Organizations That Don’t Suck – Deep

I’m envious of organizations that get to focus their mission so specifically on one substantial purpose and are able to carry out that mission with extraordinary results. We don’t have that luxury here in Haiti where there are too many needs surrounding us to keep our focus narrow. But another org working in the US, specifically in Savannah, Georgia, has always impressed me in this aspect. They don’t screw around trying to save the world, they’re just teaching kids to write. And through those kids and their ability to express themselves, I have no doubt this world is in for some change regardless. For this edition of Organizations That Don’t Suck, I present to you Deep. I learned of this group back when I thought I was going to move to Savannah and was researching other nonprofits in the city. This one really stuck out to me as being one of a kind and the more I learn about it, the more impressed I become. Not only does Deep not suck, but it pretty much rocks. Another organization right there in your own backyard, USAmericans, that’s doing incredible work that’s worth supporting. If for no other reason than for this, from my interview with interim Executive Director, Joanna Dasher, “Truly, we don’t give anything to these kids, but we ask a lot of them.” How refreshing is it to hear a nonprofit leader say that! Below is the rest of my interview with Joanna from Deep:

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GM: First off, just tell us what is Deep and how and why did it get started?

JD: Deep, as we know it today, was founded when two organizations merged back in 2009. Deep was started as an arts education nonprofit in Savannah when Edgewood Arts came to town in 2008. Edgewood Arts started as a writer’s residency for poets and authors from around the country who came together to live and write while mentoring a few kids in writing their stories once a week. Once the leaders of these two organizations (Deep and Edgewood Arts) met, they knew they were on to something and decided to merge. In 2009, they combined to form the Deep Center, Inc., a community of local writers who help public school kids write and share their stories. We do this today by recruiting local writers (our Writing Fellows), training them to run workshops, and sending them in teams of two to our public middle schools once a week for three months to run writing workshops for 12 kids (our DeepKids). During those weekly writing workshops, they read a bit to get inspiration from great writers, but they spend the majority of their time working on basic composition skills, drafting original works of poetry and prose, and revising thoroughly until their writing meets our publishing standards of original content, vivid description, and fearless style. After the last workshop, Deep publishes every kid in a professional book that is carried in our local public libraries and sold at a huge book launch and literary reading downtown. The DeepKids are invited to the launch, and the 50 top pieces are read on stage by their young authors before an audience of nearly 600 people. (We call this event Deep Speaks!)

