Cleanup and community: Couple's efforts to clean neighborhood bring residents together

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- How much trash do you see when heading to work every day?

One river west couple says they felt like they were seeing too much litter, so they decided to do something, and ended up building community along the way.

For over 40 weeks now Emma Larson and Khurram Naik have spent anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour picking up trash near their home in the 2600 block of North Holton Avenue once a week whenever they can.

They moved in last February when they got married.

"Pretty quickly after we moved, we saw just a lot of trash on the street," said Larson.

"I can't quite remember but maybe we just start picking up on our little stretch just in front house and said, well, what's the point of doing that, you know, just obviously more litter will blow in here we might as well pick up more here on this block," said Naik.

After the first few weeks, they started posting pictures of their trash hauls on Facebook, two to three bags each week.

"It was just kind of a weekly commitment that we just kept doing. Now we share our commitment with you know, with the neighborhood on the river West Facebook group," said Larson.

"It's been really cool to be able to post what you're doing in there and be consistent and have that message resonate with people and how people get to know you," said Naik.

Larson says if there's around 100 pieces of trash in a bag, they've picked up over 7,000 pieces of trash.

"Probably about like 7600 pieces of trash," said Larson.

Naik says they've noticed trends in the kinds of trash they see.

"It's three categories. It's fast food, it's alcohol, it's sugar," said Naik, "it's really raising for me a lot of questions about this nexus between health and climate and our social connectedness."

Social connectiveness that, before starting their Holton Street Clean Up project, Naik says seemed to be lacking in the world for them sometimes.

"I wonder if since the pandemic you know a lot of people are feeling disconnected from their peers and then maybe being a little more selfish in their behavior so litter is kind of a casualty," said Naik.

Naik and Larson say despite the occasional detractor, they've managed to turn the negativity associated with social media on its head.

"Social media makes this way to do real world things and spread that to other people that just you never know what connections might pop up from that," said Naik, "it's how we've made friends. You know, we're new here and so it's been wonderful to find like minds in this way. It's just if you broadcast something about yourself and your values, you'll find like minds and support them in their missions too."

"A few days before [a clean up] I'll post and say like, 'Hey, you know, we're going to be out on Saturday or Sunday at this time if people want to come and join'," said Larson, "and that's been how I've made most of my friends in the neighborhood since moving here."

Soon, they weren't alone, with their neighbors often coming out to help.

"People that I have like really wonderful friendships with," said Larson.

It won't just be them anymore, however.

"I'm told this isn't rare for guys but still a little abstract for me," said Naik.

If you take all the pictures of each week's clean up, it isn't just a story about neighbors coming together to keep their community clean, it's also a timeline of Larson's pregnancy.

"It definitely wasn't intentional," said Larson talking about the pictures.

"It's really started to hit home okay, this is really happening," said Naik.

Now, even though it wasn't their intention, the meaning of it all has changed a little.

"It would be great to have our child sees that and have it as a message, an inspiration for him to model," said Naik.

"I don't know how much it is like creating a neighborhood that we want for our child as much as it is just like a weekly practice of values that we hope to instill on like our family and people around us," said Larson.

Things have changed a little since they started.

"I go a little bit slower now. I use a picker," laughed Larson.

What hasn't changed for Naik and Larson is that using social media to connect with people in real life.

"You couldn't create the experiences without this. There's no way you could otherwise have the experience of knocking on people's doors and showing them a picture of what you just did," said Naik.

Their goal, creating positive change, even in a small way.

"you're not limited to just large acts of kindness and large acts of service. Sometimes just the smallest acts of service are the most sustainable for people to do and can also make a big impact," said Larson.

"There's a huge payoff at the end of it. I do believe that. So I think that's what I'd like to share with people is if you do something small, it compounds, it will pay off," said Naik.

They think it's better than pessimism and inaction.

"I think it's just cooler to try to do something to change the world in the direction that you want to move it in," said Naik.

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