Educator finds his mission leading students ‘from soap to citizenship’

By Tom Baxter

Another school year will be beginning soon, and Tom Keating will be about the mission which has occupied nearly half his 40-year career as an educator: school toilets.

He has, he says, “been a lot of places, and done a lot of stuff” as a consultant and director of Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners, and Educators Against Neglect), the organization he launched as the vehicle for his crusade to make school restrooms cleaner, safer and generally more civilized. He and his cause have been the subject of numerous articles, including a front-page Wall Street Journal story. He’s worked in 18 states, and several foreign countries.

Consulting with school systems on how to improve their restrooms has never been a lucrative calling, however, and even more so in these days when music teachers are getting layoff notices and school janitorial services are being outsourced. It’s increasingly harder to get the attention of harried principals and school superintendents, but Keating is nothing if not insistent.

“They can blow me off, but I don’t go away,” he said.

That quality of insistently bringing up what no one wants to talk about can be very wearing, but it’s an essential ingredient of civic activism. You don’t usually see it in quite as pure a form as Keating, but there’s hardly a worthwhile public program which didn’t start with someone’s refusal to go away.

Some might consider Keating’s work to be about an uncomplicated biological function, and not so much about education. But for Keating, leading students “from soap to citizenship” is a higher calling.

“It is the most basic educational work that I’ve done, including being called the Dropout Doctor, including lobbying, including getting world languages into the Decatur school system,” he said. “Health, education and citizenship – all of that is tied up in poop.”

Poop is also political. He’s had a few contracts torn up, Keating said, because he made too much trouble for the powers-that-be in a school district.

A key element in this particular scheme for making the world a better place is, obviously, getting people to discuss something they seldom talk about directly. He has a variety of strategies for bringing the subject out in the open, including showing up at meetings in yellow rubber janitor’s gloves.

“Out of every 10 middle school and high school kids, four of those 10 avoid the use of the restroom every day,” Keating said. “Nobody has ever told me about the health costs of that statistic, because nobody wants to talk about it. So I talk about it.”

When Keating, who has a doctoral degree in education, first became interested in this subject after hearing complaints from his children and his neighbors, he found there was practically no professional literature on the subject. He’s helped to change that with a number of articles, and along the way found a kindred spirit in Jack Sim, a Singaporean businessman who also felt called to bring this sensitive subject out in the open.

Sim is the founder of the World Toilet Organization and a sponsor of the World Toilet Summit, an annual event at which Keating has spoken three times. Sim is dedicated not only to cleaning up existing facilities around the world, but doing something about the very real public health problems created by a crowded world in which an estimated 40 percent of the people don’t have toilets.

It was while talking with students from around Europe in a Brussels hostel that Keating experienced an epiphany of sorts: that his mission was also global.

“School restrooms always suck,” a Dutch student told him. Keating has adopted that as the working title of a book he’s planning about his life’s mission.

“I realized, this is worldwide. I don’t ever have to turn back. Half the planet has never read or written a single word, and half the planet has never pooped in a toilet. I will never be unemployed. I will never make a lot of money, but I’ll be doing something worthwhile.”

So you go find a better way to save the world. Keating, at least, can point to some tangible results, and he’s had a ball working on one of the least inviting issues in the world.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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