Photo by Paul Henry. Check out his Flickr set here.
Kenny Grand has a vision. It borrows from the past. It encompass most all the green initiatives of the moment. And it’s going to cost, conservatively, at least $850,000 to make it happen. But that doesn’t seem to deter Grand in his goal to buy the YMCA building on the corner of Second and Broadway, which was recently named as one Arkansas’ six most endangered places (along with all of Little Rock’s Central Business District, but the Y was given special attention) by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. He hopes to turn it into a free school. Rock Candy contributor Stacey Bowers interviewed Grand by phone last week.
So everybody’s driven by the YMCA a hundred times, but how how’d you come to this idea?
Well, it’s very affordable for one. For the size and where it is, it’s extremely affordable. It would be a whole lot more expensive if we were going to take it and convert it into an office space, but it’s pretty much already built for what we want to use it for. That’s kind of how we picked it. Plus there is a lot of enthusiasm around the building, and chances are it’s going to get knocked over and turned into a parking lot if somebody doesn’t go in there and restore it. Right now in downtown, it’s gotten to a point where it’s more profitable just to have a paid parking lot than to have actual buildings. I’m cloudy on the whole idea of what the Y-Op is. On your Facebook group, the Y-op is described as being a space for everything from music to darkrooms to screen-printing. Exactly what all do you plan to do with this building? How will you get the equipment for these projects?
Pretty much it’s a free public education center — a free school. Nothing like this has existed in Arkansas probably since about 1942, but there are models that exist around the world right now. We’ll have a library, a music practice space, a recording space, art studios and classrooms. A lot of those are just amenities, but our main focus is community outreach. We’re going to hold free adult literacy courses, GED prep courses, English as a second language, Spanish as a second language. We’re going to reach out to working class people around the neighborhoods and have a place that’s accessible to them. We do have art centers and stuff like that in Little Rock already, but they’re just inaccessible to low-income students. Suppose you’re a musician or an artist, you can go in there and either rent out the space, either pay fifty or sixty bucks an hour to record, or you can trade the bill for that for services. Say you want to record there or have a little art studio of your own up there. You can either pay a monthly fee or you can put so many hours into helping a kid do his homework or so many hours into working an urban permaculture walk, cooking food for the soup kitchen. Stuff like that.
I’ve already got a good screen-printing system. That’s very cheap. As far as the darkroom and all of that, we just want to push donations and grants. We’re going to have a set curriculum. We’ll have music lessons, tutoring programs, and we would be charging a “tuition,” but it wouldn’t be charged to the students. We would go out into the surrounding neighborhoods and ask people, for example, “would you like to support free Spanish tutoring for a local kid? It costs this much for books. Do you want to make a donation?” We’re going to be a nonprofit organization. So are you trying to buy it?
We’re trying to buy it. We’ve got about five grant writers right now, and we’re going to write a historical restoration grant, a green energy grant and social service grants and also start shopping around for people who have the extra capital to go in on this. The building is in complete disrepair right now, but we’re going to get together with some labor unions, and right now they’re having grants pushed on them because in order to try to save the economy we need a larger skilled work force. There are tons and tons of rooms, floors and floors of wiring and piping that need to be worked, so we could have apprenticeships that people could come and apply for and get trained with the pipes and wiring by these organizations, and in return they get certification. We’ve found a bunch of different ways around the expense problem. What does Y-Op stand for?
The name is goofy. It’s just something we said just to get people talking about it, and then everyone was like “Hey, we can go ahead and keep that.” We were just sitting in a room, and we were like, “Okay, what are we going to call the cooperative,” and someone said, “Well, if we get the YMCA, we should keep the Y in there somewhere.” One of us was just like, “Okay, well, Y-Op.” It was pretty much the start of a little Facebook group to see if there was interest, and it kind of just accidentally stuck. We’ve been doing well, though. We’ve had three meetings, and even in the business meetings the lowest turnout we’ve had is thirty-five people. You say that there will be a free school at the Y-Op. Tell me more.
There will be two facets to it. We’re going to have to have a set curriculum, so we’ll have certain classes lined out already (like music, foreign languages, local history, tutoring programs, GED prep courses). Other than that, this will be a meeting place for skill sharing workshops. People are wanting to set up eating disorder support groups, theory classes, hula-hooping, electronics. It’s really just all up to the community. It’s all up to whatever anybody wants to put into it, and so far we’ve got an enthusiastic response and a number of people who are just chomping at the bit to come in and help.You say that there will be an “urban permaculture project where we teach workin' class folk to subsist more comfortably.” Tell me more.
One of the main projects we’re going to do is have a group of volunteers go canvas working class neighborhoods and ask people if they would like to start a garden, and we’ll go in there for them make a plot and plant crops. We’d do that throughout the neighborhoods, and we’d have people come through a couple times during the week to check on everything. We’d set up food shares, too. It would be kind of a tool to educate people to produce their own food become a little more self-sufficient. I had a little garden plot in my backyard last year and pretty much lived off it all that summer. Then, there are other projects we’re working on, like going into the neighborhoods and converting people’s houses to run on less energy for free or for a minimal charge so they can use that money they were spending on gas and electricity and spend it on clothing and stuff like that. Hopefully we’ll have a rooftop garden and a rural cooperative that’s being built right now, and the food from that would be used to support a soup kitchen. Are there any other establishments around the country or world like the Y-Op that you get your ideas from or that the public can look at as an example?
There’s a free school in Berkeley right now. I know there used to be one in Washington D.C. They’ve been going since the 1920s. A lot of them served several purposes. Some were for public education. We’re just going to try to create new forms of education. There’s something called popular education that isn’t really used in educational institutes, unfortunately. The teacher is more of a facilitator who tries to get the students to take on a more proactive approach. There was a free school called Commonwealth. Its main aim was training and prepping people to organize the Southern Farmers Association because in the early 20th century living conditions for tenant farmers were atrocious. Then, a group of folks about our age came in and started Commonwealth and organized around Arkansas. Their grandchildren ended up being the people who organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which ended up pushing the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. What do you do for a living and how old are you?
Right now, I'm living on couches and in spare rooms and doing carpentry and painting to support myself. I'm also helping a gentleman get an environmental outreach program off of the ground.
I had recently quit my job getting letters for the Employee Free Choice Act so I could start doing public education around worker's rights, so we could actually see the beginnings of a grassroots labor movement. Some friends started kicking around the idea of a 'zine distro and a public venue and I've heard about free schools elsewhere, so all of the ideas meshed and the Y-Op is what we got.
I'm 24 years old, about to be 25 on the eighth of July. Life's already been good to me. If I died tomorrow, I'd be okay with that, wouldn't feel cheated.You says "we're doing this" a lot. Who's "we"?
We are the youth of Little Rock, or at least a portion. Thirty to fifty folks usually show to each of our meetings, from all different backgrounds. Everybody is allowed input as to what they would like to see materialize out of this big 'ole ridiculous venture. People who do stuff with the Greenhouse; Peace, Love, Human; the Arkansas Sustainability Network; the ACAC; the AFL-CIO and a bunch of artists, authors, punks, radicals, bored folk, etc. are all pulling for this because its not really a free-standing organization. It's a community center. We'll offer super affordable/free public meeting space for grassroots organizations. We'll help each other with our campaigns and events. We'll share our goofy wingbat publications, let each other know about and collaborate on concerts and gallery showings, hold support groups and share skills. So "we" are the kids (and fogies) in Central Arkansas who do stuff and get stuff done. Right now, there are about 700 people who at least show a passing interest and there are about 50 people engaged in trying to get this organized. From there, we've got about four committees working on business plans, grant and program materials.