Youth Engagement Services CEO Joni Alexander has received a donation of a building and a vacant lot for her organization to use. Alexander founded the nonprofit YES to provide students with year-round extra-curricular activities, service projects, clothing drives, talent shows, a battle of the bands, partnerships with police officers and other community-building experiences. She said her organization needs money to implement its programs.
YES received the 1520 Main St. building, which used to house Unique Cakes by Miss Margaret, and a vacant lot next to the Sahara Shriners Temple. Alexander said she is grateful to the donor, who does not want to be identified.
Alexander said she intends to use the lot to implement a pop-up park concept in which people will take part in art class, tennis, basketball and zumba. She expects to use the lot as soon as she receives grants and residents’ input on their desired activities. She does not have to hire employees and hopes to start a positive movement in Pine Bluff.
“The beauty is we have people with skills who will be able to share their skills,” Alexander said. “(Pop-up parks) are catered to people who do not feel connected to their communities. The groups who are traditionally marginalized will be connected. The possibilities are endless. My goal is to do it before December. The art is to facilitate community planning. With other people who own vacant lots, we will collaborate. Pine Bluff has a lot of vacant spaces.”
Alexander said the building needs upgrades and repairs and expects to need one year before she can use the space. She will contact residents and ask for their ideas.
“Including these people in the planning process takes a load off me,” she said. “The beauty is it implements art. I am an artist but I did not know that from growing up in Pine Bluff. I plan to paint a mural outside the building. I am working with artists. Add some art to make the building better. Imagine if these communities could have murals that depict history for the next generation.”
“I’ve been doing research on creative place-making,” Alexander said. “It is a wonderful concept: a hands-on approach to improve the community. It emphasizes collaboration. Nowadays our plans are institutionalized. We do not ask community stakeholders to give their thoughts.”
Alexander intends to use the building to be a creative hub for students. She will not charge money to use the space yet she will require students to volunteer.
“Time is very valuable,” she said. “We have to be realistic. People cannot afford extra-curriculars. The volunteer hours will build a community component. I think we could get a cultural identity with this kind of collaboration. It is about giving our kids a medium to use. It is a realistic money-making field.”
Alexander envisions students working on computers in her new building and having productive relationships.
“(It is) a place for the youth to create relationships that go beyond delinquency,” she said. “Kids have been exposed to stressors and they act out. The beauty of art is you can approach it from anger. A child can write a poem to release emotion or attend an art class.”
Alexander may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org