This blog post is written by Director of Youth Programs, Keith Miller, featuring Program Manager, DiCo, Teaching Artist, Phillip Davis, and Assistant Teaching Artist, Javonte Black.
At Deep Center, two key beliefs drive our approach to narrative and systems change: 1) the people aren’t the problem, the problem is the problem, and 2) those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. These beliefs allow our programs to be transformational instead of transactional. The difference: youth and adults in our spaces find something they didn’t know they had access to—a version of themselves that isn’t defined as “at-risk” but rather full of potential.
From the beginning, Deep has been dedicated to supporting all our youth, especially those of color, who bear the brunt of systemic oppression and injustice and grapple with a high degree of trauma and discrimination.
In 2015, we began to be intentional about the ways in which we supported the systems-involved and -impacted youth in our programs. For us, this isn’t a story about how systems-involved young people, or boys and young men of color, are different. Instead, it is a story about Savannah’s biggest untapped resource and reservoir of wisdom: our youth who are pushed to the margins due to behaviors that, due to our lack of understanding, elicit a punitive rather than caring response. Too often, we are penalizing and criminalizing behaviors that can be youthful acting out exacerbated by trauma and systemic harms.
Deep Center is here to set the record straight, and in the name of youth leadership and youth voice, to uplift the tireless and inventive work of 15 boys and young men in the Work Readiness Enrichment Program (WREP).
WREP: You’ll Hear It
The Work Readiness Enrichment Program (“WREP”) is a collaboration between the Chatham County Juvenile Courts, the Savannah Chatham County Public School System, Goodwill Industries, Deep Center, Loop It Up Savannah, and several other community partners. It was created to reduce the number of youth being committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). At the time of its creation, Chatham County had twice the amount of court-involved youth as any other county in Georgia, including Fulton and Gwinnett—home to Atlanta, the most populous metro area in Georgia and the ninth-largest metropolitan statistical area in the United States. WREP serves male youth aged 14-16 who have seen chronic suspensions, are behind in school, and have a history of court involvement.
But WREP is more than that. Walking into the Frank Callen Boys and Girls Club from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., you’ll hear it: the thunderous bounce of basketballs echoing down the halls, tethered to voices yelling, “Pass it to me.” Daps, pounds, and other physical greetings better than handshakes bring comfort and familiarity. Depending on the time, you’ll hear the boys and young men in a circle receiving updates or at computers working on A-Plus, or maybe just arriving after being picked up by Coach Davis.
When the young men arrive, the place is electric with their loud voices. To some, this would be classified as noise, but we know the difference between chaos and happiness. As the young men travel from the gym to the art room, where Deep holds workshops twice a week, their faces are drenched with sweat from activities that require bodily effort. For a while, they won’t adjust the volumes of their voices or their energy. Then, a single clap. One voice, calm and firm, in the room says, “Aight y’all, give me one positive thing that happened to you this weekend,” and with that, the workshop begins.
WREP Talk: Why A Podcast
The idea of Deep supporting a podcast for this year’s WREP program was a given. “I knew I wanted to create a platform for marginalized youth to tell their stories and express their opinions,” says Deep program manager DiCo. “As much as I love seeing pictures of Black and Brown youth doing positive things, I know that oftentimes that’s not an accurate representation of reality—what they’re feeling, thinking, and going through. A podcast was a way for their voices to be heard on topics that felt relevant to them, while also allowing them to explore effective communication skills and public speaking.”
With this in mind, DiCo and her Deep team, teaching artist Phil and assistant teaching artist Javonte, put together a plan with one goal in mind: establish a culture of trust and creativity, while exploring the school-to-prison pipeline through art and the discovery of self. They culled through resources, listening to dozens of episodes from Radio Rookies, Performing Statistics, and A Dream Deferred.
“Once we were in the space, much of our pre-planning had to be thrown out,” DiCo explains. “We’d planned many activities to assist with how to approach the production of a podcast, and the first few activities were very successful, but we quickly learned that the young men best learn through trial and error. We had to bypass much of the pre-learning and get straight to production and teach along the way.” The collaborative end product: WREP Talk, the podcast where Black voices share Black realities—authentic, real talk.
“WREP Talk allows the young men to express themselves honestly and with limited censorship. We allow them to curate the topics, the questions, and who decides to be on the episode,” DiCo says. Traditional learning environments, especially those serving systems-involved youth, often focus on compulsory participation. Deep’s WREP Talk is different. DiCo says, “We allow fluidity and choice in participation, freedoms that they do not often get.”
