“If We Don’t Know…Be Curious”: Aeriel Jones, Planting Seeds & Mining Her Talent

“If We Don’t Know…Be Curious”: Aeriel Jones, Planting Seeds & Mining Her Talent

“As a future leader of America, it’s up to my generation…” started Aeriel Jones before correcting herself and without hesitating continued, “or me. I will take responsibility to not be afraid, to be bold, to go out, and at least try.”  She was referencing many ventures.

Jones grew up in small-town Russellville, Alabama and graduated from Alabama A&M University in Huntsville May of this year, with a degree in urban and regional planning and a minor in business management.  She moved to Fort Wayne in July after accepting the position of assistant city planner for Warsaw, Indiana, the fourth ever for the city.  More historically, she’s the city’s first female city planner and is the first African-American to work the job.

She doesn’t seem to be dwelling on the precedent she just set; it was mentioned once, deep into her interview, and dropped because she was on to the next one.  City planning encompasses a broad set of responsibilities, involving ensuring that sign and building permits abide by city codes as a representative of the city.  On her desk right now, she’s assisting in the creation of laws for airport safety.  But Jones is extending the opportunities inherent to the position, venturing out to her “little jobs,” she said. Jones wasn’t afraid to state how she wanted to “create a legacy,” and she isn’t wasting any time.

A week before her Fort Wayne Ink Spot interview, her idea, developed with two associates, won a mini-grant, $500, from the Kosciusko Leadership Academy (KLA), for her nonprofit program, A Friend In Me, that will create platonic relationships with those with disabilities and nondisabled volunteers.  Jones’ program is about that close connection between friends; her best friend, Dee Harvey, has Down Syndrome; a new friend, living in Warsaw, faces challenges post disease having survived her bout with polio.  For now, the program will be focused in the Warsaw county area.

Through the KLA, Jones has met three CEOs from three Fortune 500 companies, as well as leaders from across the county and state.  The next round of funding will hopefully come from the Northenor Award, a $1,000 grant Jones is applying for to really jumpstart A Friend In Me; the award money will be used to implement the performing arts sector of her idea for concert production with artists with disabilities and challenges.  We’re talking painters, jewelry artists, singers, and rappers.  She will be graduating from the KLA in May 2019.

Jones is an artist herself; she’s a singer and dancer who wants to make you smile.  And “if you don’t smile [after I met you] or if I can’t take you away from your reality, then I didn’t do my job as an expressive being.” 

A group of African-American women from the Northern Indiana Black Orthopedic caucus reached out to Jones to help raise awareness of minority business in Kosciusko County...because there isn’t a black chamber of commerce there.  The county’s demographics don’t support a black chamber; there aren’t enough black residents in the Warsaw area, let alone black businesses.  In fact, the women from the caucus, and Jones herself, live in Fort Wayne/Allen County and all work in Kosciusko.  “Statistically [speaking], black people spend the most money so maybe if we can diversify the market we may make people want to live there,” Jones said. “That’s the struggle with the planning department…to get people to live, work, and play there.”

Fort Wayne has its own retention problems; the city is revamping downtown as one of the ways to entice long-term residents and up-and-coming entrepreneurs.  To attract minorities to their city, Jones is interested in bringing in Brownfield Redevelopment to Warsaw, giving over abandoned areas deemed dead or toxic to recognized nonprofits.  This would be government money; the program is nationwide.  For Brownfield, she wants more artistic redevelopments, like museum and artistic spaces that celebrate the talent of minorities. She also wants to see low- and mid-income housing and more diverse restaurants in her work city.

Her plate isn’t full by any measure.  In addition to all of the previously mentioned, Jones is on the Ride Walk Advisory Committee (RWAC) for Warsaw and Winona Lake, to plan for bike-path and walkway expansion…their version of the Fort Wayne Trails.

“I like feeling uncomfortable,” Jones said when asked how she likes living in Fort Wayne and working in Warsaw.  “It makes me work harder.”