National Day of Service Fitting Tribute to America’s Legendary Civil Rights Leader


“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” These iconic words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adorn the south wall of his eponymous memorial in Washington, DC.


Dr. King’s powerful message illustrates why honoring his legacy with a National Day of Service is so fitting. Across the nation on January 17, citizens will perform acts of service—or, as Dr. King might describe them, acts of love to drive out hate.


Americans celebrated the first official Martin Luther King Day, the only federal holiday commemorating a person of African descent, on Monday, Jan. 20, 1986. In 1994, Congress designated the holiday as a National Day of Service, marking the third Monday in January as the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service—a day on, rather than a day off.


Locally, organizations will mark the holiday with a variety of events and service opportunities.

United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania has found creative ways to remember Dr. King even within the constraints of the pandemic. Their efforts are part of a larger, consistent mission.


“All of our work is about finding creative ways to solve our community's biggest problems, and we look for meaningful ways to bring the community together to create equitable opportunities for our neighbors who are most vulnerable or overlooked," said Wendy Koch, director of volunteer engagement at United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.


“This is why, each year, we find ways to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work,” she continued. “This year, United Way is hosting a special edition of our dynamic series, The Question Before Us. During this virtual conversation, an expert panel will answer questions and examine how we can build a more equitable community for all.” Details about this event as well as local volunteer opportunities are available on the United Way website at https://uwswpa.org.


Pittsburgh’s nonprofit August Wilson African American Cultural Center (AWAACC) is dedicated to generating artistic, educational and community initiatives that celebrate Black culture. January’s events include a New Year’s Day concert, Soul Sessions: Jeff Bradshaw and Eric Roberson (https://aacc-awc.org/events/), along with a series of virtual discussions moderated by artist Jessica Gaynelle Moss (https://aacc-awc.org/events/). Due to COVID concerns, the AWAACC’s regular Poetry Unplugged program, usually held near Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, has been moved to June 2022, but leaders remain committed to celebrating King’s legacy.


“It is important to celebrate Black culture to honor the accomplishments of African American people, to continue to learn about the culture, and celebrate the leaders who have sacrificed their life and freedom for the culture,” said Cathryn Calhoun, senior education and community engagement manager at the AWAACC. “We welcome new volunteers for our events throughout the year to bring Martin Luther King’s legacy and teachings to life; we have Community Day events, theater, spoken word, concerts, festivals, dance, and visual arts exhibitions.”


The August Wilson Center welcomes volunteers year-round. Volunteers fill various roles, including greeters, ushers, event and festival staff, box office support and office staff. In return, volunteers are rewarded with the opportunity to experience music, dance, theater and art from world-renowned artists. Anyone interested in helping can reach out to Calhoun directly at ccalhoun@aacc-awc.org.


Repair the World Pittsburgh mobilizes communities to build relationships and addresses local needs including food justice, education justice, and other intersecting social justice topics through service based in Jewish values. Repair the World Pittsburgh has both ongoing and one-time volunteer opportunities for service. Typical projects include activities great for the whole family, like making cards for older adults, as well as extended efforts such as mentoring or tutoring. Events and volunteer options for Pittsburgh are available on the group’s website at https://werepair.org/pittsburgh.


The national service organization, AmeriCorps, has a host of resources dedicated to honoring and celebrating the MLK Day of Service. Prospective volunteers can search for local opportunities by zip code on their easy-to-use website. The page also offers creative suggestions for serving the community that any individual, family or small group could execute with relative ease, such as collecting items for a local food bank, organizing a clothing drive or cleaning up trash. For those dreaming big about service, AmeriCorps has an online toolkit and resources for organizing larger-scale projects. Details are available at

https://www.americorps.gov/newsroom/events/mlk-day.


Pittsburgh Cares is an online clearinghouse for service opportunities in the local community. The nonprofit organization is located in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood but includes opportunities to volunteer all over the region. Projects range from volunteering as a “classroom grandparent” in a local school to helping with shifts at a nearby food pantry to preparing fruits and vegetables for the birds at the National Aviary. Whatever an individual’s interest might be, Pittsburgh Cares is a powerful resource for matching the gifts someone has to share with the needs of local organizations. Interested volunteers can get started at

https://www.pittsburghcares.org.


Driving out hate with an act of love this January 17—or any other day of the year—seems an apt way to honor the legacy of the civil rights giant whose dreams of racial justice and equality continue to inspire people around the world today.

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