Shah: Keep Moving Forward

How can we continue to embody Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision?

by Rachna Shah | 1/4/18 12:15am

Colleges rarely cancel classes, and Dartmouth is no exception. Only once per term, fall excepted, are classes postponed or canceled in observance of a holiday: In the summer, July 4th; in the spring, Memorial Day; and in the winter, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On the second Monday of winter term, rather than learning inside lecture halls and seminar rooms, we transition to auditoriums and chapels. Yet to truly honor MLK Day, in light of its 2018 theme at Dartmouth centered around “Borders,” we must engage outside the “Dartmouth bubble.” Meaningfully celebrating MLK Day requires an element of service learning, answering King’s call to instill and encourage lifelong civic responsibility.

While it was only in 1999 that Civil Rights Day was replaced with MLK Day in New Hampshire, today, it is celebrated and honored at Dartmouth with lectures, conversations, awards ceremonies, performances, candlelight processions and more. But the current program lacks something critical. As King once asked, “Life’s most persistent and nagging question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

When faced with the triple evils of militarism, poverty and racism, King chose a path of nonviolence. This approach is multifaceted, involving discussion, education, reconciliation and ultimately action. All of these elements can be combined in service learning. We often participate in volunteer work or service projects outside of the classroom, assisting in various ways from preparing meals to building houses. Yet we consider these experiences as non-academic and separate from the rest of our lives. Studies have shown that service learning can break down these borders.

The King Holiday and Service Act of 1994 financially supports and encourages service opportunities, “such as cooperation and understanding among racial and ethnic groups, nonviolent conflict resolution, equal economic and educational opportunities and social justice.” In this way, rather than defining service as doing something for someone, we should think of service as something that the public needs. As the social services organization Volunteer NH says, “Service isn’t just nice, it’s necessary.”

Cultivating a culture of compassion rather than a day of it requires integrating service into education. There are eight Social Impact Practicum courses offered this term and many other programs offered by the Dartmouth Center for Social Impact that expose students the intersection of their lives and the Upper Valley community. In addition, service learning opportunities can and should be offered for every academic discipline. From oral history projects to financial coaching, the possibilities are endless. In a world where the local has become global and vice versa, foreign language courses can also incorporate service learning components. A research paper can be replaced by a community-based project. To be even more effective, a community service project could extend beyond one course and across disciplines and terms.

The benefits of service learning include improved social responsibility, greater self-efficacy, inter-cultural understandings, reduced reliance on harmful stereotypes and enhanced university-community relations. Service learning is not meant to replace service but to supplement and extend it.

MLK Day can thus be seen not only as a day of community and a day of service but also a bridge between these two ideas. Georgia Institute of Technology hosts Sunday Suppers for students to engage in dialogue with the community following the 2018 MLK Day Celebrations. The House Community Social Justice Grants provided such an opportunity at Dartmouth, giving funding to students and student groups who hold social justice events in the Upper Valley and on campus for MLK Day.

But encouraging service can go even further. Programs on MLK Day must be instituted by the College itself. For instance, Dartmouth could follow in the footsteps of Broward College and partner with local nonprofits and community organizations to engage students with the community in an MLK Day of Service. While all Dartmouth students cannot enroll in SIP courses this term, we should all have the opportunity to engage in service learning on MLK Day, perhaps through a one-time group service project. If we express this need and garner support from the Center for Social Impact or professors, we can realize a plan of action centered on service. Moving Dartmouth Forward was a plan to improve the environment at Dartmouth. Community building is part of that.

While we cannot expect to accomplish everything in one day, we ought to at least establish a starting point. Yale University offers week-long service immersion programs to help students understand their home, allowing students to engage with non-profit organizations, religious communities and other neighbors. Critics of service learning assert that the course will not have a significant or lasting impact on the community. However, students can be prepared through general trainings in civic skills and ethics. They can also orient themselves to community needs at the beginning of each course. Moreover, courses can be designed to be continuous while flexible with realistic goals and expectations. Feedback and plausible metrics from students and community members can further provide transparency and keep those involved in these initiatives aware of and accountable for their progress.

Service alone may not be enough to generate racial and economic equality, as King’s dream involved, but it is a step in the right direction. It brings people together and increases awareness about community needs. Progressive laws and policies are more likely to be passed if they have strong community support. King’s vision for a “beloved community” was global in scale, but the global impact must begin locally. We must advocate for change in our communities first and in ourselves. What principles and ideas do you want to advance in the world? Change starts with you.