From a Day of Service to Beloved Community

Sketch of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing a crowd
Image by Jae Rue from Pixabay

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day which meant two things in my corner of social media: 1) lots of Dr. King’s quotes and 2) volunteer project photos. One post broke the mold though and stopped me in my tracks. Consultant and activist Breauna Dorelus said she wasn’t interested in my favorite MLK quote. She wanted to know which of his words were the hardest for me to live out and practice.

I spent some time reflecting on Breauna’s invitation by revisiting Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Not just the part that says, “the time is always ripe to do right”, but the part that says, “I am sure none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” Or that “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates”.

What Would Martin Luther King, Jr. Do?

It made me wonder what Dr. King would think of how we use his holiday as a day of service, a “day on, not a day off”, as the tagline goes. Certainly, a lot of good happens. Thousands of people mobilize to tend to their neighbors and neighborhoods. Immediate needs are met. Community members discover ways to get involved as a volunteer.

And yet, my experience facilitating and witnessing service on MLK Day shows that we are good at activating people to pack food boxes but not as adept at “grappling with underlying causes” of hunger or poverty. That our desire for feel-good volunteering runs counter to the tension that emerges when we talk about policies that could reduce hunger or poverty in our community. That our reluctance to make volunteers uncomfortable can lead to “shallow understanding from people of good will.”

I wonder how we might shift from a “day on” to Dr. King’s vision of Beloved Community. From service that is done in a day to that which is begun in a day. For me, that means wrestling with what Beloved Community means and what kind of mindset is required to design service that cultivates it. How do we move beyond shallow understanding and convenient interventions to deeper questions about the conditions and civic muscle building needed to effect positive change?

Toward Beloved Community

I can’t help but think that the service projects I was part of could have gone further. This is not to say our volunteer center team didn’t do their best. Rather it’s an acknowledgement that I could have asked better questions and used my influence in stronger ways (like Chicago Cares has started to do). I didn’t advocate for discussion of underlying causes. I didn’t take the extra steps to translate days of service into a longer commitment to service. Given those missed opportunities, here are a few ideas about how we might deepen volunteering in service of Beloved Community.

What we do:

  • Introduce community members to service that is convenient to their schedules and interests.

What we could do:

  • Help volunteers understand their role beyond the one-day project. Share how they can help by volunteering again, donating, educating friends and family about what they learned while serving, voting, contacting an elected official, or inviting others to do the same. Don’t assume they will figure it out on their own. Identify next steps clearly.
  • Illuminate the links between volunteerism and policy change. Situate one-day or short-term projects as part of a continuum of community.

What we do:

  • Prepare volunteers for the logistics and tasks of serving.

What we could do:

  • Cultivate connections between volunteers. Spend a few minutes on introductions, use nametags, or invite each person to talk to someone they don’t already know. Provide a prompt, such as why they are volunteering or why they selected this cause.
  • Prepare and introduce volunteers to the community they will be serving. Sometimes volunteers are unfamiliar with program participants and their concerns. Some volunteers are shy about meeting and talking to new people. We can help bridge these gaps by sharing context about the community served, their strengths and needs. Provide volunteers with topics that are good conversation starters.

What we do:

  • Prioritize and celebrate volunteers. Don’t impose on them.

What we could do:

  • Build in time during projects to talk about the hard stuff. Situate volunteers as one part of the ecosystem that is community. Help them see other community members and agencies.
  • Highlight the ways that participants are helping themselves.
  • Discuss systemic barriers that impede the community’s progress (such as high housing costs that prevent even full-time workers from being able to afford a home.)
  • Avoid calling volunteers heroes or casting them in a savior role. This sets them apart from the community and positions service as something we do “to” others rather than “with” them. Community works best when we own our roles and celebrate the many ways and people that contribute to its success.

What we do:

  • Promote MLK Day as a Day On and share inspirational quotes without context.

What we could do:

  • Complicate the narrative. Explain why services and volunteering are needed. Discuss the companion efforts of advocacy, policy work, and long-term service. Let prospective volunteers know in advance that this is part of the volunteer experience so they expect it.
  • Shift volunteering from being a proxy for community to being a pathway to community. Talk about the ways we haven’t achieved the goals that Dr. King worked for and what needs to happen for progress.
  • Help people see on-ramps for continued community involvement. Educate them about what next steps they can take to honor Dr. King’s legacy with your agency or with other community partners.

What we do:

  • Professionalize and hone volunteer project logistics.

What we could do:

  • Reclaim love in volunteering; it is a foundation of community. Not warm fuzzy, romantic notions, but the love that keeps us showing up when service is no longer convenient and easy because we have made a commitment to our neighbors. And because they have made a commitment to us. Dr. King didn’t shy away from the word love. It was baked into the movements he was part of. Yet, Shiree Teng and Sammy Nuñez observe that “the social sector is too short on mentions of love…its power and potential to bring positive and fundamental change in impacted communities (p. 6)”.
  • Translate love into actions. Lead with values. Embrace relationship. Tap into our common humanity while honoring our differences. Practice and model compassion in service.
  • Engage more of the community in determining what service is needed and what it should look like. Create space to talk about what Beloved Community means to them. Try out ideas with one project or event. Experiment and see what happens.

Beloved Community asks more of us than short-term service. It asks for commitment and patience. It asks us to move beyond the neat, clean roles of “volunteer” or “staff”. Like any community, it means inconvenience and frustration at times. Yet, when we find the right community and the right role, it also means joy and connection. It is a space where we can express our values through action and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It is a risk, but it is worth it.

I am grateful to Breauna for helping me excavate the unease that social media and my own history stirred up on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Her post cut through the sanitized, surface-level treatment of Dr. King’s work and the cherry picking of his quotes. It helped me think about the ways I could use my voice and lessons learned to reframe days of service. She reminded me of the real work Dr. King was all about and the importance of acting on what is mine to do.


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