A choreographer walks into the sanitation department….

My first stab at writing about The Trash Project….part of my current book writing process to describe how we do what we do at Forklift. This begins to answer the question of just how in the hell I got the dept of then named Solid Waste Services to say YES! Thank you JILL!


Jill Mayfield was the first person I called at Solid Waste Services. Jill was head of the Public Information Department, and worked with the community often. Her saying “yes” or at least opening the door to my project changed my life…or especially my career as an artist. I owe her much gratitude for willingness to say yes.

I hadn’t spoken to her in over 15 years, so when I met her at an Austin restaurant to interview her I was really excited to get her side of the story. I was especially curious to know why she said yes. That was where our conversation started.

She explained, “Well..you were nice, and you kept calling me, and I thought…well why not give her a chance?…At first, I thought you were a bit out there. But you called me again and you bugged me. And then I started pondering it…I thought, you know…there are two sides to this…how do we talk about this to management?”

Jill wasn’t sure how to talk about it, how to present my idea to her boss, then Director of Solid Waste Willie Rhodes. But she went ahead and sat down with him. She remembered, “Willie looked at me and kind of grimaced, and asked, ‘Will they make fun of our employees?’ But I told him, you know I don’t think so…I think she is really on the level. I think she is really interested. And she does have the history. She has done this thing with the Fire Department.”

To vet me, Jill reached out to her friends at the Fire Department. Lucky for me one of my main contacts, Palmer Buck, was Jill’s neighbor. “Palmer is well known and well loved in this city. I’d known him for years,” said Jill. Palmer encouraged her to move forward with my idea. Thankfully!

The other key thing for Jill was that I was NICE. She said this a few times, “You were persistent, but in a nice way, and you backed it up with your work that you had already done…and I kinda thought, well everybody deserves a shot. And you had evidence. Still there was no guarantee you were going to get a meeting with management. But you were NICE. You were polite.”

Jill knew that she couldn’t move forward with my idea alone, instead she needed to get other management folks to buy in. She was able to get me a meeting with the executive team, but decided not to come herself. She didn’t want this to be seen as Jill’s project. She wanted management to really take ownership of it.

I remember that pitch meeting well. There were 8-10 staff members in the room. I showed them a short trailer from “In Case of Fire,”  and then I talked about how I thought this could be really positive for the employees and a way to get great PR for the department. One of the head staff members then spoke up and said, “Well..I would want this to win lots of awards.” I knew right then I was in!

I did have a good PR track record, with good coverage in local newspapers and on TV for past projects I had done. I had been working as a choreographer for nearly 10 years professionally, so I had been able to build a portfolio. The opportunity for positive press definitely encouraged management, and I also said that we don’t have to talk performance specifics just yet. Just let me ride out and get to know the employees, and then we can decide the scope of this.

The other key ingredient for Jill was that this project could help the public better understand the Solid Waste employees. She explained, “Having watched the employees work, especially getting up in the morning, over at the yard, and even just in my neighborhood, I knew how hard their work was. My dad always taught me that every human being deserves respect, and that people would just say “trash men”—that upset me. These employees do so many things but our image of them is very one dimensional, people thinking oh he could do something better with his life. So I thought maybe this could give the employees some respect. These men and women have tough jobs and if we could get them some more respect, now that would be good.”

When we were finishing up she also shared this “You have to be open to the world around you. You have to be aware what’s around you. There is so much weird, fun stuff to try!”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. theatrog says:

    While writing, half the time think ethnography, the other half think novel. You’ll get good at knowing when to switch back and forth.

    I really liked your treatment of NICE.Play that up and it will touch the heartstrings of those who gave up on NICE in the career world when their advancement and projects flagged. I care for the people who go about depressed, still enjoying and using simple day-to-day courtesy and not realizing what blessings and benefits NICE still confers on them.

    Otra cosa al fin. The trash pickup still comes by once a week (mine is Thursday), and I think of the Trash Project every time. My outlook on those marvelous hard workers is changed forever. You are extra special.



  2. Allison Orr says:

    thanks so much Dave. So nice to have someone reading this. I really appreciate it. And I love knowing you still think of the dance every day the employees come by your house. LOVE to you and YOU ARE VERY EXTRA SPECIAL to ME!


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