Cecilia has over 30 years of experience with community outreach, event planning and logistics, marketing initiatives, organizational management, communication strategy and fundraising. She has a broad, long-standing network of strategic relationships with municipalities, utilities, commercial real estate development, academia, and non-profit organizations. Cecilia earned a master’s degree from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and graduated from Arizona State University (ASU). Her professional employment includes the Office of U.S. Representative Morris Udall, City of Phoenix, Salt River Project (SRP), and Valley Partnership. She is currently Assistant Director of the University City Exchange at ASU, and is working on the Rio Reimagined initiative among other urban design projects. She has a history of active community service with many Valley non-profits including YWCA Maricopa County, St. Vincent de Paul, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and Girl Scouts of Arizona. She lives in Phoenix with her husband Roger and three daughters.
This interview was published on July 21, 2020. Learn more about the Rio Reimagined initiative.
What is Rio Reimagined?
The Rio Reimagined initiative is a rebirth of a river revitalization project that started in the 1960s. In 2017, the late US Senator John McCain asked Arizona State University (ASU) to be the facilitator and convener of this initiative, providing support and assistance to the communities of a six cities and two tribal nations that border the river corridor through the metro Phoenix region. The river corridor, which includes the Salt, Gila and Agua Fria rivers, traverses the Phoenix metro area for more than 55 miles. The vision of the initiative is to bring stakeholders together to revitalize the river and its banks, and we’re in the very early stages.
ASU’s role as regional convener entails encouraging, empowering, and educating stakeholders and partners to evaluate priorities in the river corridor whether that be housing, health services, recreational connectivity, environmental restoration, etc. Only three years into the urban planning effort, Rio Reimagined received federal recognition as the 20th designated location for the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, a program led by the EPA.
Our office at ASU is looking to embed this initiative in the community, perhaps someday as a nonprofit organization, but we don’t have a legal structure yet. Two ASU employees are assigned to the initiative, and there is a Project Working Group made up of staff at the local, state and federal level who are working on various projects in the corridor. For example, the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, one of our tribal nation partners, is working on a master plan for their reach of the river, and a public-private grant project involving the State Forestry Department and the City of Mesa on heat mitigation and readiness.
You recently hosted a virtual litter capture campaign in collaboration with River Network and the Ball Corporation in lieu of an in-person river cleanup. What was your experience taking an in-person event virtual?
We want to credit River Network for the campaign – we were pleased to serve as the local implementation organization for the challenge. Ball Corporation is a relatively new and growing corporate presence in the valley, and they are providing resources as well as innovative and creative ideas to reinvest in the community. At the beginning of this partnership, we had arranged for an in-person cleanup in February 2020. Unfortunately, due to early spring runoff and storm systems that came into the valley, we had to postpone to later in the spring. The partnership of Ball, River Network, and Rio Reimagined pivoted to a late April cleanup date. Our in-person cleanups have attracted 60-80 volunteers down on the river banks collecting dozens of trash bags full of litter. These events have been incredibly impactful, so we were delighted to host another one through this partnership. Unfortunately, the April event was then cancelled due to COVID-19. The team pivoted again to a virtual cleanup that would be focused on individual effort, with collective impact.
River Network identified the Litterati app, a technology that anyone can use on their smartphone/tablet to upload photos of litter collected in the community. We expanded to a valley-wide cleanup and encouraged participation from a wider network. This was a change from marketing a local event to just the Rio Reimagined network. When we moved to the virtual approach with Litterati, we needed to reach a wider audience.
How did you incentivize this much broader audience to download the Litterati app and pick up trash in their communities?
First, we encouraged people to download the app and participate through email, social media, and partner organization networks. We encouraged people to take action during a time when many were feeling more enclosed, isolated and stuck in their homes. We marketed this event as a way to get outside while being physically distant and engage in community service and environmental advocacy during COVID-19. People could download the Litterati app, participate in the challenge created for Rio Reimagined, and see a leader-board to track the performance of everyone participating in the challenge.
The competitive aspect was casual and fun, but it was also interesting to see what litter you were picking up compared to others. Everything was geotagged and time-stamped so we could see when people were participating and where. Once a week, top performers would get prizes. We also held shorter challenges, like a “Saturday Litter Sprint,” and gave a prize to the daily winner. But people could look at the leader-board and see how many pieces of trash others had collected. That was the competitive nature of the challenge, but really it was an individual incentive to get out and do some service in the community.
How did you approach the communications challenge of taking a local event virtual and needing a much wider reach?
What we would have done for an in-person event is market it to the Rio Reimagined network of individuals. When we moved to Litterati, we needed to broaden our reach. That was a really exciting opportunity for us because anyone who was sheltering in place could participate from anywhere, at any time. Participants could be in nature or in their community, picking up litter and competing with others by uploading photos to the app.
The use of social media was relatively new for us and it was incredibly effective. We had thousands of engagements the first day the event was posted on Facebook, so there was significant outreach to people who had perhaps never heard of the initiative or the partners before. We also had great support from the community, including our non-profit partner organizations, Ball and River Network, who shared with their networks. Ultimately, we had tens of thousands of people on social media who saw the event and many who expressed interest. The challenge became converting the interest in our digital communications into action: actually downloading and using the Litterati app. We had 80 people download the app and sign up for our challenge, but many fewer people participated by picking up litter. Our end result, which was over 6,000 pieces of litter collected over the 2-week campaign, was tremendous. The exposure of the opportunity, the social media outreach and the initial interest we saw, was incredibly high.
What seems so attractive about using an app is being able to quantify community impact, but it sounds like you had some unforeseen challenges with getting interested individuals to take the next step and download the app. Did you notice how the campaign impacted the community outside of what was quantified during the two-week campaign?
This was our first campaign with Litterati and the first virtual cleanup event we’ve ever done. The experience was brand new to us. What I noticed personally was that this experience changes the way you think about litter. I started picking up litter that to be honest, I may have not collected previously, in large part because the app and challenge motivated me to do so. Many times during the campaign, I picked up litter and forgot to upload a picture because the campaign created a habit and it became less about the app competition and more about cleaning up my community!
We cannot discount the fact that it was over 100 degrees in Phoenix when we ran the campaign. People may have been dissuaded from going outside and collecting trash by the heat, and also fears associated with COVID-19! We were asking people to pick up other people’s trash, which possibly had biological residue on it (i.e. a coffee up or a cigarette butt). We were very aware of these challenges going into the event. Of the people who downloaded the app but did not ultimately participate, we imagine that these challenges and risks were top of mind for them. Overall, our experience running a virtual event allowed us to reach a much broader communication audience in our community. The ability for us to use social media to share the event and the fact that litter can be collected anywhere was extremely convenient during this challenging time.
What would you do differently were you to run a virtual cleanup campaign again?
We would definitely do this again! It was a terrific experience and we had a fantastic partnership. With repeat use, we hope to increase participation. Next time, we will run the event at a different time of year and provide litter pickup kits to make the process safer for participants. We would also shorten the campaign to one week. The two-week campaign lost steam during week two, but people were very motivated that first week. It would also be wonderful if the app allowed direct communication to participants to encourage activity and express appreciation.
Another program enhancement that we think would be really motivating is creating more competitive sub-challenges. For example, we could have challenged clubs from ASU or nearby community colleges. We could have elementary schools or classes compete for fun. There’s a great opportunity here to try to create smaller competitive challenges between community groups and the school year seems like a great time to engage youth. We’ve seen the impact of this on participants’ conception of community litter, and a challenge might be incredibly impactful to get kids in the habit of picking up litter and taking care of their community. Litterati makes it fun and interesting which really changes how you see litter and creates new habits!