More than 100 people gathered in North Philadelphia Monday morning to help clean up the neighborhood as part of a day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The event was organized by State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philly Democrat, and Terrill Haigler — a city sanitation worker better known by his Instagram handle, “Ya Fav Trashman.”
“Social distance, keep your mask up, but if you can smile under your mask, say hi to somebody,” Haigler exhorted the crowd before the pickup effort began. “Let’s fill this block with love, joy, and appreciation.”
Kenyatta noted that his political career was kickstarted when he became a junior block captain — a role his mother urged him to take on after hearing him complain about how dirty their block was.
“My mama said, ‘Malcolm if you care so much why don’t you go do something about it?’” Kenyatta said. “You all care, and you’re here to do something about it on MLK Day, which is amazing.”
Haigler built an audience on Instagram by giving people an inside look at Philadelphia’s often-criticized trash collection process. Since then, he’s used his platform to raise thousands of dollars to buy personal protective equipment for the city’s sanitation workers, and host a food drive.
Monday’s cleanup was more personal. Haigler lives just a few blocks away from where volunteers gathered.
“I’m elated [by the big turnout]” Haigler said. “I don’t even have words to explain how I feel that people care so much about somebody else’s community, somebody else’s block.”
Volunteers Monday picked up trash and mowed grass growing in vacant lots. They also distributed coats and boxes of food to community members in need.
The group skewed young and included people of many racial backgrounds. Nayelis Ortiz, 15, came with a group of fellow students from Community Academy of Philadelphia, a charter school in the Harrowgate neighborhood.
“I’ve never really been part of something like this,” Ortiz said. “I thought it would be good to give it a chance, and see what kind of change we can actually make.”
Julian Richardson, 18, said Martin Luther King Jr. Day has a special resonance this year, when the pandemic has largely kept people at home and apart.
“It’s nice we can still get together as a community and try and get something positive done on a day when it’s important to give back,” he said.
Kevin Simpson, who lives on one of the blocks beautified by volunteers, found the effort heartening. The 63-year-old said he has spent part of nearly every day for decades picking up trash in his neighborhood. He was glad to have some help.
“I love this community, and I put all my time into it,” Simpson said. “This is what you do in a pandemic, you contribute.”
Still, some locals were skeptical that the spirit of service on display Monday would last once the holiday was over.
“This is basically a photo op, that’s all it really is,” said Scott Dawkins, who stopped to watch the volunteers as he sipped a cup of coffee. “This is just for this day, what about all the other days?”
Those ‘other days’ were at the top of Rep. Kenyatta’s mind as well. He argued that King would have treated trash-strewn streets not as a singular problem, but as a symptom of systemic racism, along with things like high rates of poverty, incarceration, and housing insecurity.
“Every MLK Day gives us an opportunity to continue the work he so passionately did,” Kenyatta said. “But it’s also a reminder that the work has to go on beyond just today.”