This blog post is the fourth in an ongoing series, 10 Years Deep, that celebrates the evolution and growth of Deep Center’s programs in our first decade. 

(Read all posts in the 10 Years Deep series here.)

Deep Center uses creative writing and the arts to help young people connect their learning to their lives, their lives to their communities, and their actions to positive change. Deep learning is about connections, creativity, play, and building power in the world, in workshops led both by Deep teaching artists and community partners like Stephanie Toliver, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia.

We asked Stephanie Toliver to talk about her experience working with Deep’s passionate young people. This is what she shared:

In 2017, I came to Deep to conduct a sci-fi workshop. In the workshop, I learned alongside Deep staff to better understand the intricacies of science fiction and its possible use with the youth who participate in their various programs. In 2018, I came back to Deep and conducted a short Afrofuturism writing seminar with youth in the Block by Block program. In that space, we used the genre as a way not only to target specific social justice issues that were important to us individually and collectively, but also to highlight our solutions. We used our imaginations to dream of various ways in which we could upend many of the social injustices that exist in the modern world. 

In 2019, I asked Deep to allow me the opportunity to work with Deep Center youth to complete my dissertation project. This project, Speculative Herstories, was centered around the dreams and stories of Black girls. I wanted to know what social justice issues mattered to them, and I wanted to know how those important issues showed up not only in their speculative fiction writing, but also in the stories they told aloud.

Before starting the workshop, I created a plan that centered womanist pedagogy, and used the work of Jewell Parker Rhodes to design the workshop framework. Based on the girls’ interests, I used novel excerpts from Black female speculative fiction authors, including Tracey Baptiste, Octavia Butler, Zetta Elliott, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nicola Yoon. In this way, the entire workshop was created with Black girls in mind, using the writings of Black women to ground us throughout the workshop. 

Stephanie Toliver, Deep teaching artist and doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia.

Even with all of my prior planning, I was not prepared for the knowledge the girls had in store for me. Within the first week, they told me about the various speculative stories that they had already written prior to the workshop. They told me how they felt about the president, gun violence, representation, government systems, and the challenge for equity. They told me about the school system and the various ways in which their bodies, voices, and existences are restricted. It was clear that they needed people to listen to their stories, both oral and written. 

At the end of the workshop, each girl had written a short speculative fiction story that highlighted various issues that were important to them—fitting in, finding home, overcoming family issues, believing in oneself, and fighting oppression. The stories covered the gamut of speculative fiction, including horror, fantasy, and science fiction. They also ranged in length, from one page to eight pages. I did not regulate how much they wrote, nor what they wrote about, because I wanted their stories to be meaningful to them without strict regulations as to how many words would ensure that their imaginations are meaningful. They controlled the narrative, and they showed me that when we let Black girls write—unfettered by arbitrary rules—they will show us the amazing works of art that already exist within the intricacies of their imaginations.  

This workshop was inspired by my dissertation, but it was much more than that. I, too, was a nerdy Black girl. I also imagined intricate stories that were influenced by my love of anime, gaming, and science fiction books. Contrastingly, when I was younger, I never had the opportunity to share them. Now, as a nerdy Black woman, I wonder what would have happened if I had a workshop like this one, filled with Black girl nerds like me who were creating and sharing their speculative stories without fear. I wonder what could have happened if I knew that Black girls were dreaming and creating speculative stories and that Black women were publishing those stories.

I will continue to think about this as I move further into my work, looking for more places to engage with Black girls as they use speculative fiction to tell their truths. I will also continue to thank Deep for allowing me the space to engage with the girls, finding community through collective dreaming. 

Read all posts in the 10 Years Deep series here.