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VOL. 45 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 17, 2021

Keeping Knoxville beautiful is a dirty job

McKissack, volunteers roll up their sleeves to restore city’s shine

By Nancy Henderson

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Alanna McKissack is constantly surprised at how few people know about Keep Knoxville Beautiful, an environmental stewardship and beautification nonprofit founded in 1978 to help clean up the city before the 1982 World’s Fair. Then again, she didn’t know about it herself until she went to work there.

“There was a big following behind it [at first], and then there were a few years where not many people knew that we still existed,” says McKissack, 28, who became executive director of KKB in early 2018. “I attended UT for four years and never once volunteered here. I never knew about it. It was really shocking to me that, as a college student [majoring in ecology], I didn’t know about this great opportunity to volunteer.”

Thanks to McKissack, who was born in California and grew up in Atlanta, more Knoxville residents are learning about the organization and getting involved. “I came in at a time when the facility was really interested in growing the capacity,” she says. “Our goal is to be able to do more impactful things, not necessarily a lot of events or a lot of cleanups – just something more impactful. It’s been really great seeing the awareness grow over the past three years. It has definitely grown, with more and more volunteers every year.

“The downside is that litter’s still out there,” she adds. “You get really excited doing a cleanup and you’ll see the space transform, but then sometimes you’ll come back and there’s some trash again. So it’s a constant effort, but I know we just have to keep working at it and educating people and focusing on changes, and change will come.”

Patience Melnik, now waste and resources manager for the City of Knoxville, was KKB executive director when McKissack first came to the organization in 2015 through the CAC (Community Action Committee) AmeriCorps, which places young volunteers in roles designed to combat a variety of local challenges.

Alana McKissack prepares to help volunteers suit up in safety vests prior to a recent Keep Knoxville Beautiful cleanup session.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

“Alanna’s poise and grace sometimes belie what a powerhouse she is,” Melnik says. “She is hardworking, smart and focused enough to know that sometimes you have to say no to distractions so you can effectively meet and exceed the organization’s big goals. Under her leadership, KKB is flourishing – growing in staff size, in volunteers, and in cleanups and projects accomplished for and by the community.”

Unlike many nonprofit organizations, Keep Knoxville Beautiful actually logged one of its best years during the coronavirus shutdown. Numbers recorded from the start of the fiscal year in July 2020 through this spring show 3,500 volunteers from Boy Scouts to individual residents hosting neighborhood cleanups helped further the mission of KKB. Participation was higher than usual, McKissack notes.

“People wanted to go outside and we offered a great opportunity to do that. One of the big things we do is we offer our supplies for free to anyone. We’ll give you the trash bags and the pickers to do something on your own. This gave opportunities for families to do things outside together, safely, but also businesses because employees were [working] remote and this has given them the chance to meet up at a park and to be safe together and interact.”

McKissack’s connection with the environment actually stemmed from a childhood passion for marine life. “I enjoyed going to the [Georgia] Aquarium,” she says. “I could just sit for hours watching different fish swim, dolphins, whales.”

Alanna McKissack, center, explains safety measures to volunteers from the Tennessee Department of Transportation before they start a clean-up along Boyd’s Bridge Pike.

But UT wasn’t anywhere near an ocean, so upon enrolling in 2011, she concentrated on ecology and evolutionary biology, partly because she’d come to appreciate the East Tennessee mountains and parks where she hiked. Her goal of becoming a researcher quickly fell by the wayside when, to her disappointment, she struggled with the biology classes.

McKissack had always planned to return to Georgia after graduation. With that milestone approaching, she considered serving in the Peace Corps but didn’t want to be away from her family overseas for that long. By chance, she was asked to join CAC AmeriCorps, a national service program of AmeriCorps – a sort of Peace Corps for the U.S. – that in Knoxville addresses local environmental and social needs in the area. “It was right up my alley,” she explains.

As part of the 10-month stint at CAC, she was placed as program coordinator at KKB, where she organized volunteer cleanups in parks and along creeks and created an environmental education program that sends volunteers into schools to teach kids about such topics as how trees help humans and animals, why litter doesn’t break down and how it harms water sources, and how to transform scrap paper into craft projects. “That is really where I fell in love with this form of environmentalism, more micro-changes that you can make on your local level, within your home, just personally,” she adds.

The only two staff members, McKissack and Melnik, joined KKB at the same time. The organization had gone without a director for months and “needed a real refresh,” Melnik says. “Together we dug in to get the work done, and I could not have asked for a better teammate than Alanna.”

The first year, the two women moved offices, overhauled the KKB website and most of its computer systems, ramped up volunteer recruitment and revitalized the Orchid Awards, which honor Knoxville’s most beautiful properties, public spaces and public art.

