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Q&A: Deep Center fuels Savannah’s youth to use writing, arts, culture to improve community health

Arts & Culture

Our community-based partners are applying culture and creativity to their efforts to advance the health and wellbeing of residents. In the Q&A below, Louise Tremblay, interim executive director of the Deep Center, discusses her organization’s approach to use writing, cultural production and art as platforms to fuel the creative fire of Savannah’s youth and connect their learnings to transformational change in their communities.

Q1: For those who are unfamiliar with your organization, what is the story you want to tell about The Deep Center? Why was it created? What program offerings do you want to uplift?

The Deep Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was founded in 2008 to address the detrimental effects of poverty on literacy in Savannah, Georgia. During our first year, we hosted free creative-writing workshops for 24 young people from two local public schools and published one book of writing.

We’ve grown a lot since 2008. We now host 10 programs for both youth and adults. We intentionally serve youth and adults both in the school district and in the justice system, and work on the tracks of direct services, narrative change and systems change. We currently work with 700 youth across Georgia and more than 200 teachers, adult artists, writers and community stakeholders every year. All told, we have supported more than 4,500 young people with our free writing, arts, and leadership programs. We’ve published more than 120 anthologies of youth and adult work; trained more than 400 local writing mentors; hosted live readings reaching diverse audiences of 12,000; and shared Savannah’s stories around the nation.

“Ultimately, we envision a Savannah where our young people and their families thrive as learners, community leaders, and artists; and we envision a community, a government, and institutions that hear, value, and respond to their voices with equity, justice, and care.” ~ Louise Tremblay

A black and white image shows a group of youth looking up and pointing at a large mural. The mural is a drawing of a rectangle with the word Savannah written in the top left-hand corner, a large blank space underneath the word, and a man holding a wrench in the right-hand corner.
Deep Center youth are invited to imagine what an equitable Savannah looks like and what tools they will need to achieve it.

Q2: Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program positions culture and creativity as drivers of more just communities so that residents can thrive and live self-determined lives. We believe the pre-conditions for long-term change include resident agency and collective action. Can you share more about how pre-conditions show up in the work of The Deep Center?

In an inequitable ecosystem that is the product of an unjust history, placing the burden of change only on young people and vulnerable populations ignores their day-to-day realities, sets them up to fail, and, most importantly, misses the root causes of their challenges. Far too often, Deep Center has lifted up youth, adults and families only to see them bump into ceilings they did not build. We have come to understand that in order for us to truly support Savannah’s youth and families, we must lift them up while simultaneously working to dismantle these ceilings. In 2018 during a strategic planning session, it became evident that we could no longer in good conscience continue to hold up our young people in our programs without confronting the systemic barriers that they would run into. We made the decision to work from a root-cause framework and began incorporating legislative and administrative policy and advocacy into our work.

Just a few years later, we now have a public policy wing that works in tandem with our community organizing efforts. Our policy decisions are pulled from young people in our spaces, the experiences in our communities, and the day in, day out work with our partners and fellow stakeholders. All are focused on identifying the many different needs in our city, our county, and in our state. As of 2022, we have published numerous policy briefs and memos, worked directly on city and county task forces, advocated at the state level, and provided nonpartisan policy development, technical assistance, and support to elected leaders, administrative officials, and think tanks across every level of legislation.

Q3: For those who still may not be convinced, how can culture and creativity inspire youth to become agents of change?

Our framework is anti-racist, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive. We promote a roots-cause model of youth and community development that works on three parallel tracks: direct service, systems change, and narrative change. Deep Center lifts up youth and their village, advocates for just policies, and disrupts dehumanizing narratives with firsthand stories about youth and their families’ healing, growing, and thriving through individual growth and collective action.

Deep Center meets young people where they are – with their joys, unique personal experiences, and community knowledge – to celebrate who they are, challenge them to express themselves powerfully, and support their critical awareness of how their stories intersect with the neighborhood block, the city, and the world beyond.

Furthermore, our pedagogy is assets-based, encouraging participants to use their lives, families, and communities as the primary source of material for their original writing, artwork, and leadership activities. Our organizational place in the communities with which we work is defined by the values of inclusion, transparency, and institutional humility.

We listen. Our teaching writers and artists reflect this humility: they and all adult stakeholders who enter our learning spaces are in the room with youth as co-learners and fellow writers and artists.

Q4: Deep Center created a set of policy recommendations during the pandemic to guide rapid response efforts. Can you share more about the process, recommendations, how they were implemented, and overall outcome(s)?

Deep Center has convened two teams – the Action Research Team and the Policy Action Committee – made up of youth, family members, local community stakeholders, and national experts to research and identify the administrative and legislative policies that are harming Chatham County’s families. The first phase of this research and dialogue culminated in late 2019, when Deep and our youth leaders, in partnership with Dr. Kevin Burke of the University of Georgia, published 1) our research findings and 2) our first-ever policy brief published in 2019, Our Stories Are the Evidence: Youth-Powered Policies for a More Just and Equitable Savannah, which identified policies that, if enacted, would make Savannah a safe and supportive place for working-class young people, youth of color, and other marginalized young people and their families.

Since then, Deep has committed to systems change work, publishing more policy briefs, Rapid Responses, New Realities: Deep Center’s COVID-19 Policy Recommendations, and our 2020 policy brief, Building a Restorative Community: Recommendations for City, County, State, School Board, Law Enforcement, and Beyond, and our most recent brief Bound Up Within Each Other. We also have created multiple white papers, technical assistance memos, and other briefs that present evidence, data, and lived experience on things like juvenile fines and fees, bail and bond reform, local jail churn, the cost savings of decriminalization, etc. Our policy process is beginning to look a little different, as we’ve now expanded into multiple spaces and are not convening stakeholders in intentional meetings, but rather working with them one-on-one more often.

Q5: Are there any additional key learnings you’d like to share with readers regarding how culture and creativity programs can inform public policies?

Deep Center is invested in policies that have an overall positive impact on our community, leading to better public safety. It is our belief that small, yet meaningful policy decisions can lead to a more equitable Chatham County. We were once told by a local stakeholder that there are simply too many fires to put out, and that a cash bail ordinance of this nature is simply not a big enough fire. Yet, we ask the following: Can we in good faith tell those who have suffered the effects of reactionary policy that their individual experience of injustice was simply not enough of a fire for us to put out?

Deep Center is invested in a Chatham County that works for all: for justice-impacted people, for young people and their families, four justice stakeholders, for taxpayers, for neighborhoods. For all. When our community says that it’s time to change things, we have to use all of our organizational power and leverage to change policies and legislation.

“We are saying that it can be better, and that justice should not be afforded by your race, your zip code, or your tax bracket. That if we give people the resources they need, we will have safer communities. That we can’t plant seeds in barren dirt and then blame the seed. Our conditions simply need to be better.” ~ Louise Tremblay

Learn more about Louise Tremblay and Deep Center by visiting: Follow Deep Center on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.