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Sowing seeds of self-growth: Muhammad Khan finds community in volunteering


DENVER — For Muhammad Khan, Colorado soil is a far more formidable foe than the loamy pastures of his home in Lahore, Pakistan. Still, welcoming the challenge, Khan flicks seeds over his green thumb onto the frozen topsoil of his backyard and hopes for the moisture of late March snows to brace his garden against the approaching summer sun.

Khan’s green thumb may seem haphazard, but in reality he is placing his trust in a fine-tuned ecosystem of his own creation. The bees he keeps tend to the flowers; his chickens till with their talons and the woodchips that he orders by the truckload trap heat and water, revitalizing the earth beneath.

He deems himself “the caretaker,” and he has the zoo to back it up: two dogs, one parrot, seven chickens, an aquarium of fish, two hives of bees and, for now, a tolerance of grasshoppers. Japanese beetles, not so much.

Khan’s day job — or “paid job,” as he puts it — is that of a digital advertiser at Adcellerant, a digital marketing company. His passions lie elsewhere, in the environment and community involvement. 

Extending a branch, making a difference

A community gardener, master composter, and environmental activist, Khan has won several awards for his tireless work in the environmental domain.

At Adcellerant, Khan is the humble head of the charitable arm, Adcellerant Gives, as well as the sole proprietor of his company’s “zero waste journey.” The first, eco-conscious step was taken after Khan, realizing there was no recycling bin, took his concerns to upper management.

From there, he has propelled Adcellerant towards multiple awards, earning the company Certifiably Green Business and zero-waste designations in less than two years.

“All these things, you know, giving back to the community — whether it be cleaning Cherry Creek, recycling, or whether it’s [being] involved in the community — I think Adcellerant is doing its part and being a community leader,” Khan said.

Khan’s legislative accolades are impressive as well, acting as an activist within Boulder-based Eco-Cycle, an advocacy group for Zero-Waste policy and business practices.

Most notably, Khan received the Mereth Meade Outstanding Volunteer of the year award for his leadership role in the enactment of the Expanded Waste Collection Services bill, which charges more for the collection of higher volumes of trash in Denver, as well as expanding recycling and composting capabilities.

As a part of Eco-Cycle, Khan had originally prepared to be one of many activists present at the June 27, 2022 council meeting that would determine the fate of the legislation. After the organizer, Ryan Call, caught Covid two days before, the “emergent leadership style” that one of Khan’s mentors at CU Boulder noticed in him emerged as he became the leader of around 40 activists.

“So I showed up there and was like, okay, everybody, listen to me. Ryan is sick today. He got COVID. I am his replacement. I'm sorry you got such a crappy replacement, but this is what it is,’” he said wryly smiling, as if grown accustomed to humility’s dampening by deserved admiration. “We started at 3 p.m. and we I sat there till 11 p.m. I was like, I am not leaving until this gets passed, or I will leave once the votes are counted,” he said.

The city council approved the measure with an 8-5 majority, and Khan’s leadership was awarded at the Summit for Recycle Colorado the following August.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle are not just words that I live by,” Muhammad said in his acceptance speech. “Those are also the names of my chickens.”

Appreciating an environmentally conscious joke, the audience burst into laughter.

Growing out of the shadow: hurt people helping people

In Khan’s backyard, he is running an experiment: two maples — one east-facing, one north — planted at the the same time. One is in a half-shadow, another in full sun. They are growing at different rates. The hypothesis matches the results with ease: the sometimes-shaded tree extends its crimson-hued bark proportionally slower than the sapling soaked in sunlight.

In Pakistan, 96.5% of the population practices Islam. Under the Quran (and while interpretations vary) homosexuality is sweepingly condemned.

Though officially criminalized under Article 377 of the Penal Code of 1860, an inherited piece of British legislation from colonial rule, punishment for same-sex relations often goes unenforced. But homosexuality remains socially taboo, so LGBTQ+ communities are confined to the shadows, ignored by Pakistani society.

Khan knew he was gay by the time he was in his late teens, he says, but at first he wished to rid himself of the identity.

“I went on the pilgrimage where Muslims go to Mecca … And I prayed really hard: ‘Maybe I’ll stop being gay after [this],’” Khan recounted. “And it didn’t happen.”

Still, the Pakistani environment that beckoned the seeds that Khan and his grandfather used to plant proved unfruitful for the growth of Khan’s nascent self-identity, so he began to live a lie.

It was not until his wife asked him, “What is wrong?” that he rejected the lie, for her and for himself. Explaining to his family the dissolved marriage forced Khan to come out of the closet and led to their disownment of him.

“’Hurt people hurt other people.’ That’s what I learned early on,” Khan observed. “There are traits I have seen in other people that I don’t want to recreate. … So even if somebody has hurt me and the default response is to hurt them back, I don’t want to do that because I don’t like when people do this to me.”

So, Khan began on a journey of self-healing, coping with the trauma he had experienced.

“Energy itself is not good or bad. … An unhealthy coping mechanism is me eating French fries for dinner. Let’s not do that,” he joked.

Instead of French fries, Khan goes on run, starts projects, and gets involved with his community. In addition to his environmental service, he is involved as a volunteer at the Denver Zoo and for Denver Snow Angels. Recently, he has taken to organizing speed-dating events for the local gay community.

“Volunteering is a way I feel a part of a community,” Khan explained. "For me it’s like, 'OK, if you’re not going to do it, nobody else is going to do it.’ So you need to do it not for your own goodness but for the people who need this leadership.”

Expanding roots, finding community

If anything can be learned from the ecosystem Khan has created in his backyard, it is that nothing can thrive on its own. The community Khan found through learning and service was the thing that, perhaps, helped him most of all.

At CU Boulder, Muhammad became close with a pastry chef named Tami West after she recreated barfi, a South Asian milk fudge that Khan submitted during an International Festival that reminded Khan of home. Sensing the opportunity to learn, Khan took up a role as West’s student assistant.

“It's very interesting because she is a religious Christian, goes to church twice a week, very religious,” he said. “I was a brown closeted gay guy at that point, And our third coworker was a recovering Mormon, so it was very much a band of misfits.”

Though Khan was initially hesitant, unwilling to expand his roots, his natural social side eventually kicked in. He opened his heart to West, and they grew together.

“When I was hurt and when my family disowned me, the way I deal with those things, I just put up walls around me and I don't let anybody else through,” he said. “And she had known me for a couple years at that point and she said, I will not let you put those walls up around me."

Soon, Khan grew close enough to call West family. Their relationship fulfilled a part of his life that had been lost. Instead of growing isolated and jaded, Khan settled down, expanded his roots, and weathered the turmoil.

“I call her my mom — she’s my white mom. And I call her and she calls me, we basically talk every single day,” he said.

Recently, West moved to Florida, but Khan continues to lean on her support, channeling her positive energy into his own community. By harnessing that strength, he leads the fight against climate change as well as for human unity and decency.

Khan’s advice to others is to do, to give, what you can, acknowledging that every little bit helps. As his backyard shows, no individual function acts in isolation; the key is in strengthening a community overall by serving within one’s limits.

“If you can run, run towards the goal. If you cannot run, then walk. If you cannot walk, then crawl towards the goal. But do something towards the goal,” he said. “It doesn't have to be perfect. … Every tiny bit helps. We don't need a thousand people doing it perfectly. We need billions of people doing it imperfectly.”

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