MLK Day of Service – Extending the “Pay it Forward” culture beyond Booth

Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is a reminder that we all have the ability to create and inspire positive change in our communities. While MLK Day is nationally observed on the third Monday of January, the Saturday prior, UChicago conducts a Day of Service in honor of MLK. Booth’s Giving Something Back club joins UChicago’s undergrads, graduate programs, faculty, alumni, elementary school students from the Lab and Charter Schools, and even affiliated friends and family to serve local charities, schools, and foundations in the Chicago community.

Over 300 volunteers were able to participate in one of over a dozen different charitable projects, from replacing carpeting for Polished Pebbles, to removing debris in Jackson Park, to painting the hallways of First Presbyterian Church. The volunteer project I was selected for was to organize the central school book collection, label new books, and restock the shelves at William H. Ray Elementary School library. Our group was led by undergraduate students Gabe and Mary, and was joined by other university and Lab School students, faculty, and parents. 

The few hours of community service were followed by a discussion in the Max Palevsky Cinema within Ida Noyes Hall between Kristiana Rae Colon (AB ’07, poet, playwright, actor, educator, and Co-Director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective) and Cosette Hampton (AB ’17, organizer with the Black Youth Project 100 – BYP100, and Harris School of Public Policy MPP 2019 candidate).

The conversation was incredibly insightful, helping to raise awareness around current inequality issues as well as discuss activist groups and networks available for us to take action in our communities. One thought with which I left the discussion was a quote from Kristiana, posing the question, “How do we redistribute power and resources to envision a more equitable union, one which Dr. King imagined?”

I noticed that Andrew Faulkner, another second-year Booth student, was also volunteering at the event. I reached out to him and he was gracious enough to share his thoughts on the experience:

I tremendously enjoyed the opportunity to give back alongside members of the University of Chicago community to honor Dr. King’s memory and legacy. I signed up because I grew up seeing MLK day as being an important occasion to help the less fortunate communities around us in pursuit of a more equitable world.

Alongside undergraduate students and one high school student from the Lab School, we worked at First Presbyterian Church on 64th Street to clean and paint the walls in the area where they cook and distribute meals to the community. I enjoyed seeing the church and learning about its history and participation in the neighborhood. I was surprised to learn that Jesse Owens (African American Olympic Sprinter and 4-time gold medalist from the 1936 games in Berlin) is buried in a nearby cemetery.

The programming after our volunteer projects held a lot of impact for me. While we were thanked for our work, the program leadership encouraged us to find ways to get involved in a more continuous manner with projects that we care about as a more effective means to create lasting societal change. Our keynote speaker discussed MLK’s legacy in Chicago, connections to current events and initiatives in the city, and his vision for a better world.

I was surprised to learn of Dr. King’s campaign in Chicago in 1966 for housing, education, and employment, how it was one of his most difficult initiatives, and how the public agencies eventually reneged on all of their commitments. I was also shocked to hear how a local organization holding community meetings in a rented space in Lawndale (one of the most economically neglected neighborhoods in Illinois) was evicted because the landlord did not want “those people” on his property.

It was also interesting to learn more about the landscape of social service, particularly about the so-called “social-industrial complex,” which might be criticized as accepting the status quo to not jeopardize funding, and other activist organizations that push the envelope in pursuit of revolutionary vision. For me, the experience provided a lot of context and reminded me of my privilege alongside the accompanying responsibility to give back to communities that have been neglected. — Andrew Faulkner

Read more about the MLK Day of Service on the UChicago Civic Engagement website and see more pictures from the event here. Learn more about the volunteer opportunities available through Booth’s Giving Something Back Club.

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