Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK Day

Today I took part in a "MLK Day of Service" event in Vermillion. Some students and staff (not including me) on a whim last October submitted a grant proposal to a national organization and were pleased and surprised (and probably sort of scared) when they got the grant some time in late November or December. The grant called for them to gather several hundred volunteers from the university and local schools, from assisted living insititutions, local businesses, nursing homes--you name it--get all these folks together, split them up randomly into groups, and send the groups out to complete a series of pre-arranged but only partially planned projects. One aspect of the project for each group was to perform the service work assigned; another, which had to take place before and during the work, was to find ways to act together in a context of uncertainty--to work with others who are unknown to or unlike us on a project of largely unset limits and goals. Because this was an MLK project, we were told by a speaker at the beginning of the day to congratulate ourselves, since we would, as King instructed, not just talk but do. The emphasis on practice or action seemed to hit the right note on the one hand, but on the other, I found myself missing what I thought I remembered to be King's emphasis on a kind of action-in-reflection. It's been a while since I read any of Dr. King's writing, but my recollection is that he was adamant about principled, contemplated action. Service, that is, should be more than doing. Anyone can talk or think about acting, and most can also act without bothering to understand why--finding motivation instead in earning service points for a fraternity or sorority, buying a line on a resume, finding a chance to unload the kids for the day. None of these is bad, but none really coincides with MLK's depiction of service. I found the opening speaker's talk itself highly reflective, about as rewarding a sermon (which is what it was) as I remember hearing in a long, long time. But he should not have been the only one creatively to contemplate the day's meanings. There should have been focus groups after the "service" to think about how the externalization of love and care happened within the projects. Action informed by a principle of care--"giving," I guess: it seems different from "serving the public" or simply volunteering. Blogging individually misses the communal element. Still, I'm very glad I took part.

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