News & Opinion The (Civil) Society Column
A year of loving and dreaming with Emergent Savannah By Jessica Leigh Lebos
JAN 6-12, 2015
First week into the year, and I’ve already had two traffic tantrums and eaten my weight in chocolate croissants. So much for resolutions. Meh, unreasonable expectations rarely lead to success anyway. When it comes to creating positive change, I’ve decided instead to adopt a new strategy for 2016: Flood my psyche with magnanimous adoration, preposterous possibilities and glorious speculations and see what sticks. That philosophy seems to be working stupendously for Emergent Savannah. The grassroots advocacy group launched last January with the intention of empowering local citizens to shape the future, a lofty goal in this Age of Apathy. To get a handle on a workable plan, its first action was to ask Savannahians what we love about and what we dream for our city—and we had to answer not with Facebook posts but Post-it notes. Organizers set up colorful writing stations at the Sentient Bean and shlepped pads of paper and pens all over town to various festivals, elementary schools and far-flung neighborhoods. Thousands contributed their scribbles, and the sticky squares festooned the Bean until it looked like the walls had been attacked with Tibetan prayer flags. The low-tech medium not only brought opportunity for plenty of face-to-face interaction, it provided a rainbow of raw data: The Love/Dream Project identified trends that cross Savannah’s numerous cultural and economic divides, showing that most of us love Savannah’s history, its natural beauty, its diversity, its potential. We all dream of safer streets, better schools, more art, less crime, higher paying jobs, a responsive local government. “Looking at it from the perspective of our hopes and dreams, we found that we really aren’t that different,” says Emergent Savannah’s head coordinator Courtnay “Coco” Papy. “So we took that information and have tried to create conversations that matter to everyone.” Coco, along with sculptor Betsy Bull, painter A.J. Perez, photographer Emily Earl and musician Alex Raffray, catalogued those paper declarations and quickly morphed them into dozens of jam-packed events in 2015: Emergent Savannah’s monthly “Monday Means Community” panels attracted stand8 ing-room only crowds at The Bean, the
comments-section vitriol and anonymous trolls, though a few gatherings definitely entertained as well as educated. (Oh, did you think discussing the city noise ordinance with working musicians in the room was going to be tame?) Now, a year after interpreting that wall of fluttering paper squares, Emergent Savannah has firmly established itself as a highly relevant entity for anyone who gives a fig about the city’s future. The crew is celebrating its first anniversary by returning to the Love/Dream theme for its first Monday Means Community event of 2016 on Jan. 11. Emceed by the indie arts queen JinHi Soucy Rand, the evening features reflections from attorney raconteur Wade Herring, proper Victorian preservationist Ardis Wood, food justice maven Jessica Mathis, beloved politico Regina Thomas and teenage poet and recent White House award recipient Andre Massey. (Yours truly will also share a few thoughts about what I love/dream about/for Savannah, which is sort of my favorite topic.) Meet your friendly neighborhood Emergent Savannah activists: (L to R): Alex Raffray, Emily Per usual, the conversation will continue Earl, Courtnay “Coco” Papy, A.J. Perez, Betsy Bull and “veteran insurgent” Tom Kohler. into the night for those 21+ at the American Legion, where I’m pretty positive all of Savannah’s problems will be solved longtime community gathering spot that cultural, partisan, generational and racial someday. Betsy calls a “beacon of acceptance.” (It boundaries to build a consensus of SavanFor 2016, the Emergent Savannah actionis also a bastion of delicious baked goods, nah’s unheard voices. ists have a bit more structure to work with specifically chocolate croissants.) They found lockstep with veteran insur- than sticky notes as they move forward with The themes of economic development gent Tom Kohler, who has helped bridge their mission of inspiring Savannahians beyond the minimum wage tourism sector relationships with some of Savannah’s to leave their screens for a minute and get and the establishment a sustainable arts most invisible residents for decades. involved. They’ve received fiscal sponsoreconomy came up repeatedly throughout “The core idea in my mind was if we keep ship under the Educational Media Foundathe year, and a unique “un-debate” for City using the same processes, we’re going to tion, which means these hard-working folks Council candidates was roundly lauded as get the same outcomes,” says Tom, who can replenish the supply cabinet and maybe one of the most informative interludes of serves as something of a den papa at the receive tiny stipends for their time. (Nonprofit sector, take note: last year’s ES the local election season. Emergent Savannah clubhouse inside “There was all this talk about Savancommunity arts collective Sulfur Studios, budget was under $1000.) Future programming includes a talk nah growing, but we saw what was hapfounded by busy bees Emily and A.J. this with New York Times reporter Elizabeth pening and were not necessarily feeling summer. Becker (“The Revolt against Tourism”), a like we were a part of it,” recalls Coco, “What we’ve tried to do is think of new lively panel on Savannah’s LGBT history, who returned to her hometown in 2014 on ways to communicate with people, new collaborative art shows and official town fire for social action and has lent her pasways to invite people to meet and be with hall meetings with elected officials. sion and skills to many other good works, one another.” The affable radicals also resolve to keep including Deep Center’s Block by Block Each meet-up centered around an loving, keep dreaming, and “continuing to and the Flannery O’Connor Book Trail. unlikely cast of characters—a mix of artpack the Bean like sardines.” “We wanted to understand our place and ists, activists, politicians, city staff and Yet their origin story still seems like a provide a space for people to learn.” business leaders whose agendas may not She adds with a grin, “We’re trying to line up on the surface—and the ES activists solid way to start the new year: Instead of feeling guilt for stress eating or dissolving make civics sexy.” earned their diplomacy badges by wranThese artsy types in their 20s and gling all of them into the same room. Infor- into rage over people’s inability to navigate 30s classify themselves as progressives, mation architect Brittany Curry traveled four-way stops, slap every awesome idea you can think of to the wall of your brain though they managed to stay remarkably from Milledgeville throughout the year to neutral through the fall’s super sparky document the action, her markers flying as and watch what happens. cs political lightning storm, focusing instead she channeled choice quotes and cute likeMonday Means Community: My Love/My on inclusivity. Recognizing that social nesses into brilliantly hued murals. Dream, 6-8pm, Monday, Jan. 11, Sentient Bean, connection is arguably Savannah’s greatThe resulting atmosphere has est currency, they sought counsel across been refreshingly civil in this day of 13 E. Park.