For our last Teach for America All Corps Event as a TFA Houston 2010 corps member, we donned gloves and bug spray and black plastic trash bags to go pick up trash in the neighborhood surrounding Jones High School.
Our group of teachers, four hundred strong, fanned out along the streets to pick up trash. About thirty of us ended up walking along a street that ended in an empty lot.
Empty or abandoned lots have traditionally been the bane of urban development. They can be trash-strewn, sites of questionable activity, and a general eye sore. The empty lot we found was no exception. It contained a huge pile of trash that included an abandoned cooler filled with tepid water from weeks of rainfall, bags of discarded clothes, a dirty blue tarp buzzing with blood sucking insects, the broken remains of a Fisher Price toy, and at least two soiled diapers, among hundreds of other pieces of cardboard, paper, cans, and broken glass. In other words, tackling that pile of trash seemed completely daunting. It was not a one person, two person, or even ten person job. And, there was plenty of other trash to pick up, just not in such a concentrated area.
So, what did we do? We ignored it.
I overheard one teacher say, “I think it’s so ironic that we’re spending all our time picking up little bits of trash here when just across the street there’s this huge pile.” Yet, she didn’t move over to start cleaning it up. Other teachers headed over to the lot and started staring at the pile, but didn’t make a move to clean it. Still others went to the other parts of the lot to pick up trash there, but still, they didn’t touch the pile. At one point, someone actually threw a rusted piece of metal into pile, probably thinking, “At least we can consolidate the trash.”
Perhaps we were scared. Perhaps we didn’t want to start cleaning the pile up if we knew we couldn’t finish it on our own. Perhaps the thought of lugging entirely full trash bags back to Jones High School seemed too unappealing. But mostly, I think we were afraid that if we started cleaning up the pile, we would be alone, and no one else would join because they thought the problem was too big, and so we would have to give up, and so we would have failed. That’s why even people who thought the pile should be cleaned, didn’t move to start picking it up. I certainly felt that way.
All it took was a statement and a building of a team. I turned to one of the teachers who was looking at the pile, clearly wanting to clean it up, and said, “I think with twenty people, we could do it.” I called out to a friend, “Hey, come help us with this.”
Someone asked, “How do we take the trash back? Maybe we can leave it on the side and the city will pick it up.” I said, “I’ll go check.” Thank goodness for the teacher that said, “But look at all the plastic bags in this pile. I think that other people thought that, and left bags here, and dogs got to them and tore them open, or they were just never picked up.” She pushed us to not settle. Someone else joined in. “We could walk trash bags back to the school, and I can bring extra bags back.” “Are we doing this?” “Yeah, we’re doing this.”
In the end, it took just fifteen people, not twenty. It was a lot easier than I think we expected. And, even walking that trash back to the high school was not the big deal we thought it would be. We simply filled out trash bags only about two-thirds of the way to ensure that they wouldn’t burst or be too heavy. All it took was a statement and a building of a team.
I can’t help but think of this as a metaphor for other problems in our world today. What problems are we ignoring now because they just seem too big? What problems could we be leaving to fester and pile up, much like we almost left that pile of trash in the empty lot, when really all it takes is a statement of purpose and a team of people who say, “Yeah, we’re doing this”? And even when we are tackling a problem, are we settling for less? Are we scared?
My personal reflection is that I’ve been treating the issue of poverty like I was first tempted to treat that pile of trash. I’ve been thinking that the issue of poverty is just too big of a problem, so I’ll focus only on education, that we would never solve it because of a myriad of constraints, so I’ll leave it to other people to try. I know poverty is much more complicated of a problem than temporarily clearing out a pile of trash, and that the team that must be built is much larger, but I can’t help but think that maybe we just lack the will right now, to do what’s right, and I will no longer allow myself to give excuses. I will at least try.