Back To Birmingham, For The Future: A Reflection On MLK Day

December 1, 2014


s millions pause today to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I join in commemorating the legacy of one of our country’s most pre-eminent leaders – but I would be lying if I pretended that there wasn’t something about “a day of service”  that gives me pause.

While singular days of service can be worthwhile, I stand with the many who urge making commitments to serve throughout the year. The 200-plus mayors and city executives who work with Cities of Service across the United States and in eight cities in the UK are finding ways to engage citizens in service, indelibly. Our initiatives and civic partners demonstrate that it is not the days, but the ways, in which we are stewards of progress and our principles that produce change and sow societal success.

Dr. King called attention to the concept of a “coalition of conscience,” which at its core espoused the value of community and his conviction that we all are interrelated and interdependent. He was compelled by the composite of races, faiths, and working and white-collar classes coalescing around him in Alabama in the 1960s. Amazing things happen when we prioritize partnerships over partisanship and cohesion over division.

Today, Birmingham reports that resident engagement and volunteerism for the last two years is at an all-time high, despite having lost one-third of its population over the last half century. The citizen engagement is a result of Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.’s efforts and his office’s work with Cities of Service. Birmingham saw the opportunity to transform the city with impact volunteering – specifically, Mayor Bell made our “Love Your Block” model the flagship of his civic engagement strategy – and citizens have responded, with impressive results.

Any of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods can apply to received support for proposed revitalization projects. Volunteers already have cleaned more than 26,000 square feet of graffiti, disposed of more than 70,000 pounds of trash and debris, planted over 500 trees and revitalized 40 blocks – all in communities selected for critical need.

While the outputs are impressive, and metrics are important, it’s the longer-term outcomes that are most intriguing. As Mayor Bell puts it, “We didn’t just make the streets cleaner – we brought people together to work alongside one another, and empowered our citizens to take ownership of their neighborhoods – and make a real and measurable impact…Love your block, love your city.” His office is going to help at least 15 additional neighborhoods with revitalization efforts.

When we combine conscience of community with government gumption, we get much deeper than the shovels in the ground. Mayor Bell and other Cities of Service are creating new systems for societal,as much as structural, improvements. Our potential is exponential, when you multiply and apply the model across issues and across the country. The programs are opportunities to overcome the disconnectedness that frays the fabric of society, to tightly knit communities and to unravel some of the cynicism around good governance.

Birmingham is one of dozens of cities that applied to our City Hall VISTA Love Your Block program to receive additional support and AmeriCorps VISTA members from our partners at the Corporation for Community and National Service, to help implement successful Love Your Block programs. The proposals overall have elevated the co-creation of solutions to city problems with city residents. Applicants describe involving residents alongside City Hall staff in the process of identifying priorities, engaging youth early in and throughout programs, and proactively planning with their citizens. We will announce the selected cities next month and are encouraged to see where and how they and their citizens grow. If their predecessors – like Mayor Bell and Birmingham – are any indication, the projects will not only convert empty lots into community gardens which produce things like access to fresh food; eventually, they will also produce an immoveable feast of renewed faith in government and our fellow man. We might see more of what Dr. King saw and called a “microcosm of the mankind of the future, in a “luminous and genuine” moment.

Our moment is now. And every day is filled with them.