Volunteering and Protest Are Not Mutually Exclusive - Generocity Philly

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Jan. 26, 2015 12:30 pm

Volunteering and Protest Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Why MLK Day of Service matters, even as protests take center stage

Volunteering and Protest Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Series Intro: This series, titled Thoughts on a Movement, is intended to explore the philosophical implications and systems changes that are made possible by our society’s shift to sustainable practices. The author hopes to offer thoughts, opinions, and analysis on issues and innovations in the sustainability movement that inspire readers to both connect with and critique sustainable practices.


Everyone can be great because anyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t even have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve… You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ever since my first MLK Day of Service when I was an Americorps member in 2007, I have volunteered on a service project each year. This was the first year I missed due to an eye appointment to remove an ingrown eyelash that was growing into my eye (bizarre, I know).

However, this gave me with the opportunity to be downtown for the 10,000-person rally inspired by Dr. King and mobilized by the group MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment (DARE).

I thought that the protest was necessary and organized. But I was concerned by reports, primarily in the following day’s edition of the Inquirer, of some activist groups’ contention, such as the Ferguson Action Network, that the rally was trying to “reclaim King’s legacy,” which they believe has been clouded by attempts to “soften, sanitize, and commercialize it.”

The Inquirer then went on to quote protesters who made the case that King was more inclined towards protest and demonstration than service. The critiques were strong enough that Todd Bernstein, the founder of the Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service (the oldest in the nation) was compelled to address the sanitizing comment head on at the organization’s signature event at Girard College.

I can’t speak to whether Dr. King preferred protest or volunteering, but having volunteered for a good portion of my life, I believe they are not mutually exclusive.

Volunteering brings people from many backgrounds together. At last year’s MLK Day of Service, my PowerCorps crew cleaned up — appropriately enough — the MLK Recreation Center. Volunteers included students of many races and ethnicities, adults from a nearby senior center, volunteers from an outside organization, Parks and Recreation staff and young men who use the sports facility.

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When people come together to work toward a common good like cleaning up a recreation center, it builds neighborhoods into communities. And it’s that kind of community involvement that makes a recreation center a safe space in the city where people can learn a skill, play with their children or come together to further organize in their community.

The same Inquirer article that described protesters marching for racial equality and voting rights also reported on crews of volunteers at the MLK Day of Service making voting signs in different languages.

Will making signs immediately bring attention to racism as swiftly as a protest can? Maybe not. But will making those multi-lingual signs direct a more diverse group of people to the ballot box and bring a more diverse voice to politics and discourse? I think so, and I think it is just as effective and important as that protest.

It was important to use this year’s MLK Day to continue the “Black Lives Matter” campaign by addressing the recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and elsewhere, as well as protest for other causes such as an increased minimum wage and fairer funding for city schools. But those causes do not have to be advocated for at the expense of community organizing efforts such as the MLK Day of Service, which has caused so much good. Dr. King’s legacy touches many, and his image should be used to inspire everyone towards that good.

Photo of Martin Luther King marching in Detroit, via Flickr user Andrew McFarlane 

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