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Spiral Q Puppet Theater members prop up a giant puppet in a Philadelphia park in 2007. The group aims to engage youth in Philadelphia in the arts.

Giant puppets and a herd of elementary-school students may not seem like the most obvious path for social activism, but a local nonprofit organization is giving it a try anyway.

The Spiral Q Puppet Theater, which uses puppets, street theater, parades, and pageants to promote community unity and social activism, will be putting on the first of its three spring parades today.

The parade will incorporate giant puppets built collaboratively by elementary students as a part of a year-long arts education project at North Philadelphia schools.

Today's parade at McKinley Elementary School is based on the theme of relationships between the students and their neighborhood, and what they can do to keep that neighborhood safe and clean, executive director Tracy Broyles said.

College junior Jesse Harding began working for Spiral Q nearly a year ago.

"There are so few other places where you can have so much silly fun for such a real and important cause," said Harding, who works in the studio where some of the puppets are made rather than with the elementary students.

Beginning last fall, Spiral Q's Education Initiatives Program has been leading in- and after-school workshops at McKinley and three other North Philadelphia elementary schools, during which students worked together to build the puppets that will be featured in the parades.

"In our arts-education programs we are very much working with students to use the arts as a vehicle for their own self-determination," Broyles said. "Ultimately, we are creators in life as artists and we have the potential to create the lives we live."

Since the after-school programs began, Broyles said, she has seen students employing the collaborative techniques they learned making puppets in their everyday lives, from sharing with their peers and resolving conflict to completing academic work.

Harding also called the puppet-making shenanigans rewarding.

"Spiral Q focuses on building community unity and one of the best ways to do that is by ensuring that everyone has a great time together," he said.

Following today's parade, Spiral Q will lead two parades in May. The first will be held at Feltonville Intermediate School on May 8.

Broyles said the parade will "celebrate the cultural wealth of the school," which has become much more diverse following a recent increase in its population.

Reynolds Elementary School, in conjunction with students from Vaux Beacon High School, will be hosting the final parade on May 23 and will deal with techniques to reduce violence.

Broyles said that Spiral Q, which has worked with Penn activist groups before in rallies to protest a visit from Vice-President Cheney and a demonstration by graduate students lobbying for increased benefits and daycare, would be open to doing more projects with Penn students.

"We would love to work with Penn students to create more work and to imagine something that you all would celebrate," she said.

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