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A TL’s Perspective on MLK Day of Service in 3 PITWs

City Year AmeriCorps members and community volunteers paint a large mural at San Antonio Elementary School for MLK Day of Service
Serveral City Year AmeriCorps members, alumni, and community volunteers paint a mural by local artist, Carlos Rodriguez as part of MLK Day of Service 2020.

Each year, City Year’s Martin Luther King Jr Day of Service celebrates the legacy of Dr. King by mobilizing thousands of Americorps members and community volunteers in a “day on” of physical service. This year, the incredible school I served my first corps year at (as well as my current Team Leader year) was selected for our large-scale beautification project. I cannot adequately express my appreciation for the time and heart that was poured into this event. However, I can try to summarize the day in the following 3 PITWs (bing):

PITW # 50: We Must Never Lose The Human Aspect of What We Are Doing

During my first Corps year, my Impact Manager advised me that students may not remember the time, effort, and expense put into creating a science lesson on the water cycle. Still, they will remember the time that you heard them when they needed someone to listen. When working closely with numbers, levels, rates, behavior systems, records, and trends, a student’s rough day can too easily be overlooked. MLK Day of Service is a massive-scale project that recruits the help of multiple partners, complete with deadlines and precise measurements. That being said, every day of prep, I was asked by my Coordinator if I had drunk enough water and eaten enough food. Service work is human work, kept alive by individuals with different perspectives, backgrounds, and life experiences uniting behind a cause. I will admit that I had forgotten for a minute, shocked by the hundreds of hands pouring into the middle of other hands during our first spirit break of the day. I was reminded by the way our mural artist mixed all the paint by hand to ensure the best color was used. I was reminded when the visiting 49ers mascot set off a confetti cannon in the middle of campus to the screaming joy of kids surrounding him. While not every day is a confetti cannon type of day, it is important to ask students how they are feeling, because sometimes being listened to is enough.

PITW # 33: Everything Feels Like A Failure In The Middle- Keep Going!

In January, the average rainfall in San Jose, California, is a mere 3 inches. While it is unlikely that rain will interfere with a walking tour and training of the various projects planned for MLK Day Of Service, or cause the cancelation of a few large-scale paintings, it is not impossible. Sometimes you spend hours constructing a chalkboard for an outdoor classroom only to hit a water line hammering it into the ground. Sometimes you are graciously taught how to operate a power saw only to then cut wood in excess and create two additional hours worth of prep work (sorry again). When you’ve worked past clean up time painting times tables on a staircase, it can be easy to wonder if the third layer of blue paint makes the numbers any more legible than they were two layers ago. Once, when I was working lunch duty, a student asked me what was for lunch today, to which I responded cheese pizza. She frowned for two seconds, then looked up at me and said excitedly: “I love corn dogs. One day it will be corn dogs.” Indeed, one day it will be corn dogs.

PITW # 1: Challenge Cynicism, Wherever You Find It

It can be difficult to challenge cynicism when the obstacles feel overbearing. Nationally, nearly one-third of students do not graduate from high school (Swanson, 2004). The decision to drop out is affected by multiple contextual factors-peers, school, family, neighborhood- interacting in a cumulative way over the course of a student’s life (Rumberger, 2004). How can we swiftly and substantially address this issue?
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s influential “I Have A Dream” speech, he asserts: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” In my brief two years of service, I have experienced the gradualism of progress in both academic achievement and social-emotional learning. It is a heartfelt marathon of homework help, reading level tracking, and making the time to have one-on-one conversations with students about how their day was. Preparing students for success by forming developmental relationships takes time, as does reducing the national dropout rate. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service is a beautiful opportunity to experience the fierce urgency of Now. It is hard to feel cynical when hundreds of volunteers wake up early on a frigid morning to hammer wood, shovel mulch, and paint a graduation cap on a mural-sized drawing one of my students designed. It is easy to challenge cynicism when students and their families unify to transform their school, when many years from now the impact of these changes will continue to remind students that “You Are Loved”. Now we do homework and have conversations on the benches they built.

City Year AMeriCorps Members pose during the MLK Day of Service project
City Year San Jose’s AmeriCorps member Rachel Turner (ACM at San Antonio Elementary School) and Lauren Brown (Team Leader at San Antonio Elementary School) pose for the camera before the MLK Day of Service event begins.

Lauren B.
Team Leader at San Antonio Elementary School

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