Litterers Become Anti-Litter Ambassadors

Aliyya Swaby PhotoJesse Okeke used to drop trash around his neighborhood. Now a Dixwell “ambassador,” he doesn’t litter anymore—because he’s the one picking up trash from the street.

Okeke and the seven other teen ambassadors will be cleaning up Dixwell neighborhood for the next five weeks, as part of a pilot program funded by the community management team.

The city granted each of New Haven’s community management teams $10,000 to develop a project to better their neighborhoods. (Click here to read about how one Hill team used the money for community gardening.) Dixwell’s team worked with the Livable City Initiative (LCI) to develop its own summer version of downtown’s “ambassador” program (those greeters who work for the Town Green Special Services District), to get young people involved in cleaning their community and interacting with neighbors.

Okeke, who is 18, said he learned about the “broken window effect” of unattended small problems turning into bigger ones. In this case, that means people are more likely to litter in a neighborhood already covered in garbage than in one that is clean. A disorderly neighborhood leads to more disorder.

People don’t like carrying trash, he said. “It’s easier to drop it.” One experiment showed how more trash cans can prevent littering: At Disney World, a relatively clean amusement park, most trash cans are no more than 30 steps apart. On Dixwell Avenue, pedestrians can walk blocks without seeing one.

“My sister was a big no-litter bug,” Okeke said. “She made me pick it up” when he dropped trash. He said he now plans to be that dissuasive voice for his friends.

Charles Harper said he litters less now that he’s the one cleaning it up. But he said he can’t promise to completely stop the bad habit.

“I’m not gonna lie. I did drop things,” Harper said sheepishly. “I’m not going to say that I won’t do it after this job. It’s a subconscious thing,” when there’s no trash can. “I don’t want to hold it. I like to be free.”

To get people to stop littering altogether, “you would have to fully clean the community. This community doesn’t look like the Yale community or a suburban area. If you live in the ghetto or the hood, it’s hard because the area isn’t clean,” Harper said. “You would have to totally purify the whole community, not just one block.”

Some of the ambassadors have never held jobs prior to this experience, said Kathi Smith-Bogan, volunteer leader. Last week, they received their first paychecks—a bit more than $200 total for two weeks of work.

Najali Chambers, who is 17, said is “excited” for her first ever paycheck for her first job. She has a plan for the money. Chambers just opened up a savings and a checking account, so she will put $100 in the bank and split the other $100 between herself and her 1-year-old daughter. She also created a bank account for her daughter.

Chambers said she enjoys meeting new people, young and old, through the ambassadors program. The hard part about the job? “Learning how to hold your tongue,” she said. “I just say what’s on my mind,” harder when you have a boss and co-workers.

Win Davis, executive director of the Town Green Special Services District, talked to the group Friday afternoon about their responsibility to the community. “Part of our job is to clean up, be hospitable, and work on safety downtown,” said Davis, who runs downtown’s ambassador program. “And part of it is greeting people, giving them a big smile, and hoping they might smile back and say, ‘Have a nice day.’”

Winny Sanchez (pictured above at center), who supervises the other workers, said she enjoyed getting to meet state and city legislators, including Mayor Toni Harp and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy during the recent 2nd Chance Bill ceremonial signing.

“It’s not only about cleaning. It’s about establishing relationships as well,” Sanchez said. By the end of seven weeks, the ambassadors will have produced a public service announcement about litter and neighborhood blight.

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posted by: HewNaven on July 20, 2015  8:32am

The fact that there is no trashcan is a LAZY excuse. If you possess something you are responsible for de-possessing it in a responsible way. Don’t tell me “I like to be free.” Put the wrapper in your pocket or backpack until you find a trashcan. You’re making your own neighborhood look bad.

posted by: meta on July 20, 2015  9:04am

The Hill needs some ambassadors too!

posted by: RobotShlomo on July 20, 2015  9:49am

It’s not about the number of trash cans, it’s about getting people to actually USE them. There’s plenty of trash cans up and down lower Grand Ave near the Quinnipiac River, and yet trash ends up on the street. I’ve quite literally seen TRASH BAGS, that should be put out for pick up on the curb, just tossed on the side on Dover Street, and on Pine Street. I’ll admit I don’t know how you go about doing that.

posted by: Hill Resident on July 20, 2015  12:13pm

This is a great program. I’m glad to see that Dixwell chose to spend their grant in that fashion. Keep up the good works. Bad habits are easy ... Good habits tend to come from practice!

posted by: Hill Resident on July 20, 2015  12:16pm

And having more trashcans DOES make a difference. I bought one, brightly decorated with sayings like ‘THANK YOU FOR NOT LITTERING’ and ‘HELP KEEP OUR NEIGHBORHOOD CLEAN’ in English and Spanish and put it in front of my house. And everyday it is almost full with trash. There is still some litter in the streets because some folks just won’t do right without reinforcement, but there is much less trash in my neighborhood because people DO use the trash can even though there is one on the next corner. The trash in the can could be the trash in the street, were it not for the can. So yes… more cans.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on July 20, 2015  2:41pm

I say no…in my area people just through it out their car windows ect.. trash cans do not make a difference….but I do see one thing….and it is a pet peeve of mine, in these pictures…

Yes litter bugs are lazy…and do like so many of us do. hold on to the trash till you can find a place to get rid of it….but JUST AS BAD is notice that these people are picking up trash in front of houses and buildings???

Well in those houses and building are people….and those people walk past this trash on the side walk and in the road along the crub strip…with out picking it up??? That to is lazy! Many of us actually pick up in front of were we live…not just the sidewalk but trash in the street. IT TAKES 2 SECONDS!!!!!!!

Just saying….and I do know the street sweepers come once a month…but my god…2 seconds of you life to keep the front of were you live clean???

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on July 20, 2015  4:14pm

I live along a commercial district that has trash cans set up every thirty feet for a few blocks and its very convenient for visitors, business patrons and dog walkers. More trash cans alone probably won’t encourage everyone to change their habits, but along more trash cans adjacent to commercial clusters and corridors seems like a worthwhile goal. They can be funded either by the city or special services districts.

I’m really glad Dixwell decided to use that money to test out this initiative. Hopefully funding can be found to continue it. And if the city decides to continue dolling out funding in this way it’d be great to continue or expand neighbor ambassador positions like this. The only thing needed is a way to measure the impact of these programs and create metrics to determine the success of one idea over another.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on July 20, 2015  7:20pm

A neighborhood team that cleans up litter daily is a terrific idea. However, I voted “no” on the poll “Would you pay more taxes so the city can buy and service more public trash cans?” My reason: because, where I live these public trash cans are magnets for illegal dumping. I finally was successful in having one removed near my home because I was tired of seeing mattresses etc. piled against it. As for the notion that a clean street discourages littering, that might work in some places but this is not my experience. Nearly EVERY day I pick up the litter in a c. 1 block area—and the next morning it’s full of trash. Most of it is from drivers winging bottles and McDonalds bags out their car windows as the drive down the street. Such folks wouldn’t use a trash can if there was one—because it would mean stopping their car, getting out to deposit their trash, then getting back in the car and driving off. Not realistic.

posted by: Marion on July 21, 2015  10:23am

Oh please don’t tell me the government needed to conduct an “experiment” to figure out that having trash cans available decreases littering….

posted by: Chowdha on July 21, 2015  8:51pm

Just put 20 cans under the I-91 bridge on Front St.  That’s where they will get the most use!