By Anne Hartman
Nearly sixty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first stepped foot in Rockefeller Chapel. His Montgomery, Alabama, home had been bombed months earlier, but his words weren’t marked by hate or revenge; instead he called on the crowd to “resist with your heart and strength the forces of evil.”
The call to continue Dr. King’s work was prevalent throughout the University-wide celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which included the MLK Commemoration Celebration at Rockefeller, a Weekend of Service, and small-group dialogues throughout campus. The Black Student Association at the Laboratory Schools, which united with the University and University of Chicago Medicine to commemorate the day, developed the theme for the celebrations: “History, Hope, and Responsibility.”
UChicago students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered in Rockefeller on Monday, January 11, to reflect on this theme during the University’s 26th Annual MLK Commemoration Celebration, organized by the Center for Identity + Inclusion and other campus and community partners. During a conversation with Theaster Gates, UChicago’s director of Arts + Public Life and professor of visual arts, Nikki Giovanni, renowned poet and distinguished professor at Virginia Tech University, urged the audience to be fearless and approach activism with a “love of change.”
The night’s keynote speaker, Van Jones, a civil rights activist and CNN contributor, rallied the young people in the audience, telling them that someone in their generation “is going to decide to put your love against all this hate, put your hope against all this fear, put your poetry against these shackles, put your song against this barbed wire.”
The events commemorating the holiday also extended beyond the walls of Rockefeller. More than 300 volunteers with the University Community Service Center (UCSC)’s Weekend of Service worked at 18 community organization sites throughout the south and west sides of Chicago on Saturday, January 16, and at two area schools on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
It was the second year UCSC partnered with the Laboratory Schools and the first year it partnered with UChicago Charter Schools and the nonprofit City Year Chicago for the Weekend of Service.
“With the Lab Schools and the Charter Schools, we set the tone for the next generation,” says Ramona Jackson-James, manager of student volunteerism at UCSC. “They’re learning from College students how to serve, and that’s something they can take with them wherever they go to college.”
“The purpose of our partnerships in general is how we can create that culture of service,” adds Amy Chan, UCSC director and associate dean of students in the University.
The projects, Chan says, aimed to diversify what service means and demonstrate that service includes forging connections. Several volunteers canvassed the neighborhood around SkyART, a South Chicago art center, to introduce nearby residents to the art programming available at the center. Other volunteers helped Chicago Public Schools students complete FAFSA forms and college applications. The projects also included painting three floors of the RTW Veteran Center in Washington Park and organizing donations for the start-up of a community resale shop at Hope Works/Living Hope Church in Woodlawn.
The Saturday service projects concluded with an on-campus program, which included keynote speaker Dr. Carol Adams, the retired CEO of Dusable Museum of African American History, and student performers. Volunteers lunched with community partners and each table discussed a social justice issue, including homelessness, racism, and food justice. The luncheon, says Chan, helped to build community and allowed the volunteers to engage with community partners in a different setting.
“Volunteering was easy, fun, and unambiguously good,” says Elliott Balch, a first-year Harris student who worked to beautify Thomas Kelly High School in Brighton Park. “Of course part of Dr. King’s legacy is not to do the easy and uncontroversial thing, but to take on hard challenges that block that path to justice. But that has to start from a place of love for one another, and I think the work we did helps reinforce Dr. King’s message about the beloved community.”
The University-wide celebrations surrounding the holiday also gave students a chance to better understand their own communities on campus through small-group dialogues, organized by the Center for Identity + Inclusion. Participants discussed one of Dr. King’s lesser-known speeches, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” which called for a “revolution of values.” A speech by Van Jones about mass incarceration was also on the agenda, giving participants the chance to delve into a current civil rights issue. Twenty-one dialogues were hosted, including dialogues through UCSC, Spiritual Life, and at 12 College Houses.
“It’s really nice for these smaller communities, Houses, and graduate divisions to dig into these discussions that they don’t get to have in the classrooms or maybe they don’t naturally have at the dining hall table and talk about things that really matter to them, things that are connected to their values and their experiences,” says Emy Cardoza, an associate director for the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
“Sometimes we get a bit too careful about keeping things amicable; we avoid difficult conversations about things that don’t feel pressing, like justice,” adds Dominic Surya, who participated in the Coulter House discussion. “But I’ve found that most of my peers do care about justice, and we’ve found that we strengthen ourselves as a family by together drawing out our care for justice.”
The dialogues, along with the celebration and Weekend of Service, give the community a chance for reflection, as well as an opportunity to strengthen relationships both on campus and with the wider community, Cardoza says.
As the events wrap up, organizers hope the messages live on and call the community to action. “[I hope] people take time to reflect on what we can do individually and collectively to affect change within our spheres, and also challenge ourselves to be uncomfortable when it’s called for,” says Ravi Randhava, an associate director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
As Dr. King himself said at Rockefeller, “We cannot slow up because we have a date with destiny and we must move with all deliberate speed.”