Philly’s mostly virtual MLK Day of Service to explore theme of ‘Combating Racism and Building Community’

The 27th annual Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. will focus on issues of health justice, voting rights, gun violence, early literacy, and living wage jobs.

Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service at Girard College announces the slate of activities for this year’s event. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service at Girard College announces the slate of activities for this year’s event. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The 27th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in Philadelphia is coming up on Jan. 17, but things will look different this year.

Because of the surge of COVID-19 infections, many activities will be held online.

At Girard College — normally the main hub of activity — there will be a COVID-19 vaccination clinic run by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and a testing clinic run by the Black Doctor’s Consortium.

“A number of previously planned in-person efforts are now moving virtual, and that’s really understandable,” said Day of Service organizer Todd Bernstein. “Doing it virtually really does open it up to a greater number of people, as opposed to doing it in person.”

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A full list of planned activities is updated on the Day of Service website, here.

The theme of 2022’s Day of Service is “Combating Racism and Building Community,” with a focus on five specific issues: health justice, voting rights, gun violence, early literacy, and living wage jobs.

Girard College Co-Chair and Interim President James Turner acknowledged how all of these issues have intersected and become more urgent during the pandemic.

“As Dr. King said, true peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice to achieve peace, to bring justice into the world,” he said. “It takes all of us working together. I know we will all get through these challenging times and continue the important work of living Dr. King’s legacy.”

King’s ideas and legacy will be on full display in the waiting areas of the vaccine clinics, where people linger after receiving injections so they can be monitored for reactions. In those waiting areas will be children’s stories told about King, videos of King’s speeches, and a voter registration drive.

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There will be some in-person activities, including volunteers with Philabundance packing food for people in need, at least 10 sites around town will be registering people to vote, and the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform its annual free concert for MLK, but at the Kimmel Center this year instead of the Girard College chapel.

The concert, conducted by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will feature the 12 year-old violin prodigy Amaryn Olmeda, and a narration of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech recited over the music of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” It will also feature music by Black composers Florence Price and Valerie Coleman.

“To be able to say that we’re putting on a concert live and in-person this year is no small thing,” said orchestra CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “Yannick will be leading a performance with the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra that reflects our commitment to what we call IDEAS: inclusion, diversity, equity, and access strategies.”

During Wednesday’s announcement of this year’s MLK Day of Service events, the organization Citizen Global presented its annual Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award to former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, for his work ensuring the integrity and honesty of the election during the tumultuous 2020 vote count, when he endured personal attacks for doing his job.

Schmidt left that position last week after 10 years, and is now the CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a voting advocacy and elections watchdog group.

Former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt receives the Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award during the announcement of Martin Luther King Day of Service activities at Girard College. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It’s a little bit of a change, going from public service to this nonprofit role, but the fight is the same fight: advocating for voters and enfranchisement, combating any barriers to voting,” said Schmidt. “And right now, our shared responsibility to defend democracy, which is under attack at the federal, state and local level.”

At the announcement, some speakers acknowledged a sense of fatigue, with both the persistence of the pandemic and the pace of the fight for equity and justice.

“We never stopped the fight. Do we get tired? We’ve been working 50, 60 years for the same things. Things change. We’ve all watched the change,” said Karen Asper Jordan, President, Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters. “You’ve all been a part of the change. Do you get discouraged? Yes. Does racism still exist? Yes. As we take a step forward, sometimes we have to take two steps back because people always try to erode our rights as American citizens.”

Jordan also had a message for the journalists in the room covering Philadelphia’s record-breaking violence crisis that they must balance those stories with ones that bring hope and “instill pride,” especially for young Black people in the city.

And speaking to members of her community in North Philadelphia, she said: “Remember we loved you before we knew you. You can be the author of your own story of hope and action. We hope you were inspired today on behalf of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.”

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