How to get involved in Philly’s MLK Day of Service — from reading coaching to citywide cleanups

Philadelphians walk through a job and services fair at Girard College on Martin Luther King Day 2017.

Philadelphians walk through a job and services fair at Girard College on Martin Luther King Day 2017. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Every year on the third Monday in January, communities across the U.S. honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by performing acts of service — and Philly is home to the largest King Day event in the country.

Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Harris Wofford helped create the national King Day of Service in 1994 through federal legislation he co-authored with civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis.

What started in Philly in 1996 with 1,000 volunteers has morphed into a day of service that works to foster civic engagement and understanding of Dr. King’s legacy with hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the U.S.

On Monday, Jan. 18, Girard College — which serves as the Philly region’s King Day of Service hub — will host hundreds of projects, workshops, trainings, and other events.

The Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, now in its 26th year, spans the entire Delaware Valley and attracts tens of thousands of participants.

The event’s 2021 theme is “Justice & the COVID-19 Health Crisis.“

“In 1966, Dr. King said, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman,’” said Todd Bernstein, president of the nonprofit Global Citizen and the event’s founder and director, in a press release.

“The global pandemic has revealed so much suffering, with a deadly pandemic and some 360,000 U.S. deaths,” said Bernstein. “It has awoken more Americans to disparities in healthcare and systemic racism. We have massive unemployment, food insecurity, and a lack of critical resources for students who are confined to their homes, particularly from underserved urban public school systems.”

The day’s activities include free COVID-19 testing, food distribution, a virtual career expo, and discussions on racial justice and disparities in health care. An online portal organized by Global Citizen details these and hundreds of other volunteer opportunities.

Here’s a look at some of the project’s featured events, and how you can get involved:

Free COVID-19 testing

Black Doctors COVID Consortium will be providing free COVID-19 testing at Girard College’s Fairmount campus from 9 a.m. to noon. The drive-thru and walk-in testing site aims to target marginalized populations from underserved communities. Those interested in getting tested can register online, though registration is not required.

Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium
Flanked by fellow doctors, Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, speaks to reporters in the parking lot of the West Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Christopher Norris/WHYY)

King Day reflection

A virtual discussion on Dr. King’s legacy and racial justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and barriers to accessing health care will be held at 3 p.m. Those interested can sign up to participate online.

Career exploration expo

This year’s career expo is focusing on providing resources and guidance to young people who are out of work. The first session will take place from 10 a.m. until noon, with the second scheduled from noon until 2 p.m. The expo’s workshops will include a virtual job hunt boot camp and sessions with industry leaders who can connect attendees with job opportunities suited to their skills and career interests. Those interested can sign up to participate online.

Reading Captain training

The Reading Captains initiative, which champions the city’s movement for childhood literacy, will be holding a 90-minute virtual training at 10:30 a.m. The goal is to train more community members to help Philly children read at grade level by the end of the third grade. Those who attend the training will be certified as Reading Captains in Philadelphia. Those interested can sign up to participate online.

What else is going on in Philly?

Outside of the city’s official King Day of Service project, plenty of social justice-oriented nonprofits and civic engagement organizations are hosting their own events. Here’s a look at a handful of Philly-based projects, and how you can get involved.

I Love Thy Hood: Citywide cleanup

I Love Thy Hood, which clears Philly streets of litter one bright orange trash can at a time, is hosting a citywide cleanup. The event, slated for Sunday, Jan. 17, will take place in Kensington, North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and Germantown. Those interested in volunteering, donating, being a site-leader, or partnering as a business, can fill out the organization’s Google form online.

Matthew George changes the bag at his I Love Thy Hood can outside the Dollar General on Chelten Avenue.
Matthew George changes the bag at his I Love Thy Hood can outside the Dollar General on Chelten Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

African American Museum in Philadelphia: MLK Weekend

The African American Museum in Philadelphia’s 15th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend Celebration has gone virtual.

The online events will run from Jan. 16 to 18, featuring activities like a documentary screening of “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a reading and discussion with the city’s poet laureate Trapeta Mayson, and a virtual tour of the museum’s latest exhibit, “Rendering Justice.”

The event’s 2021 theme asks the question, “What can we do for others?”

Those interested in signing up for specific events can register to participate online.

District Attorney Larry Krasner views 'Redaction,' a mural of portraits by Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts in the gallery of the African American Museum of Philadelphia
District Attorney Larry Krasner views “Redaction,” a mural of portraits by Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts in the gallery of the African American Museum of Philadelphia. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Ya Fav Trashman and Rep. Kenyatta: Neighborhood cleanup

Terrill Haigler, affectionately known as Ya Fav Trashman, and Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta are teaming up to host a neighborhood cleanup in North Philadelphia. Residents are encouraged to bring a face mask and a friend to North 17th and Jefferson streets to clean up Philly “one block at a time.” The event will run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.


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National Constitution Center: Civil rights movement class

Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center is hosting a free virtual class on the civil rights movement throughout the week of Jan. 18. Among the topics the course will cover are the Warren Court and landmark laws enacted by Congress like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Eastern State Penitentiary: Virtual readings of Dr. King

Fairmount’s Eastern State Penitentiary will commemorate Dr. King with virtual readings of his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The event will be broken out into six 30-minute sessions, each followed by a period of reflection. Participants can join as many of the sessions as they’d like. Those interested can tune in to the penitentiary’s Facebook livestream or via Zoom.

Eastern State Penitentiary
About 150 people lined up outside Eastern State Penitentiary. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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