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Martin Luther King’s journey

January 22, 2008

Today we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is easy enough to be discouraged about the current state of racial inequality in this country. We have not made nearly the progress on economic inequalities and inequalities of opportunity that seemed possible in 1966. But Dr. King was an optimistic man and a man who always looked for ways of moving forward. So I want to honor him today by reflecting on some of the difficult but real efforts that are underway today to prepare our society for a more racially just future. And examples can be found in my own city of Detroit.

I think first of a youth opportunity program that is having significant impact in Detroit. The program is called YouthVille. Located in a repurposed warehouse, YouthVille is filled with young people finding some of the resources and support they need to take charge of their lives — succeed in school, develop the confidence that they can achieve their dreams, and successfully negotiate the challenges of being a kid in a tough city. Young people from over 270 schools in the Detroit area have participated in programs at YouthVille, and the numbers are growing.

Next I think of an African-centered after-school program for middle and high school students, the Alkebu-lan Village. Founded by committed community activists and sustained by the daily efforts of these same dedicated men and women, the Village gives inner city kids a supportive and safe environment where they can develop their own dreams about the futures they want to achieve. The mission statement of the organization describes it as “an African-centered community-based organization committed to developing and nurturing an environment where families work together to build healthy minds, bodies and communities.” It is inspiring to spend time at Alkebu-lan Village and to witness the caring concern and commitment that these Detroiters give to their mission. The village provides tutoring and homework help, and it measurably improves the kids’ experience in school. It offers sports, dance, and music activities for the kids who attend, and it organizes summer camp experiences for inner-city kids. Throughout it gives all its kids a better chance at success. This is a community-based organization that has successfully harnessed the energies of a community of people in service to the futures of Detroit’s youth.

Finally, I think of CityYear Detroit and the wonderful team members and staff who are devoted to providing meaningful service to their community. CityYear exists in over a dozen cities throughout the country and, recently, South Africa. Its team members can be spotted in their red jackets, providing tutoring, establishing urban gardens, and helping to improve the lives of children and adults in the cities they serve. I have met quite a few team members and leaders in Detroit and elsewhere over the years, and their commitment and energy are inspiring. These young people, often inner city kids, are learning about team work, leadership, and service in ways that will affect them throughout their lives. And because CityYear is successful in recruiting a highly diverse group, each kid learns very deeply and personally about other people’s experiences in life. This is the kind of learning that universities haven’t yet succeeded in creating. But a year of service in CityYear (and other AmeriCorps programs) is transforming for almost every young person who does it. And the CityYear alums have a vison for their futures that we all can learn from.

So there are some compelling examples of people and organizations that are addressing the issues of poverty, race, and inequalities of opportunity that have proven so intractable. One thing that ties all three examples together is the ethic of community service that they reflect, and the determination by so many leaders and activists to live this comitment out. And there is inspiration here at every level — in the men and women who have dedicated their energies to create these organizations, and the young people who have gained such good values and skills within them. Let’s all find ways of joining in this important work. And in doing so, let’s notice that we’re helping with the work that Martin began.

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