Sometimes urban communities can collect their fair share (or more) of litter and trash. Keeping the neighborhood picked up and clean is a valuable service that can make a real difference in the way the community appears to outsiders and even how those living there feel about their streets. There are several ways to address neighborhood clean-ups, including local organizing and volunteer groups.
Chris McCord, a resident of our local South Atlanta Neighborhood and community leader, has been organizing neighborhood clean-ups for years. South Atlanta has gone through different seasons - sometimes welcoming outside help in the clean-ups and sometimes declining outside offers for help - and Chris has navigated these relationships with diplomacy and proactive communication.
Chris had been coordinating volunteer groups to participate in some clean-ups in the neighborhood when he received a complaint from a local resident, saying she had no idea a clean-up was happening. She was concerned about the unfamiliar faces and the image these activities portrayed of the neighborhood. Acknowledging some resistance from a few community members, Chris decided to shift planning efforts towards using fellow neighbors.
He scheduled regular neighborhood clean-ups, communicated them to the residents, secured dumpsters in strategic neighborhood placements, and led the events. Community-led clean-ups certainly offer benefits, such as local pride and neighbor bonding. An annual highlight of South Atlanta has become our infamous tire clean up. Thanks to City Council Representative Carla Smith’s tire amnesty on Earth Day, the neighbors have rounded up more than 4700 tires in the last six years!
After some time passed (and a few clean-ups received less-than-stellar turnout), Chris approached community members at a civic league meeting to discuss the possibility of including outside volunteers again. It was overwhelmingly supported. "You can act and ask for forgiveness later," says Chris. "But my philosophy is to try when you can to catch it on the front-end. In the end, it's a great stress reducer."
So Chris has been working to include outside volunteers in a way that is dignifying to the community and that helps in tangible ways. One strategy he has used is to choose projects that benefit neighbors directly. For example, he shared about one senior whose view from her porch was an empty lot that had been used as a dumping site. When a group of volunteers cleared it, she was grateful for the change of scenery, and she had the opportunity to interact with the volunteers and share with them the deep history of South Atlanta.
Ideally, it would be great to organize clean-ups that include a mix of local and outside volunteers. So far, though, Chris admits it's been a challenge to match the scheduling of what works for both groups. But that is something he is working to organize.
Regarding potential complaints in the future, Chris says, "People may not realize how much work actually goes into organizing clean-ups. What I say to those who complain is to judge my work, rather than their perception. If there's a complaint about the work, let's talk about that."
How does your community spruce up? Do you work with local or outside volunteers, a mix or both separately?