To embrace Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message of civic responsibility about 500 students, parents, staff and neighbors of Germantown Friends School (GFS) participated in the 18th annual “Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service.”
GFS hosted a number of projects both on and off campus throughout the day including a clothing drive, litter pickup, mural touch-ups and food-basket preparations. A presentation on activist Bayard Rustin, who worked with MLK, included music and a discussion about local Germantown ties to the Civil Rights Movement.
Kathy Paulmier, director of community involvement at GFS, says the days’ events pivot on King’s approach to civic duty.
“It’s a perfect fit for GFS,” said Paulmier. “King stood for peace and equality, things that resonate with who we are as a school.”
One project asked students to create books-on-tape for the Philadelphia Reads Literacy Program by reading and recording books onto “Garageband.”
Another project asked students to handcraft catnip toys for Philadoptables, which will distribute the toys to families with pets who are struggling to provide care.
“There’s a reciprocity in volunteering,” Paulmier said. “The students learn things that they may not learn in the classroom.”
A Germantown Civil Rights connection
A presentation made by the Multicultural Parents’ Alliance and the Lesbian and Gay Parents and Friends Alliance highlighted the centennial year of Bayard Rustin, a civil- and gay rights activist.
“Rustin was a significant leader and he has strong ties to this area,” said Paulmier. “He was a Quaker and stood for pacifism, non-violence and human rights.”
Paulmier’s father, Chris Nicholson, who grew up with Rustin as a Quaker in West Chester, spoke about his experiences with Rustin as a youth.
“I remember we went to a restaurant in West Chester, and the waiter wouldn’t serve us, but Bayard didn’t make a fuss about it,” said Nicholson. “We kept trying restaurants until we were finally served. He tested boundaries.”
Nicholson shared another story where Rustin went to the beach in Atlantic City.
“He said he wanted to go for a swim. Who wouldn’t want to do that?” he recounted. “But they arrested him, I think they kept him overnight. Most of us try to avoid being arrested, but he knew what he was doing.”
Musical connections to the past
The presentation included a medley of African American spirituals presented by GFS music teachers Teri Gemberling-Johnson and Anne Hess who hoped to teach attendees the symbolism of healing and hope in the music.
“These songs belong to an era that we don’t always get to talk about,” said Hess. “It’s important to keep teaching and singing these songs.”
Selections included “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Wade in the Water,” which are both believed to contain hidden messages for escaping slavery. A presentation of Rustin’s Gospel music was also played for attendees.
“I was alive during the Civil Rights Movement,” said Johnson. “We want people to make a connection to people like Rustin, who personify forward-thinking values.”
Rustin’s life was also shown in clips from the film “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.”
“It’s an alternative to going to the mall for the day,” said Paulmier. “It’s a chance for the students to take part and do something meaningful.