- Giles Harnsberger, executive director of Groundwork RVA, speaks before the opening day crowd at Six Points Innovation Center at 30001 Meadowbridge Road.
Seventeen-year-old high school student Alyssa Brown has a soft voice and a powerful message that draws cheers from the crowd gathered for the feel-good, grand opening of the Six Points Innovation Center (6PIC) in Highland Park.
“It’s been a long process but it was so worth it,” Brown says of the two-year effort to open the renovated 4,000-square-foot space that will now serve as a hub for nonprofits offering afterschool classes and activities for neighborhood kids. This includes Art180, the advocacy-through-art nonprofit that Brown has utilized since she was a child.
Now a Franklin Military Academy sophomore and Highland Park resident, Brown tells the diverse crowd that she is happy that local kids like her have a place to go that offers educational opportunities and community projects implemented by the kids themselves.
For most of her life, nearby Hotchkiss recreational center was the only place local kids without transportation could go, and it only offered sports, she says.
A majority African-American neighborhood, Highland Park has 30 percent of its population living below the poverty line and more than 2,000 youth in the area are younger than 19.
“That’s why so many kids are out doing mischief,” Brown says. “If they have something [locally], they will come and make connections.”
Owned by nonprofit Boaz and Ruth, the building was renovated with the assistance of a $125,000 community innovation grant from the Robins Foundation, which students like Brown helped earn by learning the grant-writing process. They even were involved with city permitting and architectural plans, Brown adds, “[and] a lot of long meetings.”
At 6PIC, high school students will have access to classes in the arts, as well as urban ecology, education assistance, public media, public history and advocacy. What’s unusual about the center, which will contain full-time offices for Storefront for Community Design, Groundwork RVA and Saving Our Youth, is that the kids will decide how funding is spent.
“We want to have this be a place that brings agency back to the youth,” says Ryan Rinn, executive director of Storefront for Community Design, who has been working in the area for the past seven years and was a driving force behind the center’s approach.
One of the biggest problems he found was a lack of programs for teenagers. The key to the project has been collaboration, he says -- all of the nonprofit boards involved share members, making for consistent communication.
Each organization in the 6PIC building will elect its own representatives from area high schools to serve on a youth council called the Changemakers. These youths will look at how the space is run and have discretionary authority over a budget to realize projects -- such as murals or history projects -- within the community.
“We think not telling them what they have to do and allowing them funding will hopefully lead to empowerment in Highland Park,” Rinn says, “and allow them to be leaders of the future and see the community they want to live in.”
Jo White, executive director of Saving Our Youth, has been working in the area since 2009 to help youth get through school and into higher education.
“I’m glad we’re right in the heart of the community,” she says, noting that she’ll have an upcoming youth debate centered on the Michelle Alexander book, “The New Jim Crow.” “We’re more than crime here in Highland Park -- we have beautiful people here.”
Free Egunfemi, a self-taught historian who says she has received seven grants this year for her innovative programs, will offer a storefront studio for kids that provides equipment to record and tell their community’s stories.
“We hope to pave a way to make sure these kids have Ph.ds and can come back into these communities, buy up their grandmama’s house and keep gentrification outta here,” she says, with a demonstrative kick of her foot to cheers from the crowd.
The audience is supportive of all the speeches, which include shout-outs from more groups involved, including Boaz and Ruth, the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corp., and the Community Preservation and Development Corp.
Art Burton, executive director of Kinfolks Community Empowerment Center, is in the crowd nodding in agreement. “The most important thing is this is cross generational, multi-cultural, diverse,” he says. “It’s probably one of the projects that’s most representative of how the city of Richmond is going to solve problems in the future.”
Across the street from the opening, sitting and watching outside the gated windows of Simpsons Market at the corner of Meadowbridge Road and Newbury Avenue, owner Mike Simpson has seen a lot in the 42 years since he opened there.
But the new energy at 6PIC is a welcome sight, he says.
“It’s a great thing,” says Simpson, adding that the space used to be a Goodwill store before becoming an auto body shop. The entire neighborhood has been growing lately, he says. “This is bringing more people into the community. I’m expecting great things.”
Marlene Paul, co-founder and executive director of Art180, says that 6PIC represents the best of both models that she has used over 19 years of programming. It combines a community partner model placing artists at community sites and the mission of its Jackson Ward youth art center, where young people come to them.
“It allows us to help provide programs rooted in a specific community,” she says.
She also loves that she gets to watch young people such as Brown grow up.
While her neighborhood still has problems with drug addicts and homelessness, Brown says the positive aspect is that it’s remained a tightknit community. “No matter what problems, everybody knows everybody and we all end up coming back together,” she says.
As a high schooler with a vested interest in the area, Brown’s efforts to launch the center and immediately to begin raising money for a rooftop garden and a new computer lab are just the start of her own professional journey, she says.
“I either want to be a corporate lawyer or a criminal psychologist,” she says with an intent gaze, almost daring anyone to bet against her. “But I’ll still want to do community service and help on the side, too, while I do that.”
6PIC will be open to the public Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Homework assistance will be offered between 3 and 5 p.m. for two to three days a week. Afterhours and weekend operations will be specific to youth programming and events.