Alanna McKissack, executive director of Keep Knoxville Beautiful, prepares while waiting on volunteers prior to a clean-up project.

-- Photos By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

“Alanna wasn’t a big talker, but we didn’t need to chat too much about our plans,” Melnik recalls. “She anticipated needs and often executed tasks before I even had the chance to ask her. She was always levelheaded, easy to be with and unflappable.”

As her one-year CAC AmeriCorps term drew to a close, McKissack thought about getting a teaching certificate and a master’s degree in science. But, she admits, “I learned I was really good with kids for a short space of time. I wasn’t meant to be there all day with them, so I knew teaching probably was not for me.”

Once again, luck was on her side. The coordinator position opened up at Keep Blount Beautiful, allowing her to continue launching the types of environmental initiatives that came naturally. It was also a valuable steppingstone in her career since the post put her in charge of operations.

When Melnik left her leadership post at KKB in 2018, she encouraged McKissack to apply as her replacement. The position at Keep Blount Beautiful had given McKissack the experience she needed to take over at KKB. What’s more, Melnik points out, “She knew firsthand how KKB functioned and already had strong relationships with the board members, volunteers and community partners. Her work ethic, professionalism and love of the organization made her a perfect fit.”

Since then, McKissack has expanded KKB’s educational programs from 30-minute one-offs to six-week workshops offering weekly activities and lessons to 3,000 students in approximately 20 Knox County schools.

Alanna McKissack takes a group photo of volunteers from the Tennessee Department of Transportation before they start a clean-up. McKissack is the executive director of Keep Knoxville Beautiful.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

“Kids love what we’re doing because we try to make things fun. It can be kind of boring talking about how plastics don’t degrade. They want to know: How does the recycling process work? A lot of kids are really just excited about the environment and doing great things for the community. Some of them call out their friends for throwing something on the ground or putting something in the trash can that should have been in the recycling bin.”

McKissack has also reached her goal of introducing more impactful volunteer opportunities. “We want to go where the need is and not just hit the same spots all the time,” she says. “So we’re actively out there, reaching out to neighborhoods and partners, asking them what they need. Last weekend we heard that Satterfield Farms was in need of help weeding the beds for the community garden. So we were able to help them and we were also able to work in the aspect of litter prevention by cleaning up the road in front of the farm.”

The longstanding Adopt-a-Road program, in which neighborhood groups take responsibility for keeping mile-long stretches free of garbage, is more popular than ever, she says.

Adds McKissack of the group’s broader mission, “We want to be a resource to everyone in Knox County to be able to establish that pollinator garden or plan that community cleanup. We don’t want them to feel that they can’t do it. Everyone deserves a clean and green space, and we want to make sure that everyone is aware that we have those resources and we want to help them.”

A hard worker who likes to juggle multiple projects, McKissack spends most of her time networking, encouraging innovation from her staff and building partnerships within the community. Despite her accomplishments, she says, “I don’t really like to talk about myself.” Even though the job has, to some degree, forced her to come out of shell, she refrains from jumping on every bandwagon and prefers to think through ideas to give them the best chance of survival. She often sits in the corner at meetings and doesn’t speak up unless she feels she has something meaningful to contribute.

Working alongside volunteers is the best part of the job, she says. “You can’t do this job and not be willing to go pick up trash and get dirty. I’m not sitting at my desk all the time. You can see the change when you’re out there doing the hands-on work.”

McKissack is quick to praise the volunteers who drive KKB. “While I lead, I’m not the heartbeat of our organization. Without our volunteers, we couldn’t do anything. [These are] not often glamorous or climate-controlled volunteer opportunities. They put their heart and soul into what they’re doing, making that difference in Knoxville, and we’re just very thankful for them. It makes my job really easy having people that want to help us fulfill our mission.”

Not surprisingly, McKissack loves being outdoors and exploring the city’s parks and trails with her dog. She also teaches barre on weekends.

Last year, COVID-19 sidelined her wedding plans, but that didn’t stop McKissack and her fiancé John Long from tying the knot in October on a scenic overlook just off the Foothills Parkway in Townsend. They’ve rescheduled their “real” wedding for their anniversary. . “Being that I don’t like crowds and stuff, it was really nice,” she says of last year’s intimate ceremony.

In the meantime, McKissack is working to grow KKB’s regional cleanup series with new events, including one in East Knoxville. She’ll also oversee volunteers as they paint a nature mural on the side of a concrete plant in the mostly-industrial Marble City area. Both initiatives were requested by local residents.

“I’m just someone who is very passionate about her job and about Knoxville,” says McKissack, who’s changed her tune about moving back to the Peach State. “I’ve lived here 10 years now and I don’t ever want to leave.”

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