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It’s an early Sunday morning, the day after a storm passed through Oakland. Before the brunch crowds descend onto Lake Merritt, a group meets in front of a tall brick building on Perkins Street.
Those joining are part of a volunteer group called Trash Falcons. The “Falcons” (as they call themselves) meet every Sunday morning and go on a mission to pick up trash—starting on Perkins, going down towards the Rotary Nature Center and along the lake, and eventually ending their cleanup near the Pergola.
Since its inception in the summer of 2020, the volunteer-run group has gone on around 150 clean-ups. Like many projects that began during the pandemic, Trash Falcons was initially a way for its members to cope and help pass the time. It was started by two bandmates, Richard Shirk and Dana Berry, who could no longer rehearse and instead took to cleaning up the street in front of their apartment building on Perkins.
“We decided to continue our rock and roll schedule, and instead of going to a warehouse in a tiny room and playing music, we would take trash grabbers and clean up our street,” Shirk said.
Not long after, Shirk’s wife joined the cleanup crew, and so did other friends and neighbors. Now, Trash Falcons has close to 50 volunteers, some of who join every Sunday.
“One of the things about the Falcons is that much like a flock of birds, we’re all leaders of the group,” Shirk said.
He estimates that the Falcons have picked up about 22,500 pounds of trash, equaling 11.25 tons.
Trash Falcons member Jasmine Stitts during a recent Sunday clean-up on Grand Avenue. Credit: Amir Aziz
The Trash Falcons use trash grabbers and other devices made by some of the volunteers to fish trash out of the water. Credit: Amir Aziz
“It gave us optimism about the predicament that we were in. It evolved from being a form of coping into a real ethos of not only are we doing this positive thing and meeting our neighbors, but we’re improving the lake and our block for everybody,” said Shirk.
On the day that The Oaklandside tagged along, 13 Falcons followed. Some members who couldn’t join for the day made it a point to meet briefly with the group to say hello. One Falcon was recovering from a hand injury and was wearing a cast. Another was recovering from a knee injury.
Two new members, Rand Hawkins and Lisa Regul showed up for the first time and got a quick brief on what to expect. Shirk emphasized that the Falcons respect unhoused neighbors and do not touch or discard any belongings.
Anyone who wants to join can simply show up any Sunday at 9 a.m. outside of 400 Perkins, the meetup point that the group calls “Castle Trash Falcon.” The Falcons provide volunteers with the supplies they need: trash pickers, gloves, bags, and hand sanitizer.
“Trash Falcons is sponsored by an anonymous and benevolent ‘thousandaire,’” Shirk joked. “And that person just wants the group to have what they want, and if we need it, it’ll just materialize.”
As the group began to walk, some members flocked to Ana-Marie Jones, known as “Q” and sometimes “lord of the rings.” Jones always carries a backpack with different gadgets used for the cleanups: metal rings that are used to keep the large garbage bags open, a device called the “witch finger” made out of a duster to fish things out of the water, extra gloves, a first aid kit, and more.
“I love the Trash Falcons message,” Jones said. “Our goal is to have a good time and make Oakland a cleaner place.”
Nicholas Berger documenting the Trash Falcons’ trash findings for the group’s social media. Credit: Amir Aziz
Trash Falcons co-founder, Richard Shirk chatting with new member Lisa Regul and others about this item of clothing that she found in the water. Credit: Amir Aziz
The Falcons document their clean-up adventures and the array of interesting trash that they find along the way on Instagram. During a clean-up in October, the team found a set of real teeth in a plastic mold. Another time, the group found a box filled with molted tarantula skin. The box was among the items belonging to the Rotary Nature Center that someone had recently fished out of a dumpster and spread on the sidewalk outside of the center.
Nicholas Berger is the Falcon in charge of documenting the unusual trash findings. Berger joined about a year ago after finding out about the group through Shirk when they were working on a film project.
“One of the many reasons why Trash Falcons is great is there’s the community aspect where people love to see us out there, and we get so many ‘thank you’s’ as we walk down. That feels really good,” Berger said. “But there’s a sort of an anthropology-type part of this where we’re finding trash, and we’re telling little stories about it.”
As the group was waiting at a stoplight at the corner of Perkins and Grand Avenue, a driver called out to Berger to inquire what the group was about. After Berger explained, the driver said, “I have a truck.”
“We meet every Sunday,” Berger replied before the driver drove off.
Group members sometimes document their findings in a playful manner, and Berger said they’re endlessly fascinated by how the discarded items make their way to the lake and the streets.
“There’s an element of this where it really feels like being a kid exploring, and we’re not trying to be efficient,” Berger said. “Sometimes there’ll be some piece of trash that’s way out in the lake, and we’ll spend 20 minutes on this one piece of trash because it’s sort of a game to grab it. It’s like a puzzle sometimes.”
During the first year of the pandemic, Shirk said that he and other Falcons members noticed trash piling up around the lake around the same time the city was feeling the effects of the pandemic shutdown, leaving their volunteer group and others—like the now-shuttered MudLab, and a group formed by the Lake Merritt Institute—to pick up the slack.
Sara Mae Heady, a co-founder of MudLab, a zero-waste store that was previously located on Grand Avenue near the lake, joined the Falcons in September 2020 and was the first volunteer to get in the water to fish out trash from the lake.
“What’s really beautiful about this project is that it is copy and paste. Anyone can do this,” Heady said. “All it takes is your body, your mind, your heart, a trash picker, and some PPE.”
A filled trash bag ready to be discarded. Credit: Amir Aziz
Two of the youngest volunteers, Bishop O’Dowd students Phoenix Ehrhart-Mount and Beckett Sanford turning in filled trash bags over to Oakland city worker Carlos. Credit: Amir Aziz
When city crews were re-hired, the Falcons teamed up with them and built a partnership. Now, city workers patrolling and cleaning around the lake take the filled trash bags from the Falcons for disposal. Other bags get discarded in nearby dumpsters, and the rest is taken back to a dumpster on Perkins.
The amount of trash the group picks up often depends on the weather and what festivities are happening around the lake. When it rains, there’s less trash. More trash accumulates on hot summer days when people are having picnics.
“Once there was a gender-reveal party where 12 of us probably spent 45 minutes picking up little [mylar plastic film] blue scraps on our hands and knees,” Berger recalls. “We try not to be judgemental.”
Seeing an explosion of trash doesn’t faze them. On the contrary, it exemplifies how vital their work is and that the great group behind them is willing and happy to help clean it up.
“The Falcons are not a top-down organization. The only rule that we really have is that you have to stay positive and lead by example,” Shirk said. “Because no one’s mind was ever changed by being ratted out or shamed.”
Ultimately, besides helping keep their neighborhood clean, the Falcons hope to inspire residents in other neighborhoods to partake in similar clean-up efforts.
“If you have people that are depressed about where they live and sad about stepping over trash in their neighborhood, to empower them that if you see something blowing around in your front yard, you pick it up and if you continue that process week after week, it has this whole cascading effect of improvement,” Shirk said. “Where everyone’s block has the potential to be like Sesame Street, where you walk down the street, and you know everybody and everyone’s friends.”
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