DEEP CENTER has helped Savannah’s youth tell their stories for ten years.
The program was started in 2008 by Catherine Killingsworth and Hartford Gongaware, who wanted to bring creative writing into schools.
Since then, Dare Dukes has taken over as executive director and the mission has expanded to include the building of community as well as literacy.
“We really create space where young people feel comfortable to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” explains Dukes. “And they do, and lo and behold, they’re experiencing the same things that everyone else is experiencing in their communities.”
Deep began with the Young Authors Project, where adults lead creative writing workshops in middle school classrooms for eleven weeks. At the conclusion of the program, each kid in the workshop has their work published in a book and some kids read their work in front of a crowd.
Now, Deep has added Block by Block, a program for high school students, and the Youth Leadership Team, a program for students who have participated in both the Young Authors Project and Block by Block. That addition of programming helps Deep reach more students.
“We had a commitment to work in the public school system, in schools that had fewer resources than other schools,” Dukes explains. “Students whose families are working class often don’t have access to high-quality after-school programs like ours. 67% of the students in Savannah’s public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, which is a proxy for poverty. That’s 17% higher than the national average. 42% of all young people in Savannah grow up poor. In some sense, if you want to work with young people in Savannah, these are the stories you will hear, stories about the challenges of growing up in a place where not everyone is treated the same.”
The beauty of Deep is that it goes beyond just publishing kids’ creative writing.
“We have this thing called mentoring in the margins,” Dukes explains. “Sometimes, the youth write about these really hard topics because we encourage them to write about their own lives. There’ll be this back-and-forth that happens with the writing fellows that are all in the margins of the paper. The youth might feel comfortable writing things down but not speaking them—that happens a ton—and there’ll be this really rich dialogue where they talk about important life challenges and how to express them. It’s in that moment that the youth sort of find out how writing is so profoundly important to dealing with it and who they are.”
Raphael Eissa, Deep’s Community Engagement Coordinator and a former Deep kid, agrees.
“My writing fellow kept trying to tell me to perform at the event, and I was too terrified,” he remembers. “But in the back of my mind, I was still able to write it. At least I was able to comfortably say these things or write these things.”
Eissa was part of Block by Block at Islands High School, where he graduated in 2013.
“I always had this intention of distancing myself from Savannah. Growing up here, I didn’t want to come back,” Eissa shares. “But I started thinking more actively about Deep after graduating, not only about what it meant to me but the trajectory they were on. I became conscious of the change that was coming. I saw that massive shift in mission and scope. The substance itself changed—it was always a great program, and it was always intent on literacy in public schools, but now it was encouraging young people in a very real way, and that mattered to me.”
Part of that shift occurred around November 2015, when former First Lady Michelle Obama awarded Deep a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
“I think that certainly created a burst of visibility for us,” says Dukes. “It definitely gave us cachet in certain areas of Savannah that either may not have known about us or had been ignoring us. At the same time, we started to get national attention for other reasons, like funding from other sources, and we started very intentionally working across these silos of race and class that exist in Savannah. We started being intentional about tearing down some of those walls. That helped us build community in places we hadn’t been in before and helped us start to position ourselves differently.”
Deep celebrates ten years of accomplishments on Oct. 14 at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. BBQ and birthday cake will be served, DJ Jose Ray will provide music, and some of Deep’s artists will perform and talk about their work.
“I’m really excited to drive home the point that Deep is changing things in Savannah that need to be changed,” explains Eissa. “Sometimes you don’t see the work that’s going on in the background, so hopefully this will bring a lot of things to light and show where we’ve been and where we’re going.”