Making a Difference on MLK Day

Monday is Martin Luther King Day, and nonprofits and citizens across the United States are finding their own ways of celebrating the life of the great civil rights figure.

Since its inception in 1983, MILK day has acted as a day of service, spurring volunteerism and bringing people together in the same vein that civil rights organizers came together during MLK’s time. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, last year’s holiday brought out hundreds of thousands volunteers across the country. People donated clothing and food items, worked as mentors, supported job-seekers, and built homes in what the agency refers to as “a day on, not a day off.”

In the past, local communities have hosted initiatives that found nonprofits, government agencies, and everyday citizens working together for the public good, such as Arizona’s “Year of Service” Community Festival or Portland, Oregon’s many coordinated events.

The day also presents fundraising opportunities for nonprofits. United Way Midlands, for example, created a whole weekend fundraising drive to assist a handful of select nonprofits in the Omaha area.

Not all voices in the world of philanthropy, however, are thrilled with how MLK Day manifests. Writing for the Nonprofit Quarterly, columnist Rick Cohen remarks that run-of-the-mill volunteer projects that causal do gooders participant in have “always evinced a terrible myopia about the meaning and memory of Dr. King” that ultimately sell “Dr. King and the nation’s racial troubles tragically short.”

He continues:

This year, more than any in recent times, the onus on all of us should be to take back Martin Luther King Day from the emphasis on top-down, one-day, feel-good volunteer fix-up projects and refocus attention on strategies and actions to address racial inequity and injustice today… In 2015, we should all be showing courage to analyze, address, and attack overt, structural, institutional, and implicit racism on the day on which we all too often miss the point of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy by making his holiday one that doesn’t forthrightly address issues of race.

With the tumultuous events of the last year, including tragic police shootings and hostile discourse over race relations, there is no doubt a way to balance the volunteerism embedded in MLK Day’s history and the pressing social issues facing us today. When hundreds of thousands of people come together to improve their communities and help their neighbors, the possibility for cross-cultural and ethnic communication is immense. Such a hybrid – one that breeds both action and thoughtful dialogue – would likely satisfy the vision of the day’s namesake.

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