Student activist cleans up junk in Shabakunk

A year ago, Noel Ramirez, junior women’s and gender studies and communication studies major, would have laughed in your face if you told him he would spend the summer of 2005 working as an environmental activist. But, as is often the case, it’s those things that you never think you’d do that somehow change your life.

Already an activist for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) issues, Ramirez wanted to expand his experience through a summer job or internship in a different field. He heard about, a Web site that lists opportunities with non-profit organizations where a position as a community organizer for the New Jersey Community Water Watch and AmeriCorps caught Ramirez’s eyes.

After an interview with the program’s director though, Ramirez didn’t think he would get the job. He was 10 minutes late because he got lost and as the director, Matt Elliot, began to talk about water issues, Ramirez had to be honest about his lack of knowledge in the field.

“I bluntly told Matt that I had no idea or experience on environmental issues,” Ramirez said. “All I knew about water quality was that Nestl? water tasted funny and how much it costs at Shop Rite.”

Apparently that didn’t matter though, because Ramirez got the position. As a community organizer, he would have to independently find a site to clean and see the process through. Since he was spending the summer at the College, Ramirez decided to find a site in Ewing that needed help.

“It was difficult to learn about Ewing,” Ramirez said. “Often times at the College we just stay on campus or go to Route 1.”

After doing research and meeting with community leaders though, Ramirez heard about the Shabakunk Creek, which runs behind the Home Depot on Olden Avenue and links to the Delaware and Raritan Canal, a major source of Mercer County’s drinking water. He visited the area himself, saw how badly it was polluted and knew he had found his site.

From there, Ramirez had to draw up publicity and volunteers for his cleanup. He wrote letters to the editor to the Times of Trenton and The Trentonian, put flyers up all over Ewing and handed out brochures at fairs. But he still worried that his project wouldn’t be carried out successfully and wanted to give up.

“Activism without support is a lonely road,” Ramirez said. “Often times it’s very easy to lose that passion.”

But despite all his worries and doubts, Ramirez was able to pick up 15 volunteers to help him out with the project, which he titled, “Get the Junk Out of the Shabakunk.” On Aug. 13, they all headed to the creek and cleaned out one of its parts.

The volunteers who showed up included those who had read Ramirez’s letters to Home Depot’s Team Depot. The group was surprised by all the random junk they picked up, including a shopping cart, the front hood of a car and even rocks that the volunteers first thought were teeth.

Also present on site was a man who decided to make a documentary out of Ramirez’s efforts. That wasn’t the only major media attention Ramirez received though. The Shabakunk clean up was also covered by The New York Times.

Now that he’s back at the College for another semester, Ramirez still plans to be involved with water quality issues. He has leftover materials that he wants to donate to the College’s Water Watch group and also plans to share what he learned about mobilizing others to take action.

“I didn’t think I would be an environmental activist for the summer, nor did I think I’d ever be able to do this project,” Ramirez said. “All I wanted was to make a difference and do something productive for the summer. This experience really helped me see the power of direct service on a community and the beauty of compassion.”

If you’re sitting out there thinking there’s no way you could pull off something like this cleanup project, Ramirez has some words for you: “Every person has the power to change the world somehow.”