfur Studios, founded by busy bees Emily and A.J. this summer.

“What we’ve tried to do is think of new ways to communicate with people, new ways to invite people to meet and be with one another.”

Each meet-up centered around an unlikely cast of characters—a mix of artists, activists, politicians, city staff and business leaders whose agendas may not line up on the surface—and the ES activists earned their diplomacy badges by wrangling all of them into the same room. Information architect Brittany Curry traveled from Milledgeville throughout the year to document the action, her markers flying as she channeled choice quotes and cute likenesses into brilliantly hued murals.

The resulting atmosphere has been refreshingly civil in this day of comments-section vitriol and anonymous trolls, though a few gatherings definitely entertained as well as educated. (Oh, did you think discussing the city noise ordinance with working musicians in the room was going to be tame?)

Now, a year after interpreting that wall of fluttering paper squares, Emergent Savannah has firmly established itself as a highly relevant entity for anyone who gives a fig about the city’s future.

The crew is celebrating its first anniversary by returning to the Love/Dream theme for its first Monday Means Community event of 2016 on Jan. 11.

Emceed by the indie arts queen JinHi Soucy Rand, the evening features reflections from attorney raconteur Wade Herring, proper Victorian preservationist Ardis Wood, food justice maven Jessica Mathis, beloved politico Regina Thomas and teenage poet and recent White House award recipient Andre Massey. (Yours truly will also share a few thoughts about what I love/dream about/for Savannah, which is sort of my favorite topic.)

Per usual, the conversation will continue into the night for those 21+ at the American Legion, where I'm pretty positive all of Savannah's problems will be solved someday.

For 2016, the Emergent Savannah action-ists have a bit more structure to work with than sticky notes as they move forward with their mission of inspiring Savannahians to leave their screens for a minute and get involved. They’ve received fiscal sponsorship under the Educational Media Foundation, which means these hard-working folks can replenish the supply cabinet and maybe receive tiny stipends for their time.

(Nonprofit sector, take note: last year’s ES budget was under $1000.)

Future programming includes a talk with New York Times reporter Elizabeth Becker ("The Revolt against Tourism"), a lively panel on Savannah's LGBT history, collaborative art shows and official town hall meetings with elected officials.

The affable radicals also resolve to keep loving, keep dreaming, and “continuing to pack the Bean like sardines.”

Yet their origin story still seems like a solid way to start the new year: Instead of feeling guilt for stress eating or dissolving into rage over people’s inability to navigate four-way stops, slap every awesome idea you can think of to the wall of your brain and watch what happens.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

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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