Meeting Memphians: A conversation with Eldra White

The Memphis City Beautiful Commission is engaging neighborhood groups and volunteers to fight blight, increase recycling and keep Memphis looking its best. Learn about what’s next for MCBC and how the community is getting involved.
Eldra White has served as executive director of the Memphis City Beautiful Commission (MCBC) for the past 20 years and continues to tout the city’s lush tree canopy as one of the things she loves most about living in Memphis. But it’s not all about looks. Trees are a valuable piece of community infrastructure that provide improved air quality and enhanced property values, as well as a nice view.

To keep the greenery going, White and the MCBC provided thousands of tree seedlings to fourth graders at public and private schools on March 7, as they do every every year on Arbor Day. And as one of seven community leaders recently selected for the newly created Memphis Tree Board, White will continue to defend our foliage by establishing, managing and enhancing the city’s trees.

Planting new trees is just one way of many ways that White and the oldest beautification commission in the nation (established by city ordinance in 1930) work to keep Memphis beautiful, healthy and safe. The MCBC partners year-round with neighborhoods, community groups, businesses and schools on organized clean-up projects, and its overall mission remains to inform and educate the public about litter prevention, recycling and other ways to keep Memphis looking its best.

White, a lifelong Memphian, knew working with the MCBC would be an opportunity to do great things for her city. She joined the commission in 1993 following her work with Wonders: the Memphis International Cultural Series.

Compared to 20 years ago, is Memphis a cleaner place now?

I believe we have a really beautiful city today. I think people are more aware now than before, and we’ve seen a significant green/environmental movement happening over the past several years. Like most major cities, litter and blight are still problems here, but we are working to abate both.

How important is Arbor Day for you personally and for the MCBC?

I’m thrilled that the state chose to celebrate the Arbor Day holiday here this year. City and state officials commemorated the event with a ceremony and tree planting at the Botanic Garden. We had volunteers that delivered nearly 6,000 seedlings to the various school classrooms, and the kids were able to either take the seeds home to plant or plant the seeds at their schools. Throughout the year, people can donate to the Friends of Memphis City Beautiful green city fund in memory or in honor of friends or loved ones, and that money goes into a fund to plant trees in public spaces on Arbor Day.

Memphis City Beautiful has a modest annual budget of $250,000. How are you able to make such an impact on the community?

We supported more than 500 community clean-ups last year, and many resulted from the participation of community leaders. Our job is not so much to clean up after everyone as it is to engage and get others to take action related to some of the problems that are occurring within their communities. In fact, we just picked up two national awards at the annual Keep America Beautiful conference in early February in Charlotte, N.C. We were honored for our regular organized clean-up efforts on McKeller Lake with the Memphis River Warriors as well as our creative ways of encouraging people to think about recycling with our annual Curb Couture Trashion Show fundraising event in October.

Tell us about MCBC’s Tool Bank services for the community.

With our Tool Bank service, any group that is carrying out a clean-up or a gardening project within their community can borrow tools from us free of charge. We have rakes, shovels, brooms, gloves, bags – you name it – to help them in their efforts to improve their community. This year we are looking to expand the Tool Bank with more inventory and some motorized tools like weed-eaters and lawn mowers to better keep up with the demand.

What new programs does Memphis City Beautiful have in place for 2014?

Faith in Action will be a large-scale clean-up that we will be carrying out on the weekend of April 25-27. We are targeting the city’s more than 4,000 faith-based organizations, encouraging them to make community improvement a part of their ministries. The event is open to everyone, however, including schools and businesses.

What other changes you would like to see in the future?

The city will be rolling out larger, single-stream recycling bins soon. I think the easier it is for people to recycle, the better. One of my personal goals is to bring the BigBelly Solar trash and recycling stations here, like the ones used in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. Garbage and recyclables placed in the bins are compacted, reducing the need to empty it as often and saving cities money on collection costs.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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