MLK Day: A Time to Serve Our Communities

January 14, 2016

It’s a mid-January morning and there's frost on the ground. People from all over the city are huddling around the coffee and bagel tables, trying to get warm and fuel up for the day. You overhear murmurs of introductions, names and motivations for getting up so early on their day off: “I’m here with my kids and we wanted to do something as a family." "I’m volunteering with my office." I want to build community." "I believe in the message of Dr. King and I want to honor that today.”

This is the scene I have experienced on the third Monday of January — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — for almost a decade.

Dr. King said, "Life's most persistent and urgent questions is: 'What are you doing for others?'" Rather than looking at MLK Day as a day off, organizations focused on philanthropy and volunteerism encourage Americans to see it as a day ON. Whether you're fighting racism and poverty or preserving nature and wildlife, the MLK Day of Service offers an opportunity to connect with each other and work together to support a healthy and vibrant community.

For me, this day is about taking a stand on something I believe in. It's a time where anyone, no matter who you are, can give back. When you have a diverse group of people serving together, everyone is on the same level and barriers come down. You can get to know your neighbors in a different way. Whether you're an elected official, a CEO, a family wanting to spend time together, or a student — it doesn’t matter. Everyone is working as one team to get things done. What could be more powerful?

In his "Drum Major Instinct" sermon on February 4, 1968, Dr. King said:

If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Volunteers working with EarthCorps in Washington state during MLK Day of Service in 2015.

On Monday, a group of Philanthropy Northwest employees will join me to volunteer with EarthCorps, helping restore the health of an urban forest in south Seattle. With more than a hundred projects planned throughout the Northwest, thousands of community volunteers will be honoring this remarkable man and his message. To find a project near you, visit the Corporation for National & Community Service

As we go into another blustery January day, remember Dr. King's urgent question: “What are you doing for others?”

Contact Erin Thomas at ethomas@philanthropynw.org.