Small Acts, Big Dreams

22 Jan

On January 19, the New York Public Allies class gathered in a high school cafeteria with students from The Future Project, New York Cares, and the community, to participate in a youth-driven Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. The walls were transformed by recycled decorations made of newspaper and a slideshow projection of MLK Jr., the tables had morphed into five “Acts of Kindness” stations, and the air buzzed with inspiring music and energy from the participants.

Leading up to the event, a core team of high school students from the Future Project and New York Cares met together along with a few Public Allies to brainstorm, design, and execute the day. The students picked the theme “Acts of Kindness,” based around the idea that everyone in the community can do acts of kindness for others, and that these small acts have an impact—whether a physical one, like feeding another person, or a psychological one, like making a person feel valued or empowered. These acts are small steps towards the just and peaceful world that MLK envisioned.

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A ladder made of string hung like a banner over the Dream Ladder station, where we wrote our dreams on pieces of construction paper and then tied them to the ladder. At the Care Package station, we assembled packages of toiletries for survivors of Hurricane Sandy. At the Brown Bag Lunches station, we decorated shoeboxes and filled them with food and goods for the homeless. New York Cares and Trinity Church will be distributing the care packages and shoeboxes for us this week. We made inspirational cards at the Happy Cards station, which youth participants took with them to distribute to both strangers and loved ones to symbolize building better relationships in our communities. Finally, at the Go Green station, we turned recycled materials into new creations to “showcase the reinvention of ideas, teach sustainability, and explore the reusing of ideas from MLK’s time to our present time.”

And, of course, there was a lot of dancing.

Attending a day of service, I expected to leave the event reflecting most on the service that we performed. What I have been reflecting on most, though, is the conversations that I had with students.

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I met a young woman from New York Cares who loves volunteering, wanted to be a philanthropist when she grows up, and wanted my opinion on how to get there. She plans to go to college but worries about choosing a major. We talk about how a college degree, no matter the major, can open up opportunities for a lot of futures, rather than determining a specific one.

Another young woman, a Dream Fellow from the Future Project, is producing a variety show in April, where students at her school will be allowed to display any talent they wish to their peers and the community—not just singing and dancing, but writing or cooking or anything else.

These conversations give me hope that Martin Luther King Jr.’s visions for education and schools are not impossible, and that many youth still believe in these visions. Martin Luther King Jr. was committed to justice in schools— through providing all students with quality and equitable education, and through school integration that allows youth to share this education across color lines. The fight for these visions is still in progress.

“The function of education,” MLK said, “is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically… Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”  In the U.S., we have not yet succeeded in providing engaging, quality education to all youth. It is a feat that seems impossible to many. But I am inspired that projects like the Future Project and New York Cares allows students to cultivate both intelligence and character, and do so with an eye on sharing that impact with their schools and communities.

Martin Luther King Jr. also dreamed of “a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” In a time when a child’s education is all too often impacted by race and socioeconomic status, I was inspired and honored to participate in a gathering of youth and adults of all colors in one cafeteria—on a Saturday!—where people were eager to talk together, work together, dance together, and put their personal dreams on display.

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