DSC_0677GM: One thing that I’ve always respected about Deep is how focused it is on it’s specific mission of teaching kids to write. Tell us a little bit about why you feel this is so important and have you ever thought of expanding your programs beyond that?
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JD: We believe that being able to articulate and share a story with skill, confidence, and courage is extremely important for a students’s cognitive development, social-emotional learning, and basic communication. In almost every circumstance, being an articulate and compelling communicator provides a person with a better shot. More than 75% of our DeepKids are low-income, meaning that they are on the free or reduced-lunch program at school because of economic need. Our DeepKids are learning to give themselves a better shot by becoming expert storytellers, communicators, and published authors. We work exclusively with middle grades kids (6th-8th graders) because research shows that at this stage in their cognitive development their brains are developing at such a rate —the only other time when their brains develop this quickly is when they are 2 years old—that the things they spend time doing now will stick with them for the long haul. We also hope that Deep has long-term effects on Savannah’s abysmal public high school graduation rate, which was under 60% last year. (This remains to be seen—our first DeepKids will be seniors this year.) We have no immediate plans to expand our program now that we are offered to every public middle school in Savannah.
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GM: Can you share with us a personal story of one of the DeepKids and how the programs have impacted them?
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JD: Definitely. CaSonya Johnson was in sixth grade when she started Deep last fall (2012) at Myers Middle School, which is a Title I public school. Her mother was afraid she wouldn’t pass sixth grade, much less ever get to high school. She was invited to Deep and attended for three months, right there at her school, from 3 to 4:15 once a week. At the end of the workshop, CaSonya published several pieces in the anthology. One of CaSonya’s poems won third prize in the Georgia Poetry Society state-wide youth poetry contest (I’ve attached her photo and the award-winning poem). The contest is open to public and private school kids in grades six through twelve. That means that CaSonya beat 12th-graders with her work. Not only that, but CaSonya was invited to read at a conference in Atlanta alongside the US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey. Her mother is immensely proud, and when I sat next to her at a poetry reading a few months ago (to which CaSonya had been invited as a guest reader), she said she never knew that things like this existed or were possible for her daughter.
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GM: What makes Deep different than your usual after school program?
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JD: Most after-school programs are meant to keep kids out of trouble. Many are treated like a study hall, and most are run by educators. Deep is meant to get kids to take risks—intellectual and emotional risks—by doing something really difficult. We challenge them with the task of writing something and sharing it with the group and, eventually, with the world. We bring in local writers who are passionate about and practiced in the craft of writing, and their enthusiasm and expertise rubs off on the kids. The workshops are intense and demanding (and fun). Truly, we don’t give anything to these kids, but we ask a lot of them. And they seem to appreciate that. The challenge that we present our kids with is what sets Deep apart, I think. [Also, in case it wasn’t clear, Deep is completely free to every kid, and we are not subsidized by the school system. We are independently funded and directed.]
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Candid_EBroadGM: Tell us a little bit about the fellows method of working with the children?
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JD: Our Writing Fellowships are highly selective and demanding. We require a resume, an original writing sample, and application, and an interview from each applicant, and our fellows volunteer more than 100 hours a year. Once selected, each new fellow attends a two-day training event at which they learn to plan and run writing workshops. Every weak, Writing Fellows spend 4-5 hours in total on Deep. They work in teams of two and meet every week to come up with a lesson plan, then they teach together for 75 minutes once a week, and they comment thoroughly on every piece of writing produced every week. Kids get comprehensive comments on everything they do. Together with their fellows, the DeepKids read something and write every week. Over 11 weeks, they spend 3-4 weeks on basic skills like using description and figurative language, they spend 4-5 weeks drafting, and they spend the last few weeks revising and preparing their projects for submission to the “publisher” (aka the Deep Center).
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GM: How many children are involved in your program and how many fellows do you have?
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JD: We publish nearly 400 kids from 16 different schools in Savannah each year. We have 32 Writing Fellows (2 per workshop) on staff.
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GM: Besides the fellows, what are other ways that people can get involved?
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JD: We have a few creative and staff internships available for local artists and professionals. And one of the most powerful things that one person can do is to be a Deep Patron. Patrons, who make a small monthly gift (just $12/month) that sponsors a Young Author Scholarship for one kid. For the cost of three lattes each month, a person can completely change a kid’s idea of what they’re capable of. You can be a patron by signing up at this link: http://deepkids.com/patrons/
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GM: If you got a donation for $10,000 tomorrow, undesignated, what would you use it for?
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JD: A $10,000 donation would keep Deep in one of our sixteen Partner Schools for four years, and that’s exactly where it would go. The sustainability of our Deep is important to us because stability is incredibly important to our kids. They’re used to things going away, and we do not aim to contribute to that.
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GM: I read a lot of inspirational writing from your kids even just on Facebook. Could you share with us a piece or two that Deep kids have written that you’ve found particularly impressive lately?
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JD: I’ve attached a couple of my personal favorites (a letter poem and a short story) from our spring 2013 program. Enjoy!

Jessica Chamblee – From Father to Daughter

Adera Lewis – A Trip To Grandma’s Final Resting Place

Okay, did you read those? I hope so. They’ll probably make you a better person if you do. And better people make a better world. I hope that some of my readers will honestly consider becoming a Deep Patron.  Seriously, $12 a month can teach a kid to be that strong of a writer which makes them a stronger person and gives them reason to believe in their ability to learn and create. It’s a no-brainer if you ask me. Of course, if you have that $10,000 laying around too, feel free to send it their way. You can find out more about Deep and how to support them by visiting their website or liking them on Facebook. Like them on Facebook just so you can get some snippets of their writing. Every time they post something, I find myself inspired. Also, Joanna has a blog of her own that you all should probably be following. It’s called Serving On and it’s about transitioning from military leadership to social leadership. As a veteran herself, Joanna shares a unique perspective on the nonprofit world that she has now found herself in. So check it out!

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2 comments

    1. Thanks, Rachel. You were truly awesome as a Fellow, too. I am bummed you had to move away, but you made huge difference for those kids while you were here! Thank you for your service!

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