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Vox Popular | February 2016

 Photo by Don Perry

Q&A with Janet Boscarino

Locals Margot McNeeley and Janet Boscarino saw a problem in the city a couple years ago – waste, litter and non-sustainable practices. Both women went on to found organizations that tackled different areas of these problems in Memphis. McNeeley founded Project Green Fork, which helps certify local restaurants in sustainable waste management. Boscarino co-founded Clean Memphis with a group of concerned citizens to help neighborhoods and schools reduce litter, blight and waste. Now, McNeeley has moved on to pursue other ambitions, but don’t worry – Project Green Fork will continue its important work, just under the umbrella of Clean Memphis. Boscarino let RSVP editor Rachel Warren catch up with her at the Clean Memphis office in Midtown as she discussed the merger and how the two combined forces will make Memphis a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable city.

How did the merger with Project Green Fork come about?

Boscarino: Project Green Fork (PGF) executive director, Margot McNeeley and I have been friends for quite some time. We both started our organizations around the same time. We started our organizations, also, with similar feelings, but we had different focuses. But, ultimately, we both are striving to make Memphis cleaner, greener and more sustainable. Margot was more focused on restaurants, of course, and I am focused more on neighborhoods and schools. So we kind of worked along side each other in a lot of ways over the years. About a year and a half ago, Clean Memphis launched a sustainability certification for schools. We sat down with Margot and talked a lot about the work she had done with restaurants. We wanted to learn more about how her process worked and how we could emulate something like that in schools, which is a much more complicated process. She provided us with some good insight, such as the suggestion to first do a pilot program because, often, when you start out with something, the end result may look completely different. We took that advice to heart and had our first successful year with our Sustainable School Challenge (SSC) in 10 schools. About six months ago, Margot invited me to have coffee with her and Andy Cates, PGF board president and Colliers International CEO and president of brokerage services. We went over everything Clean Memphis is doing in terms of environmentally sustainability in communities and schools. Later, Margot called me and said she was ready to move on from PGF to a couple of other ideas she had. Margot had really debated whether PGF needed to remain as a separate nonprofit or if it could merge with another organization. We decided that it really could merge with another organization. When we looked around, we felt that the only one that would make sense is Clean Memphis, based on our work around sustainability in schools and neighborhoods. We felt like it did make sense for us to bring it under the Clean Memphis umbrella. Yet, it would still retain the branding of PGF. We can learn a lot from the PGF branding and the success of their program. We are hiring a program manager to oversee PGF. That person will take over where Margot left off. We don’t plan on doing anything to the PGF program. We want to keep it as it is at this point and learn more about it. 

 How does including the PGF program under the Clean Memphis umbrella enhance the Clean Memphis mission?

Boscarino: It adds another layer to the work we are doing. We are actually just coming off of a study that the University of Memphis has been doing for us. It is a program evaluation. We are meeting with them in February to have a strategic planning session to layout our work for the next three to five years. So based on the information coming out of that study and with the merger with PGF, it sort of rounds out our whole programming to. The focus moving forward is how do we create clean, green and sustainable communities, schools and restaurants. The addition of PGF rounds things out and covers all kind of aspects within our mission. We think of sustainability as being a part of everyday life. Understanding  the impact on neighborhoods, schools and restaurants really covers all those bases.

What are some upcoming programs or projects Clean Memphis will be focusing on this year?

Boscarino: The Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle, a group of CEOs, has selected Clean Memphis as its lead community partner in one of its “moon missions” -  the “Memphis Clean by 2019” initiative. The year 2019 will be the bicentennial of the city of Memphis. This moon mission will focus on reclaiming Memphis as being one of the cleanest cities in the country. The Chairman’s Circle has provided us with some funding to hire a grassroots engagement coordinator. The grassroots engagement coordinator and I have divided the city into zones. What we are working toward is recruiting zone leaders, within those divisions. We are looking for people who are stakeholders in the community. We will go through a training process with these leaders and then connect them with the Chairman Circle group. Then we want to work with all the stakeholders within those geographic boundaries to adjust clean-up, blight, and all of those sustainability things. That for us is a huge drive for the next three to four years. The corporate community is really behind it. We have a lot of corporate and school participation. I think people are genuinely interested in making Memphis better. They just need to find, and want to find, ways to plug in and feel like they have the tools to do the work. That is our goal: recruit them, train them, and plug them into the existing efforts that many neighborhoods are already doing. We are really trying to move away from episodic volunteerism. We really want our volunteers to be ongoing partners in a particular geographic area. It is helpful when people show up for a day and volunteer, and we appreciate anyone who can lend a hand and spend some time with us, but it is not transformative. When someone is continually aiding and leading the same area, it is transformative.


How does Memphis compare to other cities as far as blight and litter?

