Collective conscience

This is how the members of the Stone Soup Collective see things: "Ideally, we'd like everybody to get a prize."

Those words are spoken by 21-year-old Paul Jones, the current coordinator of the Stone Soup Collective, a progressive information resource and "radical space" that opened in October on South Orange Avenue. Jones is referring to a raffle currently being conducted by the collective to raise money for a computer. For $5, ticket buyers might win gift certificates for The Eco Store, Crealdé School of Art or the vendor who sells vegan hot dogs downtown. Other prizes include a spoken-word CDs and a sculpture by Stone Soup member Miguel Cancel, the artist who received a mini media blitz in October after leaving his whimsically abstract works scattered around downtown parks. Selling 100 tickets would be good, notes Jones; 200 would be great.

Those prizes paint a picture of Stone Soup's concerns: namely, progressive and radical political causes; artistic expression; and educational programs that either directly or indirectly support those two goals. If you fall anywhere on the nonmainstream scale -- whether you're a shake-things-up political activist, an artist unconcerned about officially sanctioned options, or someone who, inspired by the blossoming of global protest movements, wants to learn more about social justice -- Stone Soup would be a good place to seek out. And while you're there, someone might offer you hummus and ask if you know anything about gardening, because, you see, they're trying to grow things out back, and they could use a hand.

Tori Cole, who's been involved with the group since 1998, when it was just an idea looking for a home, a community and some funds, describes the folks who find their way into the two-room space lined with bookshelves. "There are people who come through the door for a single event," says Cole, 23. "That's sort of a one-way relationship." On the next tier are the more than 100 dues-paying members, who receive reduced rates for events and get to check books out of a library that started with 600 volumes and now numbers close to 1,500. Of those members, some volunteer their time to help staff the place. Those who volunteer 10 hours a month and come to at least three of the weekly meetings can become part of the Consensus Body, which meets weekly to make decisions and oversee the various committees that handle such things as the organization's finances, the music events, media relations and membership issues. And in case this all sounds a little too serious, there's a committee dedicated to "fun."

On a recent Thursday night at Stone Soup, the barefoot singer of a post-punk band stood two feet from a handful of appreciative listeners. He couldn't have gotten much further away if he tried; given the size of the space, it was like watching a band playing in your living room. Young women with studded leather belts lounged on the floor, while three or four gauzier-dressed people chatted on the back room's sofa.

Two days later Stone Soup was a stop for the "Remembering Omran Bus Tour," a presentation given by three traveling activists who talked about the devastating effect that the Iraq sanctions have had on that country's population. About a dozen people watched brief videos and listened to a doctor's firsthand account of his travels through Iraq. Recurring Stone Soup events include tai chi classes, a "barter brunch" and open-mike nights.

The group has its roots in the 1998 demonstrations held at Rollins College against the bombing of Iraq. People began meeting weekly on the steps of a Rollins building. "Out of that group spawned the founders of this collective," says Jones, with the mission being to provide information that isn't always easy to come by in our corporate-dominated society. "There were a lot of ideas that weren't represented locally," explains Jones. It took about a year and a half for the group to raise the necessary start-up funds and find a location.

"Info shops" like Stone Soup began springing up a few years ago in Europe; currently there are about 15 in the U.S., including the Civic Media Center in Gainesville. This informal network shares experience, contacts and information. For example, on March 17 and 18 the Turning Point Roadshow came to Stone Soup before taking their workshops on globalization to Valencia Community College, the University of Central Florida and Rollins. How did Stone Soup hook up with Turning Point? "They contacted us," Jones says simply.

That's pretty much how it works: People bring to the space ideas and events that complement Stone Soup's interests. "Because the space is an open space, people can come in and set up the events they want to see," says Warren Oakes, 20, who moved to Orlando in January and is on the finance, garden, music and fun committees. Some of the gatherings, like an anarchist study group, have enough of an anticapitalist bent that Stone Soup actually ran into difficulties when they were looking for a building to rent.

Ultimately, though, the set-up allows people the chance to come across ideas and interests they didn't expect to find. It also helps to build the community. "As somebody becomes involved, they contribute to making it a space that other people want to be involved in," explains Oakes. "I like to see what other people are passionate about."

For more information on Stone Soup Collective and its events, call (407) 719-6639, stop by 1020 S. Orange Ave., or visit Stone Soup Collective.

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