MLK Day: a day on, not off - United Way of Greater St. Louis

MLK Day: a day on, not off

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service: Make it a day on, not a day off!

You may have heard this refrain from members of your community, possibly AmeriCorps or other service members. For those of us in the National Service family, MLK Day is one of the year’s most exciting days of service. Not only do we have the opportunity to create projects that honor the life and legacy of Dr. King, but we get to work with large, enthusiastic groups of people from all over the nation, who feel inspired to offer their time and celebrate Dr. King with us.

Monday, January 18th this year dawned bright and sunny in St. Louis’ North City. And, as luck would have it, bone-chillingly cold. Having experienced warmer than usual temperatures for the majority of the winter, we were surprised, but bundled up and pushed on. After all the passion and dedication we had funneled into this event, the cold could not deter us.

As a team, my fellow VISTAs and I have been putting this project together since early October. The seed of our MLK Day project was planted in September; Wray Clay of our host site, United Way of Greater St. Louis, recommended that we attend a community meeting at Baden Enrichment STEM Center. A subsidiary of the Riverview West Florissant Development Corporation (RWFDC), Baden STEM was established to give young people in St. Louis’ North City the opportunity to funnel their energy into boxing, basketball, homework, and life skills after school. They have two science labs, a variety of game rooms, and staff who show up every day to provide a safe and productive learning environment for their students.

After this fortuitous meeting, it was clear that Baden STEM would be an ideal partner for our MLK Day project. I approached their program manager, Ta’Reell Tillman, who agreed wholeheartedly. She enthusiastically took the reigns and so our project planning began. Our VISTA recruiters worked in tandem with Tillman and RWFDC’s Toni Cousins to mobilize a large number of volunteers from the community. The VISTA team worked tirelessly to create projects that would beautify Baden STEM’s host site and provide literacy materials to local organizations.

But beautification was only a small part of the day. Our primary objective throughout this project was to engage the community around Baden in the creation of collective art projects. Bringing members of the community together to discuss issues of social importance, known at Points of Light as America’s Sunday Supper, was an integral part of the formation of our project. Furthermore, the ServiceWorks STL VISTA team believes that a more lasting impact will be made by empowering the community to have a voice and stake in the final product. In the three murals created on MLK Day, St. Louis artists depicted a range of themes; predominantly literacy, compassion, and the power of education to overcome violence.

Over the course of our MLK Day, around 50 students from the St. Louis area rotated across three murals, using a paint-by-numbers technique to create three cohesive pieces. Briana Isom-Brummer, one artist involved in designing the mural outlines, spoke about the importance of participating in community artwork: “I very much enjoyed it. I love art, and it’s a way for me to help others experience the joy that art can bring.” Isom-Brummer’s passion showed in her work, and helped participating youth experience artistic endeavors. Helping young people find positive means of expression is one valuable asset of community artwork.

Another muralist, Khalyani Sankar, was focused on the educational aspect of her mural. She chose to depict a young girl floating above violence with books as her balloons. As Sankar describes, the mural is meant to depict “education as empowerment.” Volunteers were so moved by the work, many stayed late to complete portions and clean up.

Youth participating in the project also had the opportunity to experience one of ServiceWorks’ workshops, tailored specifically for the day. Our VISTA, Alyssa Franklin, tailored our Engaged Leadership workshop to detail the career of Ella Baker, one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most influential background leaders. In this workshop, we used the TEDx Talk by Natalie Warne on anonymous extraordinaries – those who work in the background of movements but are equally important as the public face. This talk empowers youth to think of themselves as leaders, whether they are suited to make speeches to crowds or to organize community volunteers. Ella Baker certainly exemplifies this in the Civil Rights Movement, as shown by the Zinn Education Project. After the workshop, students participated in another Sunday Supper hosted by leaders in neighborhood safety.

All told, ServiceWorks STL and our partners mobilized nearly 90 volunteers and 50 students to participate in this event. We were very grateful and humbled to receive such support from the community. The passion and enthusiasm of young St. Louisans instills confidence that the future is in capable hands.

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