The secret sauce here is choice. It’s a lesson we take pride in, and one that has transformed our learning spaces into safe and brave havens of love, support, accountability, and mutual respect. We’ve learned that when our young people know we care and value their lived experience, they respond in kind as the experts they are and have always been. Teaching artist Phil agrees. “WREP Talk gives [our boys] the space to truly speak about the things they go through in life. We actually allow them to speak about themselves and what they have going on. [We are] warm demanders; we don’t spew out rules and directions all day, but we require them to expect more of themselves, and we develop the relationships to back that up. We understand [our boys] more than traditional schools have the capacity or patience to do.”
The Invaluable Lessons of Full Humanity
While developing WREP Talk, we also learned some invaluable lessons about working with this specific cohort of movement-makers, a population that so many people and organizations are quick to throw their hands up and give up on:
Check your assumptions—and your bias—at the door.
- We all have implicit bias and assumptions, and it’s important to be aware of that. But whether it’s a savior complex (“I want to help those kids.”) or perpetually low expectations (“There’s no way they can do that.”), we see these lenses for what they are: damaging, disrespectful, and dehumanizing. We openly speak against myths about our systems-involved young people that mis-understand, mis-name, and mis-label them as unruly, uncaring, uninterested, unlikeable, unteachable, and not smart. Our young people are very aware of how the world sees them, and it hurts. We make sure they have a safe and brave space to speak truth to power and be seen in their full humanity instead of feeling like they have to defend it.
Every day won’t go as planned, but that doesn’t make it a loss.
- Workshops and lesson planning require endless retooling. We plan, regroup, shift, and plan some more. It’s part of the process, because co-creation and collaboration are the goals. We learn from our youth, and they learn from us, and sometimes that means throwing out a plan we spent two hours developing, if it’s in the best interest of youth leadership, choice, and voice.
Patience and play are essential.
- Spaces that seek to serve systems-involved youth often see them as adults who need to be “scared straight” or taught a lesson. The teaching method is authoritarian and the learning experience punitive. But we know one thing to be true: our young men are kids, just like other youth their age. We value the lived experience with which they come in the door, see them as experts in their own right, and know them worthy of patience and rigorous play.
Create the space that is needed at the time.
- We are trauma-sensitive and culturally-responsive. That means we honor the context and circumstances in which our young people live, and we accept that sometimes they will need to be human first. Our boys are grappling with present and past ongoing trauma, carrying what feels like the weight of the world on their shoulders, despite their ages. We support them in creating by asking what they need first, and then we make it a learning opportunity. When their needs are met, learning happens organically.
Treat Me Humanely, not Differently
For many of our systems-involved young people, they don’t need to be treated differently; they need to be treated humanely. And the onus is on the village tasked with the privilege of supporting them to understand that behind every behavior is an unmet need. Even when our young people make decisions that result in harming themselves or others, individual and collective transformation requires us reflecting on the conditions and circumstances our village created that are the root cause of these behaviors.
In supporting our youth through incredible past and present ongoing trauma, we’ve learned the powerful impact of connection and care, and how not nurturing the brilliance within our young people causes them to believe the toxic narratives and stereotypes about themselves. “The most challenging thing is the hopelessness we come across in our boys and young men,” says DiCo. “They have so much talent and potential, but they just don’t see it themselves and, therefore, it becomes difficult for them to take things seriously. They don’t always see the value in their own opinions and don’t understand the opportunities that they have access to, simply because, up until this point, people told them otherwise.”
Joining forces with the village of incredibly passionate staff at WREP, Deep has co-created a place equipped to understand our boys and young men better, while ensuring they can have fun, experience joy, and share their voices and much needed perspectives in changing systems that are designed to do more harm than good.
Phil said it best: “Our youth at WREP are just that: boys and young men. Not criminals, not thugs, not bad. They are boys and young men of color in need of love, support, and resources so that they can navigate through their lives.” And we believe the only way to do that is to create the space and opportunity for them to tell the world, in their brilliant wit and glory, what it really means to grow up and live in Savannah through their eyes and perspectives. Dico adds “These young men are not only members of, but the future of our community. What they see, feel, and believe is valid and should be listened to and considered seriously.”
So, without further ado, we introduce WREP Talk, the podcast where Black voices share Black realities—authentic real talk. Experience the brilliance, humor, and humanity of our boys and young men who know what they know, are curious about what they don’t, and don’t mind having fun in the process. Click here to see the full playlist of WREP Talk.