Voices of Youth: Ypsi young people roll up their sleeves to clean up litter in their community

Youth across Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township have taken matters into their own hands by helping clean up litter in their communities.
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate writer Eric Gallippo examines community efforts to clean up litter – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

"At some point, some adults just don't care enough anymore." 

That's the impression Alexander Dick, 16, gets when they see litter pile up on North Washington Street in downtown Ypsilanti. Dick's mom, Malissa Gillett, owns Betty Green Salon, a small business on the block between Michigan Avenue and Pearl Street, and they've spent a lot of time in the neighborhood over the years. Located near the bus station and home to several local businesses, it's a block that sees a lot of foot traffic.

"Seeing all of this stuff on a busy street where families and dogs are, it feels a little disappointing," Dick says. "It's just like, 'Come on, guys! There are trash bins all along this street.'"

However, Dick and numerous other young people across Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township have taken matters into their own hands by helping clean up litter in their communities. Last year, Alexander Dick; their sister Alora Dick, 17; and Gillett all participated in Beautifypsi's spring cleanup event. The volunteer cleanup happens every spring and fall. Having grown up around their mom's salon, Alora and Alexander Dick still have a connection to the neighborhood and commute with their mom sometimes to hang around or volunteer at events, like First Fridays.

It was eye-opening for them to see not just how much litter there was but also how it felt to do something about it, as they picked up broken glass and cigarette butts and raked thousands of leaves over the course of the day.
Alexander Dick, Malissa Gillett, and Alora Dick at Betty Green Salon.
"It was kind of depressing, in a way, to see how much trash accumulates on just one street," Alora Dick says.

Gillett acknowledges not all of the litter is left behind intentionally, but it can still be wearying to deal with. That's why efforts like Beautifypsi not only remove litter, but also some of its mental baggage.

"It's definitely a satisfying experience to go around and pick up all of this litter and also hang out with these people who are really fun — some who we've known for most of our lives," Alexander Dick says.

"It's a good moment to remember that there are other people that just love helping other people and keeping our space clean," Alora Dick says.

She says it's also good to remember, when returning in six months to do it all over again, that you're part of a team. One that's going to win.

As Alexander Dick says: "You're not fighting alone."

Saving a safe place

In Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood, efforts to clean up a local park have also helped bring together community members across generations. Members of The Storytelling Action and Advocacy Group — which includes youth and elders from the neighborhood — began meeting last summer to talk about the community's needs, eventually focusing on making improvements to West Willow Park.

The group is led by father and son Akinbambo and Akintunde Oluwadare as an extension of their Odindi Youth Action Village nonprofit and a collaborative effort with the New West Willow Neighborhood Association.
Akinbambo and Akintunde Oluwadare.
During a recent meeting at the West Willow Community Resource Center, youth and elders reflected on what the group had accomplished in 2022, what they had gained from participating, and what lay ahead for the group's future in the new year. During breakout sessions, members made lists, drew sketches, and wrote on sticky notes before sharing back with the larger group.

Last September, the members held a cleanup day at the park as part of a larger effort to update it and restore its place as a community hub. In addition to picking up litter and lots of broken glass, the group painted over graffiti and hung up new basketball nets. Among the participants was Rell Smith, an eighth grader at Ypsilanti Community Middle School, who recalls picking up and bagging "every single piece of trash" the group could find that day.  

Jamia Jackson joined the group after a friend told her about its plans to improve the park, which she felt had been needed for a while. The West Willow resident is a sophomore at Ann Arbor's Huron High School. 

"I want people to treat the park with more value," Jackson says. "We don't have to have a park out here, but the community was kind enough to put it there for us to use. So let's respect it and take care of it."
Jamia Jackson.
The group has also been making its case to local officials by attending and speaking at Ypsilanti Township Parks Commission meetings. Among those who spoke at a recent meeting was Sincere Godwin, a West Willow resident and student at WAVE High School in Ypsilanti. Godwin, 16, has lived in West Willow since he was about 10 years old. He remembers a time when the park wasn't as bad, but he says littering and vandalism have gotten much worse in recent years. 

"I feel like that needs to be fixed, because it's been there for years, and that's like a safe spot or a getaway for teenagers or people who don't have anything else to do inside of the house or to just stay out of trouble," Godwin says. "When I get stressed, I just go to the park to hoop, like all day, but when I see litter and glass on the basketball court and all that type of stuff, it's not a safe place anymore, that place I used to have."

If Godwin and his peers have their way, the park will feel safer again soon.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
All photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.