What Are You Doing for Others?


Today, I attended the community celebration in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

My job today was to give a writing/art workshop to kids aged 4 to 10 (or thereabouts), and I chose the theme of service, in honor of Dr. King’s calls to action. I called it “What Are You Doing for Others?” to echo what Dr. King called our “most persistent and urgent question.”

Because I’ve never taught elementary-aged children, I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be chaos with moments of absolute brilliance. I made myself some notes in preparation, but if I learned one thing today, it was that you can’t stick to plans or expect a long attention span with a group of 20 or more kids that age who just had cookies with their lunches.

This was the gist of the message, though:

Dr. King often spoke about strengthening the community by alleviating poverty, ending racism, and creating a mutual understanding and love between people. He believed that strength came from a community working together as a whole.

He called us to action when he said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

Americans across the nation have answered that question by creating a day of service in honor of Dr. King each year on MLK Day. Here’s a short video of President Obama talking about the day of service:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OSs81RC04U

What kinds of community service have you done?

Though millions of people serve others on MLK Day and every other day on the calendar, the President reminds us that we still have work to do. The great progress our country made during the Civil Rights movement and since then is far from over:

  • We still have poverty
  • Racism and other inequalities still exist in our society and in the law
  • Not all people strive to understand and love each other as brothers and sisters

As Dr. King called us to action decades ago, President Obama calls us to action today when he says: “We re-commit ourselves to our unfinished work, defending the dignity and equality of all people.”

Who knows what dignity means? Equality? (Dignity was a tough one for most of the kids, but they all seemed to know what equality meant, in the abstract and the practical.)

Think about a time when you have been, have known, or have heard about people who might need help in defending their dignity or equality.

Maybe they need help with the essentials needed to defend their dignity:

  • Food in their belly
  • Shoes on their feet
  • A warm coat in the winter
  • A bed to sleep in at night
  • A safe place to be
  • A job
  • Medical attention
  • An education
  • Love (because that is our most basic need)

Maybe they need help with the sometimes complex things needed to defend their equality. In school, you might see this as bullying because someone’s different:

  • The color of their skin
  • The language they speak at home
  • The country they or their parents immigrated from
  • Their religion
  • The way they dress
  • They’re gay or transgender
  • They don’t conform to “what’s expected” of boys or girls
  • Their physical and mental abilities or disabilities

All around us are people are in need, and there are things that each one of us can do to alleviate that need. You can make a difference now and for the rest of your life:

  • Volunteer to cook breakfast or deliver food
  • Walk up to someone and say hello, and give them a blanket or a coat
  • Teach a kid to read
  • Help a new immigrant with the English skills they need to work or go to school
  • Become a teacher or guidance counselor and change kids’ lives
  • Become a nurse or doctor and go to a reservation or other community in need
  • Become a lawyer, legislator, judge, or elected official and fight unfair laws
  • Start a non-profit that serves your community
  • Protest inequalities (and vote!)
  • Donate money to worthy causes
  • Open your home and heart to people in your community
  • Create art that opens people’s minds and hearts
  • Organize and inspire others to do the same

So ask yourself: What can you do to serve others? The President mentioned things like reading to children, cleaning up parks, visiting hospitals, and working at food banks. But these are only some of the places where you can make a difference.

You can decide where you will serve, and you can decide how and who. You can decide to serve people one at a time, or you can decide to serve people you’ll never meet. You can serve with your two hands, your heart, your skills and talents, and as you become an adult, you can even serve with your money.

How will you commit yourself to defending the dignity and equality of all people?

Throughout the workshop, I invited the kids to talk about their previous community service and other things they’d like to do. They offered a lot of things: various ways of serving food, giving stuffed animals to kids in the hospital, donating clothes to kids in need, ringing the Salvation Army bell, and so many other things.
They shared their stories, drawings, and writing with me. Here are a few of them.
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This child took her time and probably would have drawn some more if she hadn’t had to go.

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“Violation of others is not okay.” From the mouths of babes.

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She was about 7 or 8, and one of the most enthusiastic to engage all day.

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Okay, this one was a teenager.

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A side-by-side foster mother and daughter group, showing their commitment to many different community organizations.

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This little girl drew herself giving a sad kid a pear and a stuffed animal so they wouldn’t be sad anymore. (She’d done this type of service work recently.)

 

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