Reflecting on Martin Luther King and his Legacy of Service

Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I take time to reflect on the legacy of Dr. King.  I admire the courage of Dr. King and all those who fought for civil rights, including my father, who was arrested and imprisoned for peaceful activism in North Carolina.  I celebrate the actions of leaders like Governor Hoff, who, with my father, launched the first Vermont initiatives aimed at building interracial understanding. And I recommit myself to making the dream of true equality a reality in our state and our country.

At this moment of extreme divisiveness in national politics, we need to build understanding across groups of people more than ever.

One of the many lessons of Dr. King’s life is that service to others is the path to real change. So it is a fitting tribute that this holiday is now viewed as a “day on,” rather than a “day off.”  Today, people all over America come together as part of a national day of service and in Dr. King’s honor, they dedicate themselves to making a difference in the lives of others.

Vermont is a state with a long history of service. Growing up in Hartland, I would go out with my friends and neighbors every year to pick up trash as part of Green Up Day. It’s a simple but revolutionary idea -- and such a Vermont idea: Pick an area. Take responsibility for it. Clean it up.

Vermonters are making a difference all around our state, serving in homeless shelters, providing meals to low-income seniors, cleaning up our lakes and rivers, improving our downtowns, and so much more.

And we have never needed sustained, collective action as much as we do now. In some school districts, up to 10 percent of elementary school kids are homeless.  The number of Vermonters in poverty is rising.  Opiate addiction is approaching epidemic levels.

To address these challenges we must answer Dr. King’s call to serve those in need. Service can make a difference in ensuring that we have an economy that works for all Vermonters.

I know because I’ve seen it on the front lines: when utilized effectively, service can transform lives and communities. During my time as Director of AmeriCorps*VISTA, I was inspired every day by the six thousand VISTA members who spent a year committed to empowering people out of poverty. They expanded programs in which low-income people earned ownership of cars and even homes while learning marketable skills.  Programs developed by VISTA members assisted displaced workers in starting small businesses. These initiatives broke the cycle of poverty by creating resiliency and opportunity in communities that had been in crisis.

Vermonters are recognized across the country for our spirit of service. Some of the most innovative programs I saw at VISTA were started here, like the Good News Garage and the micro enterprise work at Capstone Community Action. Vermonters serve in AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps at higher rates than nearly any other state in the country. And it isn’t a new phenomenon.  As Calvin Coolidge wrote, “Vermonters are a race of pioneers who have nearly beggared themselves in service to others.”

Let us live up to that pioneering spirit. Let us truly make this a day on, not a day off, and serve in our communities. Let us create new opportunities in AmeriCorps and for local volunteers throughout our state to help tackle some of the biggest challenges we face. Let us confront language of hate and division with actions that empower others.

As we remember Dr. King’s legacy this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us commit to making his spirit felt all across the Green Mountain State.