Taking up Dr. King’s Challenge: Diversity, Service, Conversation

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve been struggling with what to write today.  Today, of course, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  This is an important day for our country and a day that many will mark by engaging in service.  The HandsOn Network kicked off this day with America’s Sunday Supper; an event inspired by Dr. King, America’s Sunday Supper aimed to bring people together to discuss issues that affect their communities.  I watched it live, thinking about how unusual it is to join others for a meal, to discuss important topics, and to, as Arianna Huffington said, “put our magnifying glass on what is good in the country.”

I made some comments on Facebook, jotted down interesting thoughts from the panelists, but couldn’t tear myself away from something I experienced just the day before, on Dr. King’s birthday.

This past Saturday, I did what probably most of Baltimore did – I watched the Ravens game.  I started watching football just a couple of years ago because I enjoy the sense of community it brings.  I watch each game with friends in someone’s home or with neighbors at a bar.  Watching at a bar brings an extra level of enjoyment, as it provides a common language and purpose to people who, while they may live near each other, don’t often come together in conversation.  For a few hours over a game, we share our highs and lows; sometimes we discuss events in the news or happenings in the neighborhood and we look forward to seeing each other the following weekend.

This Saturday was different, though.  Emotions were high as the Ravens battled Pittsburgh.  While most of the crowd was clothed in purple, a few Steelers fans were there and one lone fellow in a Jets jersey.  Good natured jeers were exchanged by all as the game became more intense.  Then, in a moment that took the joy right out of the room, one patron used the N-word.  In a flash, the game was forgotten as all efforts went towards calming people down.

Dr. King encouraged us to speak up about things that matter.  This moment mattered and I found myself unable to write today without addressing it.  Could I sweep this under the rug?  Could I reflect on the diversity of Saturday’s crowd and state that Dr. King would have been pleased to see us together, where the only color that mattered was purple?  Should I put my magnifying glass on what is good or highlight a challenge that we clearly still face?

During the Sunday Supper, moderator Juan Williams asked the panelists what issue Dr. King should take on if he were alive today.  The answers were as diverse as the panelists – the economy, food deserts, health disparities, and more.  As a country and a world, we face many challenges and we all must speak up with ideas and solutions.  Sharing a meal, a conversation, or a football game can help us do this.  But, as I witnessed on Saturday, it’s not easy and we still have a long way to go.

I believe that service can be a solution to many of the problems we face.  When we engage in service, we come together with others over a shared purpose.  We interact with people from different backgrounds, social statuses, and belief systems.  That interaction is what keeps us moving forward.  I didn’t know the woman who used this hateful word, but I wonder if she is serving today.  I wonder if she has ever volunteered with people who are different than she is.  I wonder if, prior to Saturday, anyone ever spoke up to her.

When I first became an AmeriCorps member, I experienced a barrage of new ideas.  I had never left my home state and was suddenly surrounded by people who looked and talked differently than I did.  They had different beliefs, different education levels, different life experiences.  Service brought us together.  As we served together, we learned about each other.  We found our commonalities and we became part of a diverse community with shared values.  We spoke up when something mattered to us; we challenged each other to grow.  Together in service, we became better people – people who looked for the good in others, who would never use racial slurs, and who would speak up when someone else did.

Diversity is important.  Community is important.  Finding a way to come together, over a meal or a game or a conversation, can be challenging.  So let’s come together in service.  Let’s all find something that’s worth speaking up about and take up Dr. King’s challenge.

Hands On Network’s LEAD Summit

UPDATE: Ok, I thought that maybe I ought to figure out this YouTube thing.

Today, I’m not in the office.  Instead, I’m down in The District at the Newseum attending the Hands On Network‘s LEAD Summit.  It’s an opportunity to hear how different organizations are using different social media tools, and other strategies, to change what service looks like.

I’m always excited to meet fellow soldiers in the Army of Dogooders, and I was especially excited to find a code on the AmeriCorps mailing list that would reduce the cost of registration from $125 to free.  So, off to The District I go to hear Allison Fine and James Brown speak.  I’m hoping that the morning session I’d signed up for, “How to Use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to Mobilize People to Take Action” emphasizes “Mobilize” and doesn’t focus on engagement and conversation.  I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on how Twitter works, and while I don’ find Facebook too useful personally, I understand how organizations can use it – and use it well.  As for YouTube, I understand how it works, and I’ve used it to find videos of narcoleptic dogs and songs about elements, but I’ve never uploaded anything because I don’t have anything to record video with.  I hope it’s not an hour and a half session on how to sign up for accounts.

The afternoon session that I’m attending is “The Business of Self-Directed Volunteer Leadership,” which looks like it’s going to talk about how volunteers can help to build the programs that they’re a part of.  It seems to me that having a strong and supportive volunteer program will make your volunteers want to get their friends to come and volunteer too, because they’ve had a really awesome experience.  I’m interested to find out what I’m missing from my “be awesome” hypothesis.

There are two events after the Summit, too.  The Inspire… Serve… Solve reception celebrating National Volunteer Week and the Serve America Act, and a Tweetup after the reception.  At the first conference I went to in undergrad, I learned that a lot more happens at conferences than just information sharing.  Important networks get built not only during the conference, but at the closest bar after the conference, too.  I was offered a spot in a graduate program that I really wanted to get into – two years before I graduated.  I thought the offer was a joke, so I turned it down.  I later learned that more work gets done at the bar than gets done at the actual conference.  My bad.

I’m hoping to make some good contacts at the reception, and at the Tweetup after.  For those of you who don’t know, a Tweetup (or, as I affectionately call them, “nerd meetings.”  Hey, I’m going, I can call it that.)  Networking at Tweetups works a little differently than it does at a traditional event.  A lot of the time, people at a Tweetup have some level of interaction with one another already – they’ve already “met” and shared information.  They’re just doing it face-to-face now.  One of the best things about the tweetups I’ve been to is that people genuinely want to help out.  It’s a lot different than the business-based networking events I’ve been to where people seem like all they want to do is seill their business to you.

I’m excited to be attending the LEAD Summit and the after-events.  I hope to get some new ideas that I can bring back to Volunteer Maryland and our AmeriCorps members.  If you want to follow the back channel from the LEAD Summit, just look for the #volwk hashtag.  You can also find out about events going on across the country for National Volunteer Week by looking for the hashtag.