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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Chicago Tribune: After her brother died of asthma in 2009, Jermica Davis said she felt pulled to environmental justice work. This year, she spent her Earth Day picking up trash around Altgeld Gardens, the public housing community where she and her brother grew up.

130th Street Earth Day Clean Up
Volunteer Mina Jefferson cleans up debris along 130th Street near Daniel Drive on Earth Day, April 22, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

“When he passed away, that sparked something in me,” she said. “Working in the community, and actually seeing how the environment can affect the community, that is so important.”

Schools and environmental groups across the Far South Side mobilized for the holiday Monday, organizing trash pickups and cleanups. Davis was joined by more than 50 volunteers picking up trash down Hazel Johnson EJ Way in the Riverdale neighborhood, while more than 100 students gathered in neighboring Roseland, working down 111th Street.



Adella Bass-Lawson, a health equity organizer with People for Community Recovery, helped put together the cleanup on Hazel Johnson. She said the location was a no-brainer for the organization, founded by the road’s namesake in 1979.

The group aims to address environmental issues and tenants rights across the Far South Side, but began in Altgeld Gardens. So, there was no better place to organize, she said.

“Our organizer and founder was all about making this community a great place to live,” Bass-Lawson said. “This is so important to anyone who has a future here. We want to make sure we give love back to the community and the Earth by cleaning up.”

Jasmine Raye, another organizer, said People for Community Recovery is often focused on the big picture when it comes to environmental justice. The group is working on one program to bring solar energy to are homes and another that will involve the community in plans for Chicago’s Red Line expansion.

Still, she said, it’s important to get on the ground on days such as Earth Day.

“You want to feel good about where you live today,” Raye said. “If you have a clean place to step outside, you’re proud of where you stand. Not to mention, if it’s dirty, if it’s polluted outside, that impacts your overall health. So why not do the small gesture of picking up these objects?”

130th Street Earth Day Clean Up
Emily LaFlamme and her son, Marc, 4, pick up debris along 130th Street near Daniel Drive during an Earth Day cleanup, April 22, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The group partnered with nearby Aldridge Elementary School, recruiting students to help clean the road. Involving students in environmental work is crucial, according to Jamira Owokonira, another member of People for Community Recovery.

“They need to learn how to take care of their community, and later pass it on to the next generation,” Owokonira said. “We can’t rely on the city to clean up our neighborhoods, so we have to teach the future to start participating at a young age.”

Just a few miles away, students and teachers at the Chicago Excel Academy of Roseland hosted students from partner schools in South Shore and Chicago Lawn to clean up their neighborhood.

The school plans to host the cleanup annually in honor of Joyce Chapman, a Chicago Board of Education commissioner and a member of the Far South Community Action Council of Chicago Public Schools.

Diana Banaras, a teacher at Excel, agreed that it’s important for students to participate in cleanup activities.

Humboldt Park Earth Day Clean Up
Members of AmeriCorps mulch trees with volunteers from the Association House of Chicago, a nonprofit community group that provides a variety of services for adults, in Humboldt Park to celebrate Earth Day, April 22, 2024. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

“It’s important for future generations to see this,” Banaras said. “One day, they’re going to have kids, and we want to be the example. This is some of their communities. It’s important that they understand and they see, ‘Hey, I can clean that up.’”

Excel senior Natalie Banks is involved in student government and helped organize the cleanup. She said they have been looking for ways to get out and assist the community, and Earth Day seemed like the perfect opportunity.

“I want this to be a reminder for people that you can help your community,” Banks said. “I don’t see a lot of cleanups around where I live, and I want people to know we’re just as important as any other neighborhood. Cleaner sidewalks lead to a healthier environment.”

Note: The MWRD Environmental Justice staff coordinated this event with partners from multiple organizations.

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Established in 1889, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is an award-winning, special purpose government agency responsible for wastewater treatment and stormwater management in Cook County, Illinois.


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