By Mary Abowd
Photo by Robert Kozloff
“ There are millions of stories like mine, of people who you’ve never heard about but who collectively made a difference.”
—Linda Sue Collins
Librarian at William H. Ray Elementary School
On Aug. 11, 1957, in Montgomery, Ala., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked his congregation what he considered “life’s most persistent and urgent question: What are you doing for others?” That call to service was an ever-present reminder to everyone celebrating King’s legacy across campus. King’s message imbued the work of this year’s honored diversity leaders, the words and music expressed in the MLK Celebration on Jan. 15, and volunteer work the following weekend on the Day of Service.
More than 250 members of the University of Chicago community filled the Ida Noyes Cloister Club on Jan. 17 to participate in the MLK Day of Service, an event sponsored by the University Community Service Center to encourage students, faculty, and staff to honor the memory of King. The service day topped off several days of activities, which included honoring three Diversity Leadership Award winners, a service with keynote speaker, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., and small group dialogues to reflect on King’s “Justice Without Violence” speech.
Volunteers boarded school buses that took them to some 20 different service sites scattered across Chicago’s South Side—soup kitchens, housing and economic development organizations, churches, and schools—where they cleaned, painted, organized, and forged new friendships with community members.
First-year student Sara Zubi learned the full significance of the day for the very first time. “I never knew Martin Luther King Day was actually meant to be a day of service,” she said as she knelt shelving children’s books in the library at William H. Ray Elementary School, at 5631 S. Kimbark Ave. “The day has a lot more meaning when you can give back to the community, just like King did.”
This year’s Day of Service was organized in collaboration with two new partners, the Office of Civic Engagement and the Laboratory Schools, under the theme “Bridging Generations: How Can We Work Together to Strengthen Our Communities?” Michelle Obama oversaw the Day of Service as the first director of the UCSC and created the University medical center’s annual Day of Service and Reflection in 2002, when she served as Vice President for Community and External Affairs for the University Hospitals. The two events have since become a tradition.
Living King’s Legacy
Lab School art teacher Gina Alicea perched on a ladder helping to install ceiling beams at a housing site run by Hope Works Community Development Corporation, a neighborhood non-profit affiliated with Living Hope Church, at 6414 S. Cottage Grove Ave. “Martin Luther King is my hero,” said Alicea, chair of the fine arts department at the Lab School. “I absolutely love what he preached and love to live that legacy.”
Zubi recruited volunteers from her residence hall to join her at Ray, where they worked side-by-side with librarian Linda Sue Collins, who told students about her own role during the civil rights movement. As an African American fourth-grader, Collins withstood racism and humiliation integrating an all-white school in Indianapolis. “They had never had African American students in that school before and fought viciously to keep us from being integrated,” she said. Collins said she found solace in the public library where she spent hours reading about Black history—an experience that led to her career as a public school librarian. “There are millions of stories like mine, of people who you’ve never heard about but who collectively made a difference,” she said.
Several blocks south, at Stony Island Avenue and 65th Street, UChicago students washed windows and painted tech-inspired graphics at Artifice, a storefront after-school technology center for neighborhood youth conceived of and run by a group of students and alumni, including several graduate students in Biophysical Sciences, as well as Adam Hammond, PhD’01, curriculum director of their doctoral program. Artifice partners with Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors, Inc., a community social and economic development organization that allows the group to use the space.
Graduate student Peter Dahlberg volunteers his time at Artifice every Saturday and is helping launch technology outreach programs in local public schools. His dedication is infectious. “We think we may already have recruited some more regulars,” Dahlberg said, motioning to the undergraduate students busily at work.
Making a Lasting Impact
Indeed, the Day of Service is meant to serve as an “entry point” for students interested in making a longer-term commitment to community involvement, said Amy Chan, director of the University Community Service Center. “We hope students will take away the idea that strengthening the community is a collective responsibility.”
A luncheon following work at the service sites featured keynote speaker Timuel Black, AM’54, longtime civil rights activist and one of the University’s 2015 Diversity Leadership Award winners. It also provided the opportunity for students to engage in critical dialogue with community partners about the meaning of the day. “We try to contextualize the service experience so that students understand at a macro level how their work contributes to furthering social justice,” Chan said. “Many students continue to engage in volunteer service because of having that conversation.”
For first-year George Adames, the small group reflection helped him recognize his duty to get involved. “We are called to recognize our privileges and act as channels through which to share our resources with those in the community who might not have the same privileges we do,” Adames said. “The great thing about the MLK Day of Service is that it allows the UChicago student body to come together as a community to make a tangible impact.”
Originally published on January 21, 2015.