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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. This year's cohort has been placed with more than 160 local news organizations across 45 states and Puerto Rico, including two journalists right here at WNIJ. We are thrilled to announce the addition of JuanPablo Ramirez-Franco to our news team, and a new role for WNIJ reporter Yvonne Boose.Yvonne Boose covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This includes how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities.Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers substandard housing and police-community relations. An audio producer and journalist based out of Chicago, he’s also been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office.He will continue Sarah Jesmer’s award-winning work at WNIJ covering issues of social justice and identity. Jesmer earned a top award from the Illinois Associated Press for reports including: Inside DeKalb County's Unincorporated Apartments; Wigs, Lipstick & Sparkles: The Thriving Drag Scene In Northern Illinois; and Kish College: Anonymous Letters And A Controversial Investigation.These reporting positions come at a time when local journalism is already reeling from years of newsroom cuts and unforeseen challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.Both positions are partially funded by a grant from Report for America. WNIJ must raise an additional $30,000 in local matching funds. Support these important voices in our community by donating to WNIJ’s portion here.Yvonne and Juanpablo’s stories on our community will be collected below.

The Alley Art Festival Moved Out Of The 'Alley' This Year

A northern Illinois art festival took place Saturday despite the pandemic, but the setting wasn’t as intimate as in previous years.

The sound of chalk scraping across the pavement was the only thing heard in the “Alley” during the 10th annual Alley Art Festival in downtown Aurora.  As it has before, this year’s festival featured musicians, jewelry makers and many other types of artists. But in prior festivals, most artist booths were located in the pedestrian mall between buildings on Water Street. This year, artists' works were spread throughout downtown to allow adequate social distancing. 

This was Rachel Rathe’s second time checking out the festival. She said she likes this year’s structure.  

“It’s giving me an opportunity to see more of the downtown area that I didn’t see last year,” she shared. “And it’s allowing [me] the opportunity to go into different businesses.”

Marissa Amoni is one of the founders of the festival. She agreed with Rathe.

“We’re really showcasing downtown as a whole which we weren’t able to do before,” Amoni explained. “And I think that’s a great thing and it’s a bonus to having this model because then people can really see everything that downtown has to offer.”

Credit Yvonne Boose
Festival sign.

Laura Lynne is a mixed media artist. She’s taken part in the festival before. She said, this time, preparation was different for her.

She said she spaced everything out and she didn’t allow anyone inside of her tent. Her art was placed on the outside.

Lynne said she was a little hesitant to participate because of COVID-19, but she said if people can go to the grocery store with masks they could come to an outdoor event and keep their distance.

Lydia Crist is a fiber artist. She knits, crochets and spins her own yarn. She compared this year to last.

“Last year we were like overflowing out of the ‘Alley’ onto the side streets,” she said.

Bryant Bell, a character artist, said this is the first festival that he’s been a part of since the pandemic started. He said he works for a call center and is thankful for the full-time job.

Bell shared that he feels bad for those who depend solely on their art to make ends meet. “Maybe it’s time for a little bit of a change in our economic system now,” he suggested.

Amoni said everyone is going through a tough time, and continuing with the festival gave artists and local merchants a chance to thrive.  

Credit Yvonne Boose
Sidewalk art by artist Laura Reyes. This was drawn in the area where the Alley Art Festival normally takes place.

Eric Peter Schwartz, a musician, sat on a corner stringing his guitar and singing for anyone who passed by. He said the festival brings hope to the community.

“The fact that there are people working to make sure that the downtown area and the community stay in touch and creative and sort of vibrant -- even when we’re struggling,” he said. “It means people care about the town.”

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.