Up bright and early on Monday morning, Afi Heywood was at Bodek Lounge in Houston Hall to assist in preparing the “helping hands” space for Martin Luther King Jr. Day volunteers who would come together—many for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic—to stuff hundreds of bags and socks with toiletries and personal items. Later, those items would be donated to people at local shelters.
“It’s important to serve today in the name of Dr. King’s legacy,” Heywood said, chatting next to boxes full of toothbrushes, nail files, shampoo bottles, and ear plugs. “It’s an exciting day, I was even up thinking about it last night.”
Heywood, formerly of Penn’s African American Resource Center (AARC), reflected on how much the University’s MLK Day commemorations have grown throughout the years. It started, she said, in 1989 with one basic afternoon event. This year’s MLK programming lasts through early February, offering a mix of volunteer opportunities, educational lectures, discussion series, movie nights, and much, much more.
Monday’s events focused on service, with faculty, staff, students, and other friends of Penn spending their day engaged on campus and in West Philadelphia. Participants were invited to a special breakfast, which President Liz Magill said was to thank volunteers and warm them up “both body and soul” to prepare for the day ahead.
“Service was one of the key messages of Dr. King,” Magill said. “His challenge for all of us was to constantly seek justice, to improve the world, and to give ourselves and our resources to lift up others. Expanding equality, promoting peace, pursuing acceptance and forgiveness—these are manifestations of Dr. King’s core idea of service.”
Service is how, she continued, we “uplift the human spirit” and “promote the dignity” of everyone. “It’s the ideal way to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King.”
Also present to kick off the MLK Day of Service was Vice President for Social Equity and Community and University Chaplain Chaz Howard, and Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent J. Hughes, who emphasized the importance of getting in “the good trouble space,” and to be a “change agent.”
“I just ask that you realize your place and the possibilities that you have to make a difference,” Hughes said. “In whatever field that you choose, whatever it might be, there is an opportunity to transform the world. You can do it; believe you can.”
In a similar vein, the virtual keynote speaker for the event, David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said: “Each of us can do something to bend the arc of moral justice faster.” Johns emphasized respecting peoples’ pronouns and not assuming their genders; acknowledging contributions made by and challenges facing LGBTQIA+ people; and advocating for policies and supporting practices that facilitate inclusion, promote safety, and ensure everyone thrives, helping us “all get closer to freedom.”
Back in Bodek, first-year chemistry doctoral student Perculiar Adimabua, who moved to Illinois from Nigeria in high school, was helping to organize bagged items, getting them ready for donating. She said she wanted to come out on her day off to start 2023 off on the right foot.
“I felt like last semester, my entire life was being a student, and the reflection I had at the end of the semester was that I am more than just a student,” Adimabua said. “I really want to do more outreach this year, give back in any way I can.”
A recommitment to service is, in essence, what MLK Day is all about, noted Colleen Winn, staff assistant at the AARC.
“Dr. King wouldn’t smile upon a one-day celebration,” Winn explained. “We try to stress: This jump-starts it. It’s the beginning, not the end. This is something we need to continue to do to uplift each other, uplift our communities.”
In addition to the “helping hands” project, the MLK Day of Service events hosted by Penn and all open to the public included a free dog and cat wellness and vaccination clinic at Ryan Vet Hospital, a beautification project at Henry C. Lea Elementary School, a virtual workshop about the college admissions process, and a special art and reading program at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center on campus. Wellness clinics were also offered, including one distributing colon cancer test kits to people over 45 years old and another focused on pre-diabetes education.
“We try to have offerings that look at issues that face the Black community,” Winn said. “For instance, a disproportionate amount of people in the Black community suffer from diabetes. In North Philadelphia, Temple University has a free, yearlong program for people who are pre-diabetic—it’s all about lifestyle change. So, we thought, let’s bring it here.”
Juanita Watson-Traore, from West Philadelphia, attended the hourlong pre-diabetes program, noting afterward how engaging and informative it was, taught by Temple’s Edoris Lomax. A pre-diabetic herself, Watson-Traore said she wants to encourage others in her family and in her community to learn more about it.
“Diabetes can change your life and now I understand there’s something I can really do about it,” she said.
Watson-Traore stuck around in Golkin Room in Houston Hall for Penn MERT’s presentation on “Stop the Bleed”—a useful tool if ever encountering a severely injured person. At the end of the session, attendees received a certificate of completion. At a couple different locations in West Philadelphia, Penn Presbyterian’s Sunny Jackson was hosting mini “Stop the Bleed” sessions, informing those who stopped by her table about the full training and when it next will be offered. As she often does, too, she handed out free gun locks. A registered nurse, as well as the hospital’s injury-prevention coordinator, Jackson spends most days serving the community, so it’s no surprise she was out and about for MLK Day.
“Every day is a great day to do something for your community,” she said.
Sticking to tradition, the day’s events concluded with a nighttime candlelight vigil on Locust Walk.
MLK Symposium events will extend through Friday, Feb. 3. Visit the AARC website for more information and for a full listing of happenings.