Nine Bucks an Hour, Ten Tons of Litter

Jul 27, 2017

The Shelby County Mayor's Fight Blight Team cleans up a vacant lot in Hickory Hill.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

Summer is the season of camps, vacations and relaxation. For many teenagers, it’s also a time of first jobs. This year, Shelby County partnered with the nonprofit Clean Memphis to offer work experience and a paycheck to 100 young people. The job: help Shelby County tackle its blight problem.

LaDarius Young, a recent graduate of Whitehaven High School, says he didn’t expect anything other than a few financial benefits from picking up litter from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“Normally people be like, ‘y’all just cleaning up trash’,” he says. “Yeah, but we make the best out of every situation. We cleaning up trash and we having fun while we’re doing it.”

For LaDarius, it’s not even his only summer job. He has a second one, from 4 to 11 pm.

“Me coming straight out of high school I got a mission, and I got somewhere I’m trying to be,” he says. “Right now it’s college. To extend my learning, ‘cause I got some more to learn.”

The program, called the Fight Blight Team, was all over the news earlier this summer. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell started the program to serve a dual purpose.

The main purpose was to deal with one of the county’s biggest aesthetic problems: Litter.

More than ten tons of it have been collected over the last six weeks.

On a recent morning, team supervisor Lola Lynch parked the van near a busy intersection in Hickory Hill.

“I see a place that needs some cleaning,” she says, her expression best described as chagrinned. Here’s what every Memphian can learn after a few days of picking up other people’s garbage.

The problem isn’t just a few bad apples. It’s a lot of bad apples.

“It’s been kind of an eyeopener to see how much litter people can accumulate in a day,” Lynch says. “Because some of these streets we’ve been over several times, and we’ll drive by and be like, ‘oh we just cleaned this street,’ but you would not know.”

If our city were defined by our litter, Memphis would be the wastebasket of a fast food restaurant. It could also be a crime scene. Any cell phone found on the side of the road – and there have been multiples – are picked up with gloves, bagged and turned into the police.

While cleaning a vacant lot, Kawhnna Woodall is approached by a woman who warns her away.

“She told us that there is a guy that comes over here, I guess he uses drugs, so she was telling us to be careful and watch out for needles,” she says.

The crews are not allowed to touch dangerous drug paraphernalia that they may stumble across.

Many of the workers live near the neighborhoods they patrol.

Janet Boscarino of Clean Memphis, says that making a summer job out of what, at other times of the year, might be considered a punishment, say a way to chalk up community service hours, does have some social benefits.

“We really wanted the kids to have an understanding of why does this matter,” Boscarino says. “This is not a menial job. This is important. It has an environmental impact, it has an economic impact, it has a psychological impact on the people in these neighborhoods.”

It also gives teens something to do. More than 500 people applied for these 100 positions.  

The second purpose for this work was, as Mayor Luttrell said, combatting youth “idleness” during the summer. But the unusually high demand for work collecting trash in temperatures approaching 100 degrees may speak less about the epidemic of sloth among Memphis youth and more to the scarcity of opportunities to be productive.

Kelsea Washington is, like everyone else, drenched in sweat as she walks down the street. But when she is asked to sing a song, she rallies her voice for the group.

With spirits raised, the team today will score a temporary victory over Memphis blight.

But they’re all fairly clear about the real reward of this though summer job. And that is a strengthened resolve to get a much better job in the future.