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Community Stepping Stones Engages Art, Neighbors In Transitional Change






Community Stepping Stones stands as a vanguard for educating, protecting and enriching the lives of inner-city, at-risk youth in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood north of downtown Tampa.

For 10 years, the nonprofit has operated out of quaint, cabin-like structures originally built for what was once the Mann-Wagon fishing camp on the Hillsborough River about five miles north of the city's urban center. On any given day, one can stand on the adjacent riverbank to see dolphins and manatees swimming in the water as butterflies, Cardinals and Blue Jays fly over native trees, wild flowers and Florida grasses that dominate the landscape on three-plus acres.

The cabins are where transitional changes in people's lives take place as classes meet in spaces designed for learning about art, computer literacy, job training and so much more. With sayings like "Paint the Possible'' on the facades, the natural as well as the human-made environment encourages both interior and exterior exploration for program participants and for the community at-large.

"These have not been the best times in the world for nonprofits,'' says Sigrid Tidmore, Executive Director of Community Stepping Stones. When the national and local economies declined, grants and donations did as well.

Eventually, the board of Community Stepping Stones reached a solution: Within their nonprofit operations, they would develop a for-profit entity to acquire another means of income -- a social enterprise. The initial question was: What can we capitalize on?

The answer: Since 2005, Community Stepping Stones has been engaging the community in arts projects called Murals2Go. That concept propelled the organization to the next planning phase. But one question remained: How would this venture become tangible?

Each year, the Children's Board of Hillsborough County hosts its Business Plan Competition for local nonprofits to devise a for-profit business plan. Last summer, Community Stepping Stones began prepping for the opportunity. Murals2Go became its enterprise.

"The idea was that we would look for opportunities throughout the community -- both commercially and publicly generated opportunities -- to do murals on walls,'' explains Tidmore.

In addition, says Tidmore, the plan was to put to work teens who otherwise wouldn't have access to jobs.

Designing World-Class Murals

Despite stiff competition, the business plan for Murals2Go received 2nd place, and the organization was awarded $15,000 to support the venture. 

Since then, Community Stepping Stones has made strides to physically, artistically and socially cultivate innovation. Progress hasn't been easy or alone.

"We want to do world-class murals,'' says Tidmore.

Murals2Go is partnering with professional artists, and has attended events to learn advanced techniques to enhance their work. In March, their design team attended the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

The experience was invaluable, Tidmore says. Philadelphia is nirvana of murals because the city invests millions public dollars to fund thousands of murals that adorn the city, and pay hundreds of full-time artists the city employs.

"They're so much different than what we try to do down here.''

While learning about advanced techniques such as applying images onto e-panels to ensure longevity, the group came away with something more important that they hadn't anticipated.

"The most important thing we came away with -- and it was so unexpected, but it was so a reflection on our personality -- was the idea of using murals for the purpose of justice.''

Murals can become illustrations of narratives related to social justice.
They could illustrate the narrative of justice for ethnic populations.
They could illustrate a narrative of rehabilitative justice for those who have been recently incarcerated.
Of nutritional justice.
Of economic justice.
Women’s rights.
Hope.

That's how the discussion evolved. The idea so suited Community Stepping Stones, Tidmore explains, because the founders and board members have been champions for justice for a long time.

Capitalizing On Community

Since the narrative reflects the state of the community, it seems necessary to involve members of the community. When a project is underway, Murals2Go engages the community, namely those who have the closest connections to the stories being conveyed. After an image is determined and the color scheme selected, members of the community are invited to pick up brushes and paint. After the painting is done, fine artists add details and finishing touches.

"What you have is the psychic energy of the people who care most about the topic,'' says Tidmore.

Often, with public art, artists convey their interpretation of the community. The difference with Murals2Go is that the community is conveying its own interpretation of itself to the artist.

Aiding a multicultural and diverse community may have its challenges. However, narratives in the form of images transcend cultural and language barriers.

"It takes longer,'' admits Tidmore. "But I think it accomplishes a few things: It connects our young people more to the community and makes them more sensitive about what is -- what the fabric of the thing is. I think that's very healing.''

Murals2Go is gaining momentum, and shows no signs of slowing down. "Chaos central'' is how Tidmore describes it.

Currently on display at the Tampa Bay Times Forum is Murals2Go's mosaic entitled "One Waterway, One Tampa Bay.'' The 12-foot by eight-foot mural shows a dolphin and a manatee (the two animals most often seen near CSS’s campus) swimming in the ocean toward a beautiful sunset. The image is composed of detritus -- including phone covers, bottle caps, a bicycle tire and several syringes -- picked up during Community Stepping Stones’ many beach clean-ups. In addition, their exhibit "Think eARTh'' is on display until October at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

Tidmore walks into Community Stepping Stones' art studio, where Murals2Go is working on a project for three and four-year-olds at Layla's House, an early childhood development center. The plan: create large, individual alphabets with things that begin with each individual letter.

The letter A sports an armadillo and an angel eating an apple.

The letter Z features Zoey, the zipped-up Zebra.

"Beautiful Beasties''

Arthur (Art) Keeble, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, walks in to observe the substantial progress being made.

The newest exhibition is entitled "Beautiful Beasties: Facts & Fantasies From Amazing Aquatic Microbes.'' Community Stepping Stones took their kids to conduct water tests and see what plankton looked like under a microscope. The works on display are the kids’ interpretation of what they saw.

"It is beautiful,'' says Keeble, clearly in awe.

"Beasties'' is on display at the Hillsborough Community College's Ybor campus through the end of July. The exhibit reflects not only what the kids learned about the role microorganisms play in the oceanic ecosystem, but about how that role is being hindered by pollution. The group hopes to raise awareness about the issue.

One paint stroke at a time, Community Stepping Stones repaints the idea of the community that surrounds it. To participate, you don't have to be an artist; you just have to want to re-illustrate the narrative of your  community.

Quincy Walters, a freelance journalist in the Tampa Bay region, writes about local people and culture. Postings from his blog, World Observations, have appeared in Tampa Epoch and Insight Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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