IF you ask Tom Kohler what he does, he'll tell you he "puts people together."
That’s been his main mission as the director of Savannah Chatham Citizens Advocacy, the non-profit that pairs ordinary folks with those whose developmental disabilities have excluded them from participating in community life. These advocates and protégés often form tight bonds that last a lifetime, learning together how to navigate the true meaning of friendship and dignity.
Kohler began partnering people up 37 years ago, facilitating over 110 matches with his small staff. But the power of his work reaches far beyond the official description: These advocate relationships have inspired a beloved community of random kindness, and the Citizens Advocacy Annual Meeting and Covered Dish Supper is one of the city’s most joyful and well-attended occasions of the year.
Your grassroots choice for Best Savannahian is also homegrown: The native son graduated from Jenkins High and attended then-Armstrong College in the 1970s, back when the demand for social equality began bubbling into the collective conscience. He graduated from UGA with an education degree and returned to his hometown, planting the seeds of change alongside the city’s community leaders.
“I was shepherded into this work by others who looked at the world with passion,” recalls Kohler, stroking his famous beard.
“I was always attracted to people who were involved in civic life.”
Lately he’s put his weight behind Emergent Savannah, an umbrella organization of activists searching for out-of-the-box solutions to the city’s most persistent problems. Along with regular “Monday Means Community” events at the Sentient Bean, Emergent Savannah gives regular citizens an opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the city and voice their concerns.
“It seems like people are interested and frustrated at how fast Savannah is changing, and at the same time, they’re interested and frustrated at what isn’t changing,” says Kohler of Savannah’s stratified economic development, persistent poverty and disparity of resources.
“We wanted to invite people to come together and to think and talk about these issues.”
As for the liberal label, he considers himself more of a “profoundly local, independent communitarian.”
“Politics for the sake of politics doesn’t really interest me. It’s healthier, I think, to ask good, probing questions in the civic realm and let the politics grow out of that,” muses the man with no shortage of plans for a better Savannah.
“I’m most interested in how small groups of committed citizens can create change that matters to them.”
—Jessica Leigh Lebos
Runner-up: Jessica Leigh Lebos