Boscarino: The housing crisis in 2008 and 2009 left Memphis with a lot of vacant and abandoned properties. We have also had a significant shift in some neighborhoods from homeownership to renters, which nothing against renters, they are fantastic, but, generally speaking, they may or may not maintain their property to the same level as a homeowner would. There have also been many out of town investors buying up property locally, and they have left many of those neighborhoods a lot more blighted and littered compared to some other cities. Memphis has the same issues that many cities are facing, such as Detroit, Baltimore, etc. So we are not necessarily unique, but that particular issue has been problematic in terms of the theme of blight. Memphis has also been a little more sluggish in the economic turn around, but it is improving and there is a concerted effort to make change. With the Memphis Clean by 2019 initiative, there is an entire blight team who is looking into legislative and policy changes and looking into reducing the redemption time on foreclosed properties. There are a lot of different things going on that are moving the needle in a positive direction. I think we are at this turning point where people are engaged. They are trying to be more strategic about this work, and I think there is a general sense and vibe going on in Memphis right now that indicates there are a lot of positive things going on, and so people are beginning to say, “I think this could happen here.” That is sort of the mantra we have. We were the cleanest city, and we can be the cleanest city again.

Blight seems like a tough thing to tackle. How is Clean Memphis going about that?

Boscarino: In addition to the grassroots engagement piece, we help neighborhoods identify and report code enforcement issues. What that does for the city is allow the residents to prioritize what their top concerns are. That way they can focus on what the most egregious issues are. Also, by bringing those neighborhood groups together, it allows for some of those issues to be solved on their own, instead of waiting for action from the city and county government, who are stretched beyond belief. In some cases, it is just bringing volunteers together to clean up an area or to find a property that is in need and mow the grass or something. The second thing we do is have two inmate crews go out every day, and they do general litter pickup in high profile areas of the city. Those areas include airport area exit ramps, the medical center, downtown and areas of tourism. This allows us to put our best foot forward in areas of tourism and important areas of economic development. It is also a free source of labor and the inmates get to work some of their time off. The inmates are nonviolent, non-sex offenders. It is data supported that if there is litter on the ground, people are more likely to litter. So continued maintenance discourages litter. We support the county in the same way, doing routine litter pickups. I think the community engagement part and this constant attention is helpful. The last part of that equation, the long-term sustainability piece, is education. We have three teachers on staff. They spend their time in schools educating children on how litter and pollution affect the watershed. Not only does it make your neighborhood unsightly, it washes down the storm drain and ends up in the Wolf River, Mississippi River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. We have a grant from TDOT to focus on watershed health and water quality. We created, with the Office of Sustainability, a watershed map. It is a GSI map, and it has an overlay of where the schools are in that watershed. So the children understand what a watershed is and which one they are located in. We use a three-dimensional watershed model that is interactive for the kids. So they understand if you put chemicals on your grass, or you leave litter on the ground, it washes down the storm drain and ends up in the Wolf River, Nonconnah Creek or the Mississippi River. And, although, we don’t get our drinking water from the Mississippi, because we have an amazing aquifer in Memphis, over 18 million people elsewhere do. So we are contributing either to the health or non-health of that ecosystem because of our own actions. Our teachers are certified teachers, and our curriculum is aligned to Social Studies and Math standards. The kids are actually out doing service projects in the community. As part of our SSC project, if we don’t talk about sustainability then we engage them in sustainability. The children create a campaign around energy conservation and how they can lower it. Two of the schools involved have reduced their energy consumption, saving $12,000 to $15,000, which is significant. We help start recycling programs at the school. We have also partnered with The Kitchen Community, who does a garden installation, and we help deliver curriculum about nutrition, plants and wellness. Our educational pillars include: Resource Conservation, Health and Wellness and Improved Environmental Literacy. We have expanded the SSC program to include 17 schools. We received a grant from a local foundation for SSC pilot. Now AutoZone and some other folks have come on to help support that programming. In the long run, if you can raise a generation of young people who understand how to interact with their environment, then that creates a long-term sustainable culture. One of the children’s favorite parts of the program is ticketing teachers who leave their lights on or other things plugged in. Some of them do it in a positive way, praising teachers that they find conserving energy, but most love to do it the other way and tell their teachers where they need to improve. They get a kick out of that.

What are some things that Memphians can do in their own way to keep their neighborhoods clean?

Boscarino: I think there is sometimes a lack of understanding about how our own individual activities can contribute to making Memphis greener, cleaner and more sustainable. Everyone can be aware of keeping their neighborhoods and local parks clean. If you are driving down the street, and you see something that is bothering you all the time, chances are it is you that needs to do something about it instead of waiting for government action. Something as simple as not blowing your leaves and grass into the storm drains, which affects the watershed, is a super easy way of making a concerted effort to keep things green. Ultimately, it is our responsibility. The state of Tennessee spent something like $15 million in litter pick-up just on roadways. That is not even what the municipality spends. To me, there are so many other things our tax money could be spent on and go towards that are more productive. Litter seems to be a place where we can all step up and help out. Currently, we are looking for team leaders in each of the zones we have created. They can be families or individuals. We need all hands on deck. If we are going to make Memphis clean by 2019, we need everyone participating. We are going to be doing training sessions for all of the first quarter of this year. That will be ongoing. We want to have, by the end of the year, 40 trained team leaders in each one of these areas. Anyone who is interested can contact our office. We will be happy to get them onboard and trained. And, of course, we are also looking for any schools or restaurants interested in getting involved.

Interested in keeping Memphis beautiful? Check out the Clean Memphis website, www.cleanmemphis.org, and Facebook page www.facebook.com/CleanMemphis