Fellow Feature: A Clean Sweep for Community Development in Ionia

Fellow Feature: A Clean Sweep for Community Development in Ionia

Ionia’s Sweep the Streets project had one simple goal: Bring pride back to our downtown community.
You can use this model in your small town, too. If you are ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work, check out this simple community development project that can quickly deliver a big dose of community pride.

By Robin Suomi, Ionia community development fellow

Ionia was chosen to be part of Michigan’s Project Rising Tide (PRT) initiative, which offers additional support to cities through technical assistance and the added capacity of a community development fellow. A component of participation is that each community in the cohort also has a PRT Steering Committee. As the community development fellow, I support the Steering Committee through meeting facilitation, follow-up, research, and implementation.

One of the Ionia PRT Steering Committee’s first activities was to conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. From that analysis, the Committee selected priority projects for consultants to complete. However, after the projects for consultants were selected, there were several important issue areas remaining. I urged our Steering Committee to select three additional areas of concentration where I could engage citizens to make a difference in our community. One of those areas of citizen focus resulted in the Downtown Subcommittee, and one of their projects was to—somehow—tackle “lack of community pride.” No small task!

As our subcommittee of citizens and business owners discussed it, they pointed out that in addition to the negative in-person comments people made, there are also several social media sites where lack of pride flourished through negative comments from our community members.

So how do you begin to change a community’s mindset? How do you tackle lack of pride head-on in the face of pervasive negative perception? With a positive act, of course. 

We created a “Sweep the Streets” event. We rationalized that having volunteers participate in sweeping the sidewalks in our three-block downtown area and cleaning things up a bit would positively impact community pride, and it was a project for which anyone could get involved. It turns out we were on to something. 

We publicized our event and asked for volunteers to join us for three hours on a Saturday morning in May, bringing their brooms and their best smiles as we worked to change our community’s mindset. We literally swept sidewalks, cleaned up gum, cigarette butts, and other litter in our three downtown blocks. We felt this was especially important because Ionia has a quaint, red brick Main Street that is the centerpiece of our walkable downtown. We wanted to make this gem shine even brighter for our upcoming festivals, and to give people something positive to talk about. 

The impact of our three-hour adventure was far-reaching and more than any of us could have dreamed of.  Besides having clean sidewalks and experiencing the personal pride of being a part of this new, positive change, we also:

  • Had positive interactions with citizens who happened by, telling us how much they appreciated what we were doing.
  • Reconnected with many older store owners who reminisced about sweeping the streets daily, just like this, 40 years ago. This presented an opportunity to get a free tutorial about the proper way to sweep the streets, making sure to sweep out the cracks, too. The advice we heard over and over was, ‘If you don’t clean the cracks, it doesn’t look like it has been swept!” And they were right! The shop owners loved being involved and helping us sweep the streets the right way, and we enjoyed hearing their stories.   
  • Had a pleasant conversation with a passerby who was about to drop some trash on the street, encouraging him to change his behavior.  A volunteer said, “Gosh, I just swept that sidewalk, and I wonder if you wouldn’t mind putting your trash in the receptacle right down there, just a few feet away.”  The resident used the trash receptacle—with a smile!
  • Experienced multi-generational “giving back to the community” pride! The delight in the grandfather’s and father’s eyes as they both taught the youngest generation to give back to their chosen community through sponsorship and service was evident and heart-warming. We met some wonderful young leaders-in-the-making that day.  
  • Bonded as a community. As our community of volunteers worked together to “make Ionia better” for three priceless hours, we bonded. We all experienced the thrill of making a difference, of helping others, of being proud of the community in which we choose to live. We all became better friends that day.    

And remember those challenging social media sites I mentioned, the ones that often have negative comments? A few days after we swept the streets, someone posted on social media about walking through downtown Ionia with her son and husband, reminiscing about the different stores and locations she had not seen for over 20 years—and she remarked about how clean the streets, sidewalks, and storefronts were!

This project was a clean sweep for Ionia and for community development. We will continue to work with shop owners and residents, encouraging everyone to keep our beautiful downtown area clean and swept up for future festivals and events. We’ll make sure we continue to clean the cracks, too.

This is a project that can be replicated in your community. If you have questions about how it was organized, please contact me or the City of Ionia. We’d be happy to share our planning process for Sweep the Streets. We wish other visionary community leaders luck in gathering your citizen volunteers, brooms, gloves, pails, garbage bags, scrapers, coffee and donuts, and strengthening your community pride!    

Principal Ionia organizations involved in Sweep the Streets: Ionia Historical Society, Habitat for Humanity, Downtown Development Authority, Ionia Lock and Key, Project Rising Tide, and many loyal businesses and volunteers.

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Robin Suomi, MBA, is the Project Rising Tide fellow for the City of Ionia.  She also has several years’ experience in economic development and small business ownership, technical assistance, and coaching throughout the United States.