A day to ‘love the service that we’re giving’

Penn’s MLK Day of Service featured a robust kickoff with speakers and performances, followed by volunteer initiatives on campus and in the community. 

Dancing at MLK Day of Service breakfast
Volunteers warmed up for a busy day over breakfast—and some dancing—inside Houston Hall’s Hall of Flags.

On a bitter cold Monday, students, faculty, staff, and the Philadelphia community at large turned out in great numbers for the University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. A kickoff breakfast at Houston Hall’s Hall of Flags, beginning at 8 a.m., was so well-attended, extra chairs were brought into the room mid-program.

“It’s 20° outside, it would have been so easy for people to turn over and say, no thanks, I’m going to watch something on television, but here we are,” said Valerie Dorsey Allen, who for two decades has served as director of Penn’s African-American Resource Center (AARC), which coordinates the MLK Day events. “It is just so wonderful to see.”

Participants fueled up for a busy day, while listening to in-person and pre-recorded speakers, including Interim President J. Larry Jameson and Provost John L. Jackson Jr.; the Rev. William Gipson; Penn students Ruby Nwaebube, Adora Moneme, and Christopher Johnny; and Wayne State University associate professor of African American studies Charisse Burden-Stelly, who provided the morning’s keynote address.

In her remarks, Burden-Stelly drew inspiration from five Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, which, to summarize, touched on the importance of love, being a “tide that lifts all boats,” the understanding that poverty is a structural issue, and the urgent need to address human rights and stray away from gradualism. Burden-Stelly referenced historian Robin D.G. Kelley’s notion of “freedom dreams,” and noted: “What we do today, no matter how small, helps to prepare us for the world tomorrow. And even if we’re not here to inherit the good work that we’ve done, we must create a better world for future generations.”

During Gipson’s invocation, he told the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his fascination with the lamplighters, and inspired us, as a community, to “make it our business” to “punch holes in the dark.” Jameson highlighted the importance of allyship and being a “good Samaritan” that Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke about. “Near and far it’s a parable we all want to live by,” Jameson said, while thanking all those who turned out for the day of service.

Also, as tradition goes, MLK Symposium Coordinator Diane Leslie warmed everyone up with some fun, engaging movement and music, and Philadelphia performer Zymir Brunson, a recent Temple University Boyer College of Music and Dance alumnus, served as a vocalist—whose impressive musical renditions ended with a standing ovation.

“This is one of the reasons I love this yearly programming we put on,” said Johnny, a chemistry Ph.D. student and member of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at Penn, speaking after Brunson’s performance and before introducing Burden-Stelly. “We get to acknowledge the different talents as well as activists and politicians and all sorts of people putting great work into service and into our community.”

Volunteers dispersed after the breakfast to locations on campus and in Philadelphia, participating in events including beautification projects, mentoring programs and workshops, children’s literacy and arts initiatives, and educational sessions—including one for high school students navigating the college admissions process. Upstairs in Bodek Lounge, Alanna Ticali, now in her family medicine residency at Penn, chose to spend a few hours of her day off from work turning T-shirts into reusable bags and stuffing them with personal items for women, to later be donated to area shelters.

“This is an example of a small act of service,” said Ticali, “but then we have to also remember that when we have the power to speak up for those who don’t necessarily have those opportunities, to make their voices heard.”

Alanna Ticali cuts a shirt to make into a bag on MLK Day
Alanna Ticali, a Penn Family Medicine resident, transforms a T-shirt into a reusable bag, to be filled with women’s personal items and donated to an area shelter.  

As AARC’s longtime director soon retires, at her final MLK Day at Penn event as a staff member, she made a note about MLK’s teachings of love.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said only love can drive out hatred, only love can make a change,” said Dorsey Allen. “We have to love our neighbors, we have to love our communities and as much as we can do that, we can make a difference. That goes for MLK Day and that goes for the AARC. We have to love the people that we’re working with, love the service that we’re giving.”

MLK Commemorative Symposium events run through Saturday, Feb. 3. To view programs, learn more, or get involved, visit aarc.upenn.edu/mlk.