Norwich mothers plant seeds to help Norwich youth bloom
Norwich mothers and mentors LaShawn Cunningham and Tania Broggins noticed a need in their city: Kids didn't have a space where they could feel safe, be creative and build connections after school.
So they stepped up and created that space.
Through step dance, hip-hop, praise dance and playwriting, the two women mentor middle school and high school students seven days a week, giving them role models they can look up to and helping them step into their spotlight — on and off the stage.
Four years ago, Cunningham and Broggins decided to put together the programming their city's children needed. They planted the seed for their non-profit — Blooming into Greatness — and have volunteered countless hours to help their organization, and all its participants, grow.
Together with a team of volunteers, they offer free programming for kids ages six to 18 where they learn how to express themselves, step into their confidence and connect to their culture through the performing arts.
They like to think of their non-profit as "a space where diversity, integrity and the arts collide."
Blooming Into Greatness's goal is to reach marginalized youth in greater Norwich who aren't athletic or involved in school sports and clubs, but may not have many other options for engagement and community after school.
"We want to keep the kids engaged in something positive instead of the opposite. If there's nothing around for them to do they're going to find themselves getting into trouble, and we want to avoid that," said Cunningham.
Cunningham, a 37-year-old single mother with three teenage sons — ages 9, 12 and 17 — and two foster sons ages 11 and 12, is a lifelong Norwich resident.
When she was young, she spent hours after school at the city's former Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. When it closed, she said, it left a gaping whole in the city's youth programming.
Now, she's trying to give kids a resource like that center. And give them a chance to connect with adults who can guide them as they grow.
"I try to be the person I needed when I was growing up," she said. "I needed somebody that wasn't my parent who I could talk to and share things with."
Though Cunningham had women she could look up to when she was young — Girl Scout troop leaders and teachers who impacted her — one thing was missing: They didn't look like her.
"These children need proper representation; they need to see people who look like them doing good things in the community," she said. "It's 2022, it's important that kids see people of color, who look like them, who are doing positive things and can be role models."
They organized a new tradition this year of having a Black Santa Claus participate in the city's winter festivities, to show Black kids someone who looked like them in a positive, celebratory light.
Broggins, a mother of five with a baby on the way, said it's imperative for kids to have Black adults they can look up to in their community.
"It allows us to understand what they're going through, to have similar life experiences," said Broggins.
Broggins was raised in Brooklyn and Long Island and said that in New York, there were always after school programs for urban youth.
She saw how those programs helped keep kids on the right path.
"Kids who didn't go to the after school clubs were in gangs, ended up getting into trouble" she said.
But when she moved to Norwich 20 years ago, she said she immediately noticed a lack in programs like the ones she'd grown up benefiting from.
Together with Cunningham, they've tried to create a space where kids can thrive.
Although a lot of their programming has been put on hold because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, they typically meet at the Norwich Arts Center at 60 Broadway every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
They teach step, a form of dance steeped in African history that uses the body to create rhythms and sounds. They teach hip-hop dance, looking at how hip-hop culture has evolved overtime. They teach traditional African dances paired with African drumming, dance to worship music, and have workshops where kids learn to write stories, plays and songs.
Then they get the kids on stage to show off their skills, planning annual performances for Black History Month — which they say should be taught 365 days a year — and for Juneteenth.
Twice in January they took the kids on hikes to places like Devil's Hopyard State Park to get them outside, socialize and explore nature. In past years, they've taken them to step shows in Hartford to see others perform.
And their work doesn't stop there. Whatever one of their mentees needs, they're there for them.
"Sometimes we'll be giving a student a ride home and they'll ask if we can stop at the store, or say they're hungry and ask if we can stop at McDonald's," said Cunningham.
"We're not going to say no, so we spend more time with them and we spend the money out of our own pockets."
Other times, kids will text them just to ask if they can come spend time at their house.
"I'll get texts that say 'Ms. LaShawn can I come watch a movie?' and they come on over," said Cunningham.
Although she said she never gets a moment's rest, it's worth it.
"For those few hours that they're with us, we don't know what they're escaping at home," said Cunningham. "For a lot of kids this is their safe haven."
Not only do these programs keep kids safe, they aim to help them thrive.
Broggins is the lead dance teacher for Blooming Into Greatness, and has been step dancing since she was young. Now she teaches it to kids of all ages, who often come in "timid and shy," she said.
There's one important rule at Blooming Into Greatness: You're never allowed to say 'I can't.'
"When then they finally get it, and they get on stage, they just shine," said Broggins.
Her favorite part of their programming is watching them take the stage and own their new talent.
"When they perform, I love watching them do what they worked so hard for. Afterwards they have so much pride that they did it and gave it 1000%," she said.
They also teach kids about the history of African culture, how their roots are connected to these dances and how they can be themselves through the expression of dance.
Learning to dance, they said, teaches kids confidence and lets them be themselves and build their character — especially through step.
"It's fun and it's a stress reliever and you get to be you, you get to have attitude," said Broggins.
Through their programming, Cunningham and Broggins have also tried to instill values of community service.
They've put time back into their community, having days where they gather to clean up downtown, provide folks in need with hats and scarves and cards with encouraging messages, or have spent Spring days pulling weekends from community gardens.
Now, they're hoping their city will give back to them.
In 2020, a group of children involved with Blooming Into Greatness wrote a song called "Where's the Love?" With the help of their summer arts music director, Michael Gillard.
In the song, they sing about how Black girls and boys in the city feel a lack of love from their community.
Broggins said that she and Cunningham are still asking that question when it comes to support from their city: "Where's the love?"
"We need the city to show us some love," said Broggins.
Cunningham said that she's listened to Norwich's leaders talk for years about how the city needs a youth center, without acknowledging the hours of unpaid work she and other volunteers have put into creating just that.
"We don't need a state of the art youth center. We need people like Ms. Tania and Ms. LaShawn," Cunningham said. "Here you have this established grassroots youth center. We're in the trenches."
They're hoping their community members and leaders will look at the seeds they've planted and help them bloom.
To donate to Blooming Into Greatness, visit bloomingin2greatness.org.
To volunteer, email email@example.com.
Blooming Into Greatness participants
Blooming into Greatness members
Blooming into Greateness Board of Directors
Janelle Posey Green