COVID-19 left students with far fewer opportunities to gather in person this year, but on April 10th, a group of sorority members found a university-approved event at which they could socialize. In the middle of their Saturday, the twenty members chatted and laughed as they passed around an unusual set of accessories: neon orange vests and protective gloves. Once equipped with trash grabbers and bags, they joined the ranks of hundreds of Baylor students that collected litter for Steppin’ Out.
This year, Baylor partnered with Keep Waco Beautiful (KWB) for the annual student-volunteer event. KWB coordinated locations across the city for students to clean up in a socially-distanced, Covid-safe manner. Spring, TX junior Lauren Ross volunteered with her friends to pick up litter around Delano Street. To her surprise, the experience was not only rewarding, but also fun. “I loved working towards one goal with a bunch of people … we were all super excited to just be out there together and to feel like we were making a difference in our community,” she recalled.
In one day, KWB collected over 150 trash bags of litter with the help of Steppin’ Out volunteers. Since 1979, KWB has initiated a variety of beautification efforts that range from erecting statues in Cameron Park to landscaping street medians. Most Waco residents pass by KWB projects without recognizing the work of this community organization.
For instance, the lights on the historic suspension bridge shine in downtown Waco thanks to the work of KWB. Similarly, Heritage Square, home to a forty-foot Christmas tree during December, marks another contribution of KWB to the downtown.
Many citizens probably take KWB’s aesthetic projects for granted; they never question how or why these public spaces exist. Others assume they are city-funded projects. There are numerous nonprofits that protect the environment or support child development with educational programs. KWB also does these things; however, they accomplish them with a different approach. KWB’s foremost goal is to bring beauty to the community–not as an added bonus to eco-friendly activities, but for its intrinsic value. This approach may seem unique today, but the idea of beautification as a worthy pursuit in and of itself is not new. Lady Bird Johnson placed beautification on the national agenda when she established the Beautification Project as First Lady. Her dedication to beautification convinced her friend, Frances Sturgis, to found the Waco Beautification Association.
The Waco Beautification Association adopted its name, Keep Waco Beautiful, when it later became an affiliation of Keep America Beautiful. Despite this transition, the organization still reflects the convictions of Lady Bird Johnson, who believed beautification addressed many social ills.
She wrote, “Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool. All the threads are interwoven–recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks–national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”
Our democracy demands work and as a nation, we have serious issues to address; however, the tenor of our current political discourse, while passionate, does not promise progress. Just as litter only invites more litter, disorder in human societies cultivates greater disorder.
The executive director of KWB, Rachel Klein, also recognizes the multifaceted benefits of beautification. “[KWB] takes it way further than just cleaning up litter on the street, which is really nice,” she explained. “We have these missions of reducing litter and beautification, but at the same time, it is all still about the community. We’re trying to boost and encourage the engagement between everybody . . . it’s all about people getting to know each other and hanging out and building those relationships as well as boosting the economy and tourism; if our city is clean and ready, people are going to come.”
Beautifying Waco will allow the city, which already draws 30,000 tourists a week to Magnolia Market, to more fully capitalize on its current economic growth. But the community pride KWB’s beautification initiatives instill in Waco residents promises an even greater payoff. After volunteering with KWB, Ross remarked, “I would like to believe people will drive by and think, ‘Oh, the roads are cleaner than usual. I won’t throw out my empty fast food cup today and decide to throw it away later.’”
Studies show that disorder invites further disorder and people are more likely to litter in unkept areas. These findings not only suggest that beautification motivates residents to dispose of their trash responsibly, but also that it encourages them to invest their time and resources in well-maintained cities. The organic growth that could result from more locals investing in Waco offers the city exciting economic prospects–ones that might match or even exceed the impact of Waco’s home goods empire.
Beyond its economic impact, beautification offers the chance to enhance the overall wellbeing of citizens. Lady Bird Johnson once remarked,“Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.” She brought beauty to American cities during the 1960s as an unique approach to the nation’s worries: widespread opposition to the Vietnam War and divisions over the civil rights movement.
As the United States continues to weather a global pandemic, face a national reckoning with race, and grapple with deepening polarization, Americans desperately need something to ease the tensions of our time. Our democracy demands work and as a nation, we have serious issues to address; however, the tenor of our current political discourse, while passionate, does not promise progress. Just as litter only invites more litter, disorder in human societies cultivates greater disorder. Beauty transcends current divisions as a higher good–something good in and of itself. As beautification decreases disorder in cities, it could encourage individuals to invest in their neighborhoods, cultivate community pride, and help heal our democracy.
Anne is pursuing a BA in Economics and International Studies and a minor in German. She studies in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and Honors Program, and is an active member of Baylor’s Model UN team and Delta Delta Delta sorority.