“I’m not blaming anyone. Well… I do blame people who litter.”
In September 2021, Sokie Lee (64) and her partner, Ken, began organizing clean-ups of neglected blocks in central Manhattan. Now, a little over a year later, Sokie has grown her organization, NYC Clean Volunteers, into a force that is hundreds of volunteers strong and partners with the likes of Uber, Meta and the NY Department of Sanitation to organize large-scale clean-ups around the city.
We spoke with Sokie (who also, by the way, works fulltime as a graphic designer, teaches Tai Chi and Qigong, fosters kittens and does not sleep very much) to breakdown how she mobilized a movement by inspiring others with her passion for volunteering and being green.
How did you get the idea for NYC Clean Volunteers?
In the pandemic, I said to my partner, why don’t we make a commitment to go to Madison Square Park every morning and do our tai chi practice?
One day I met a woman who was dressed really well, walking her two dachshunds and picking up litter with a pair of tongs. She said she wanted to show that you can be beautiful and clean up at the same time. We started meeting up to pick-up together and I got motivated from there.
What were the steps you took to build it into the large-scale volunteer program it is today?
I’ve never founded a group before, but I’ve always worked for myself so I know how to organize. I decided to call us NYC Clean Volunteers because it says everything I want to say – we’re trying to clean New York City; we’re volunteers; and we’re easy to find online because of that name.
Because I’m a graphic designer, I know the image is important, so I spent a lot of time on the logo. I’m not a big social media person but I made myself be.
For supplies, we have easy-to-grip grabbers from a rehab place, and we also wear safety jackets. Why? Because we want to bring awareness and encourage other people to volunteer too. If everyone picked up on their own, it would be so much easier. To be clear – I’m not blaming anyone. Well… I do blame people who litter.
How did you start getting publicity for your cause?
We really jumped off on January 13 when Roger Clark from NY1 did a piece on us. I have to thank Laura Agasian, who is very supportive of our cause, but can’t join a lot of the clean-ups in Manhattan so instead she courted Roger Clark for months, sending him pictures and videos of our work. It caught his attention and that was the turning point for us.
How do you keep your efforts extra eco-friendly?
I’m very green and we try not to make more garbage. That’s why we ask people to bring brown paper bags and have them put the dry trash in there, then we empty it out as we go. I go at the nasty wet garbage with my tongs and a bucket. I’m very nimble! I’ll clean out the sewage grates because that’s where backup happens.
I’m speaking as an American – we really need to change our ways. The more we have, the more we waste. The thing that upsets me the most is the single use plastic.
What do you get out of leading this group?
I complained to Ken at one point that I was burned out and I needed to scale back from all the work. He said “don’t do the cleanup.” And I said, “No you don’t understand – when I go outside and cleanup, THAT is my reward.” That is when I socialize in the fresh air and really enjoy myself. The cleanup is easy.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
Do what you love most, do it with passion and get other people on the same wagon.
Pam Hugi is Senior Planet’s Community and Advocacy Manager. Based in Brooklyn, she runs Senior Planet’s Supporter program in addition to being a contributing writer for this site. She can be reached at email@example.com.