3 Engaging Ways to Honor Martin Luther King’s Legacy of Service and Social Justice

Guest post by Ann Saylor

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shaking hands with Hubert Humphrey while Coretta Scott King looks on.Once in a while, a seemingly ordinary person rises up to be a hero, changing culture forever. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those men, and we now recognize him as a renowned American civil rights leader. He was hugely influential on American culture through his campaigns to end racial segregation and promote racial equality.

To honor his legacy, the third Monday of January has been named a federal holiday. Though students are out of school and federal employees are off work, national service organizations have adopted this slogan: “A Day On, Not a Day Off”, challenging Americans to rally together in service.

Here are 3 ideas to engage your community’s volunteers in a way that honors Dr. King’s values and the ways in which he served:

1. Go serve together.

Take the day at your nonprofit to work side-by-side with your volunteers. Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve…You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Where can you share a little love in your community? Pick an issue dear to the hearts of your staff and volunteers and address that need together.

2. Explore the roots of an issue more deeply.

Dr. King wisely believed, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” As you study a community issue that’s important to your organization and its volunteers, such as homelessness, illiteracy, recreational drug use, apathy, or hunger, push to go deeper. Identify one of the root causes and develop a targeted action plan that will inspire change and strengthen impoverished areas of your community.

3. Seek justice through advocacy.

Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) volunteers at an MLK rally.
Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) volunteers at an MLK rally.

Learning to speak up about issues that are important to your agency and challenging others to take action is a necessary skill if we’re going to impact true change around us. Challenge your volunteers to ponder and then act deliberately on Dr. King’s words: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”

What message needs to be conveyed by your organization to the world? What issues do your volunteers care about? Work with your volunteers to craft a plan for how they can spread the word about the issues your agency is tackling and start speaking up for truth – even if it’s risky and uncomfortable.

Want more strategies and activities on how to make the most of MLK Day? Get a FREE copy of the Seasons of Service Curriculum, complete with three half-day experiences for leading an MLK Day event. It also has 12 highly interactive lesson plans to help young people explore ways to use their gifts and talents to change the world. Finally, it outlines 11 half-day engaging and empowering service-learning experiences to introduce youth to meaningful service. Request your copy by emailing cad@TheAssetEdge.net.

How is your organization engaging volunteers to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy? Share with us in the comments below!

Ann Saylor is a nationally recognized trainer in positive youth development, service-learning, and play with purpose as well as the co-author of 7 books, including her latest, Groups, Troops, Clubs & Classrooms: The Essential Handbook for Working with Youth, (published in September 2014 by Search Institute Press). Learn more through her website and her blog, or reach her at cad@TheAssetEdge.net or Twitter @TheAssetEdge.