Youth leaders and environmental organizations kicked off their fall programs with a joint clean-up of Richmond’s greenway earlier this month. And the accumulated junk was impressive: One group unearthed two satellite TV dishes, a Rick James album, a fake deciduous tree covered in Christmas lights, one dead lizard in a wine bottle, and a disembodied red bike frame, among other items.
“We’re voting on the most unique object,” said Blanca Hernandez, program manager of YES, a leadership-development program that works to connect local youth with nature. There was no clear winner—though volunteers favored both Rick James and the deceased reptile.
The Coastal Cleanup was part of a coordinated effort to remove man-made junk from California’s shoreline and watersheds, and represented the state’s largest annual volunteer event. Several Richmond organizations participated in the clean-up, including Groundwork Richmond, which collaborates with local young people to develop skills for environmental and outdoors careers.
For Matt Holmes, deputy director of Groundwork Richmond, the day was just as much about orienting new recruits as it was about clearing trash.
“We’re dealing with almost 90 percent new folks today,” Holmes said, after a brief ice-breaker game. “We love when people recruit their buds.”
Veteran members of Groundwork Richmond’s Green Team passed out black industrial garbage bags and went to work collecting trash from a stretch of the city’s greenway, under the BART overpass at Ohio and Carlson streets. For Yahna Williamson, 17, it was her first day on the job.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Williamson, holding a bag in one hand and a trash-grabbing tool in the other. “It’s refreshing. I know I’m helping out the community.”
Her friend Joanah Ajiyi, 17, is a Green Team leader and recruited her for today’s project. Ajiyi has been part of several of Groundwork Richmond’s initiatives, from planting trees to cleaning trash and painting murals. She likened these contributions to a “domino effect”: small actions that can trigger a greater reaction down the line.
“Richmond is under a lot of decay,” she said. “Youth need to stand up and fight that decay.”
As if to underscore that point, Green Team volunteers ran out of trash bags after only an hour of cleaning.
“We needed twice as many garbage bags,” said Holmes, as the team improvised new collection methods. “We’re garbage rich!”
For Holmes, this was an example of how Groundwork Richmond teaches applicable problem-solving skills to kids. The goal, he said, is to expose young people to science, technology, engineering and math (also called STEM concepts), and connect them to real-world jobs that involve those skills in their community.
“This is what conservation looks like here,” said Holmes, gesturing to the dry grass, storm drain, and chain-link fencing. He described these swaths of Richmond as in-between “places no one’s known what to do with for 50 years.”
He went on to explain that the long-term vision for this particular site involves building a natural filter, or “bioswale,” to collect and clean rainwater. The current outdated storm drain sweeps everything, from urban debris to healthy bio-matter, out to sea when it floods.
For a glimpse into the future of conservation along the coast, one need only travel a few blocks along the Lillie Mae Jones Trail—a bike and pedestrian pathway named for the advocate who helped champion the greenway space. Hernandez and her crew of YES volunteers collected litter at the trail’s intersection with 20th Street, where a completed bioswale has replaced the concrete storm drain. Now, native plants such as buckeye and bay laurel breathe life into the landscape.
“We want to be very intentional from the beginning,” said Hernandez about engaging young people in environmental service. As a leadership development program, she said YES wants to see teens “connecting to their peers and other community members.”
When asked what they would be taking away from the clean-up experience, some volunteers pledged to pick up trash when they see it on the street, others buy fewer single-use plastic or paper coffee cups said they felt more empowered to confront peers who litter.
Vencel Alfred grew up in Richmond and is now a program coordinator for YES. He said, despite garbage, the city has “come a long way” from when he was a kid.
“It warms my heart to see the things going on here,” he said. “We’re trying to go forward and do green work and train our youth.”