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Alley Advocates: From trash collection to public safety, these St. Paul teens mean business

From left, Nhia Vang, 16, a junior at Harding High School, Amber Yang, 17, a senior at Roseville High School, and Linda Xiong, 16, a junior at Central High School, self-proclaimed "Alley Advocates," pick up trash along the Little Mekong Business District in St. Paul on Friday, Aug. 25. They are employed by the Asian Economic Development Association, which pays them to pick up litter twice a week while learning about community leadership. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
The self-proclaimed "Alley Advocates" write down their observations and reflections after they pick up trash along the Little Mekong Business District in St. Paul. Jean Pieri / St. Pioneer Press2 / 2

ST. PAUL—In St. Paul, trash is a big deal this summer, and 16-year-old Chia Sang Wang sometimes finds herself ankle deep in it.

She's part of a group of 10 St. Paul-area youths who have ditched video games and vacation plans and instead are cleaning sidewalks and alleys along the Little Mekong District at University and Western avenues in St. Paul.

The self-proclaimed "Alley Advocates"—they chose the title after completing a workshop on brand management—are employed by the Asian Economic Development Association, which pays them $11 an hour to pick up litter twice a week while learning about community leadership.

The effort, aimed at low-income young people ages 16 to 21, is supported by a two-year grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota, though AEDA officials are hopeful they can continue the work for several more years.

The students, all of them Hmong, have completed mini-seminars on subjects as varied as financial literacy, college readiness, business etiquette and even de-escalation strategies, which they found helpful following encounters with a few gruff store owners who had no time for their do-goodery.

"Some businesses don't give us the respect that we deserve," said Mai Sou Vang, 16. "They kick us out. I get it, I guess, because they don't want us to interrupt their business, maybe because we're like kids to them."

Not to be deterred, the youth have invited business leaders, St. Paul police, members of the mayor's staff, representatives of the city's planning department and the general public to a forum on ways to improve the business district. It will be held from 8:30-10:30 a.m. today at AEDA offices.

"I think we all need to talk about the future, what needs to happen for this business district to thrive," said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the association. "Parking is gone on the street, so people are parking in the back and they're using the alleys. There's inadequate lighting there, some places are not walkable, you get uneven surfaces, when it rains it puddles, and landscaping is not happening. And on one side you have businesses and on one side you have residences."

And then there's the near-constant litter.

On a recent Monday morning, Thoj found a mattress abandoned in the AEDA dumpster—evidence of illegal dumping that has plagued Frogtown, Summit-University and other neighborhoods. City officials say organized collection that includes bulk trash removal would cut down on dumping, a potential public safety hazard.

The Alley Advocates, who have been documenting conditions with their phone cameras, hope to convince business owners to share costs and management of a public trash barrel near Hmong American Partnership's new Little Mekong Plaza, an outdoor seating area that recently debuted by the old Mai Village restaurant.

Butt Attack

It's been an at times frustrating, at times informative summer for the teens. Some say they don't receive much guidance at home about how to apply for college and financial aid, or even how to open and manage a bank account, which was required of them as part of the program.

But what's been equally eye-opening is the deluge of cigarette butts that appear almost as quickly as they can collect them.

"The frustrating thing is you pick up trash and then there's more trash—some people don't want to do their part to help out," said Sang Wang, who joined the AEDA effort in part to be a good role model to her six younger siblings. "You should do your part to pick up litter so you don't kill your planet!"

Being a good leader within their families—as much as their neighborhood—seems to be a common refrain with the teens.

"Each of them has such a unique story," said Mhonpaj Lee, youth supervisor and lead community advocate with AEDA. "I really take them as adults. I don't treat them like they're students. They have time sheets, protocols as staff. They said 'We don't want to be called youth leaders. We want to be called leaders.'"

Lee brought seven of the young leaders to St. Paul City Hall last month, where she left council members with a few parting thoughts both for and against coordinated trash collection.

On the one hand, Lee believes immigrant families in St. Paul's lowest-income neighborhoods are among the most likely to pay the highest rates for trash collection and the least likely to understand they can negotiate better deals.

In that sense, many might benefit from organized collection with uniform rates. On the other hand, the rates proposed by the city strike her as too high.

"We gave the pros and cons to both (sides)," Lee said. "We emphasized the benefit of having more discussion, because that's very costly for those families that don't make that much."

After training in negotiations, Lee noted that some students switched from being proponents of organized trash collection to opponents because they now feel empowered to deal with the trash haulers on their own. "One said, 'Now that I know how to negotiate, I'm going to go see how much my mom's bill is!'"