This blog post, written by Director of Development and Communications Coco Papy, is the first in an ongoing series, Our Stories Are the Evidence, that explores Deep Center’s evolution into policy work.
(Read all posts in the Our Stories Are the Evidence series here.)
“I just hope that more people will ignore the fatalism of the argument that we are beyond repair. We are not beyond repair. We are never beyond repair.”
In October of 2019, Deep Center released our very first policy brief, Our Stories Are the Evidence: Youth-Powered Policy Recommendations for a More Equitable Savannah, which featured six recommendations for a healthy, just, and equitable Savannah. We designed these recommendations for some of the largest institutions in Savannah and Chatham County, including law enforcement, the Juvenile Court, the Savannah Chatham County Public School District, Savannah City Council, Chatham County Commission, Georgia State Legislature, child-serving institutions, nonprofits, and the faith community at large.
The brief is a product of the whole Deep Center village: an intergenerational, multi-racial, intersectional community committed to raising up Savannah’s young people and their families and removing the barriers that hold our communities back. During the process that produced the brief, our emphasis was on producing actionable data to fuel policy solutions. If there was one thing that people made clear from the start, it is that Savannah suffers from dialogue fatigue. Our communities are tired of talking about our challenges. We are ready to do something about them.
Some in our community have asked, “Why policy? Why now?”
The short answer is that Deep’s young leaders and families led us here. In their writing and art, Savannah’s youth made it clear that the majority of their challenges do not arise from a lack of character, grit, heart, or talent. The barriers they bump into day in and day out have often been built by someone else—the result of a policy put in place by elected officials or other institutional decision-makers. As Deep evolved our model of creative youth and community leadership, it became clear that our young people are hungry not just to heal, express themselves, and perform well in school. Our youth leaders wanted to use there skills to effect real and lasting change in our city. So we evolved from a model of individual healing to community healing, which means working toward transforming our systems while supporting youth in their growth.
What do we mean by policy? A policy is a rule—legislative and administrative—that helps to make up the invisible structures that shape communities, culture, education, work, civic life, and business, and largely determine the quality—or lack of quality—of our lives. Policies at the neighborhood, city, and county level play a particularly important role because regular people working to remove barriers to community wellbeing can mobilize others and focus on policy reforms that directly improve their neighborhoods. For instance, policies determine whether or not working class neighborhoods have access to healthy foods, affordable housing, funding to build parks and playgrounds, quality schools, and workforce development resources.
Policies are the bones that have built our institutions, courts, schools, and legislative systems. Deep’s mission to create a just and equitable Savannah means that, in our policy work, we are asking: do our city, county, and state policies benefit all of us, or just a few of us?
In answering this question, we followed a trail of historical, structural injustices and exclusion driven by racism and biases framed by gender, class, sexuality, and ability. We can trace anti-black racism, in particular, starting with slavery, to antebellum Black Codes and vagrancy laws, to Jim Crow and redlining, to the mass incarceration of today, and that strain of systemic injustice remains very much embedded in our physical landscape, our institutions, and the policies that define our civic life and access to wealth and resources.
How did Deep get here? In 2018, Deep Center’s community of staff, youth leaders, board of directors, and a diverse array of community stakeholders (education and mental health experts, families, academics, and elected officials) came together to take an honest look at how Deep’s programs addressed the manifold needs of young people and their families. We recognized that we were doing a good job of lifting youth and families up only to see them bump into ceilings they didn’t create. We came to the conclusion that if we truly wanted to see young people thrive, we needed to start using our organizational power not just to serve them but take to action concerning the unfair systems that are hurting our youth and families.
That decision represented a logical evolution for Deep Center. We developed a root-cause model of youth and community development that works on three parallel tracks: direct service, systems change, and narrative change. Deep lifts up youth and their village, advocates for just policies, and disrupts dehumanizing narratives with firsthand stories about youth healing, growing, and thriving through individual growth and collective action.
When we work to develop our policy recommendation our community leads us , with young people at the center of the process. In this way, we create recommendations based on our community’s actual experiences. This sounds like an obvious enough and practical approach to community development, but the fact is that it is rarely done this way—especially in Savannah. Most community development and planning processes exclude the people most impacted by the plans and policies being created. At Deep, we put community members in charge.
Among the several strands of dialogue and research that produced our first policy brief was a year-long youth-led research project. The methodology of this process is called “youth participatory action research” (YPAR). Deep’s YPAR was conducted by the five members of our Action Research Team (ART) in collaboration with Deep staff and expert researchers from the University of Georgia’s College of Education and Missouri State University.
Action Research Team members participated in weekly research training and data analysis seminars with their adult co-researchers on Deep’s staff. University of Georgia and Missouri State University co-researchers engaged with ART in periodic training and re-visioning sessions at the front end of the process to introduce not only the methodology of YPAR, but also the theoretical framework which entailed rethinking notions of what counted as data. ART members, as part of the iterative process, identified a research question: How do Savannah Chatham County Public School System’s discipline policies and informal practices address root causes and accountability processes?
In order to address this question, ART co-researchers developed a survey as well as a narrative prompt to elicit stories from fellow youth. After gathering the data, ART analyzed it for core themes and then utilized the participatory action research process to train their peers as researchers. That is, after deciding on the question, gathering and analyzing the data, Deep engineered three youth summits, convening up to 60 youth from organizations throughout the county to teach them YPAR methods and engage them as researchers.
Deep’s recommendations are based, in part, on the collection and distillation of the data generated by youth and their ongoing analysis of the findings in the field. In October 8th, 2019, our young people presented these recommendations to the larger Savannah community with a request: now is the time to imagine something different.
Deep Center’s policy work functions on two tracks:
1) We are building community awareness and skills so youth and families can be informed about how policies are impacting their lives and learn to advocate for themselves. To support this, we will release our first-ever community toolkit so that families and allies can build skills and advocate alongside us.
2) Deep is presenting our policy brief both on local and statewide stages, engaging elected officials and policymakers, and advocating for reforms. In a few weeks, we will make our way to the Georgia State Capitol to advocate for two specific bills we believe will improve the lives of court-involved young people.
While the challenge is great, there is a great deal of fertile ground in which to grow the transformation we seek. Savannah deserves change, and we know change is possible.
So why policy? Why now? Because for Savannah to overcome its history and its challenges, we need policies and decision-making processes that, by their very nature, disrupt history’s inequities. When Savannah determines the policies that define the course of people’s lives, all of Savannah needs to be at the table, with equal access and full transparency, and an equity framework for creating solutions.
Yes, there are challenges to working in this way—a way that is wholly democratic. But we will make the road by walking, and we will get where we want to go by beginning here, now.