New Orleans is well-known for its music and food. Gregory Swafford aims to make it just as famous for its cleanliness, and he and his community are leading the way.
The Culture of Cleanliness was something of an accident, created during the pandemic by New Orleans native Gregory Swafford. Swafford wasn’t intending to start a movement — no less a nonprofit of the same name. But he had been laid off from his accounting firm during the pandemic and was frustrated by the state of the park in his neighborhood. He decided something had to be done.
“It was mainly plastic,” Swafford said. “At the time, it was all just very surface stuff. Nothing heavy, no dumping, no needles. Just plastic: cups, chip bags, wrappers.” So he rallied his closest friends, and they cleaned up the park. And then they kept going, cleaning up other parks, streets, and unofficial dumps. They posted photos and videos from their efforts on social media to get the word out about what they were doing. People from the neighborhoods where they were working saw their work and wanted to help where they could, offering their time, equipment, knowledge, and even guided meditation services at the beginning of cleanup days.
Swafford began considering resources that would make his group’s constantly growing list of tasks easier — tools, storage, networking, promotion, marketing, contacts with politicians and public officials, and a good working relationship with the Department of Sanitation (so bags of trash could be picked up at the end of events, for instance). He connected early on with fellow community leader Sage Michael Pellet and Ben Bagwill, founder of New Orleans based recycling service Realcycle.
“Gregory put out a social media post calling for passionate people of New Orleans to come together,” Bagwill said. “They had a cleanup in New Orleans East. I didn’t even tell them I was coming, I just showed up with a ton of equipment that I use for recycling in New Orleans, like a Bobcat and somewhat heavy machinery. In an hour we were able to make a huge amount of movement and right then and there we realized that our visions [were] very aligned: Let’s respect the Earth, respect our resources, and respect each other in our actions.”
It was around this same time that the Culture of Cleanliness was officially born, eventually morphing from a community initiative into a registered nonprofit co-led by Swafford and Pellet. Since its inception, the 100% volunteer-driven effort has drawn in more people with every neighborhood gathering. Those gatherings fuel their growth and define their direction: stopping to listen to residents about their particular needs has created the roadmap for the last three years at COC.
Currently, COC works to address commercial dumping, residential littering, pollution and clogged drains, lack of code enforcement, blight, and garbage-related crime. So far, they have cleaned up litter from over fifty miles of major thoroughfares, removed and transported 300 tires from public right-of-ways to be recycled, cleared over thirty-eight dump sites, and recycled over one hundred tons of trash, with a landfill diversion cost savings of over $3,000 and counting.
“We don’t ride around looking for a mess to remove,” Swafford said. “Our friends and family tell us where the pain points are, and Culture of Cleanliness responds to the communities’ call. What we’re doing is simple. We’re shedding light on the problem and addressing it with community-based solutions and the help of local people, businesses, and non-profits.”
New Orleans is a city of survival and resilience. But its long history of poverty and constant rebuilding often leaves trash collection overlooked. Sage Michael Pellet was fueled by a desire to hold himself accountable for his actions within his community. “We have this mentality of … trash dumping and throwing trash out the window,” he said. “I think that we can care for our communities much better. I believe if people see a beautiful place, they’re going to want to hold it as beautiful and not trash it. We have culture in New Orleans: culture of music, culture of food, and we developed our messaging as Culture of Cleanliness. Gregory wants to create one of the cleanest cities in the United States, one of the cleanest cities in the world. You dream, then you achieve it, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.”
COC’s initiatives — the Bundy Road Restoration Project, the Claiborne Underpass Needle & Debris Removal Project, the Lower 9 Community Cleanup Day, to name a few — all begin with actions that are simple and highly replicable. At their most recent cleanup event in conjunction with World Cleanup Day, Pellet split their more than fifty volunteers into three teams: litter abatement, storm drain cleaning, and beautification of communal areas.
“For the longest time I thought that one person couldn’t make a difference,” Bagwill told me. “Small little wins in your daily life can be easily achieved, and then you feel like you are more closely connected to the potential to make a cleaner planet and rebuild this world.” He encourages others to start by thinking about what they are personally producing in terms of waste and about where that waste really goes. Follow that up by finding and attending the cleanup events in your area, and network with other like-minded people while you are there.
If you don’t have the time or scheduling flexibility to attend events in your neighborhood, Pellet chimed in with an even simpler action. “We can pick up a bag, we can pick up a piece of trash. That’s collective work. That’s how you get it done.”
Culture of Cleanliness Mission Statement
The goal is to improve the quality of life in New Orleans, include equitable access to cleaner public spaces, as well as a deep cultural shift promoting waste reduction and stewardship. We skillfully connect communities with resources and cultivate self-initiative.