“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since learning about Dr. King for the first time in kindergarten, I have come to associate him with a legacy of service. As my years of schooling progressed, so too did my understanding of Dr. King’s life, the challenges he faced, and the socio-political climate in which he worked. During my elementary and middle school years, King Day was a prized day off from school and an opportunity to spend time with family. I have fond memories of joining my family at the King Day parade in Perrine, Florida where we watched as little league football teams and cheerleaders waved to the crowd, high school bands performed and floats from different churches, schools and civic organizations showed off their interpretation of what Dr. King meant to them.
During high school, I began to explore the idea of service for myself, engaging in community service for the first time as a school requirement. I joined our school’s Key Club as an easy way to knock out the 75 hours of service required before graduation. I participated, like I’m sure many of us have, in canned food drives, school beautification projects, and fundraisers for various causes. King Day, now a day of service in my teenaged brain, became a way to take advantage of the numerous community clean ups and toiletry drives happening around the city in order to catch up on the service hours I’d slacked on obtaining during the first semester of the year.
It wasn’t until I reached college that I began to think of service in a completely different way. I became a member of an organization that worked to provide food insecure families in town with nutritionally balanced meals sourced from dining halls on campus. My experience with The Campus Kitchens Project moved me from doing what was comfortable and convenient to ensuring that I was meeting the needs of others in the way they needed them met. During my senior year, I learned about the notion of “servant leadership” as defined by Robert Greenleaf. In his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, he states:
The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and [most] difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?
Based upon this definition, I have come to associate Dr. King with the epitome of servant leadership. Throughout his life, Dr. King put the highest priority needs of others ahead of his need for comfort, convenience, safety or power. Despite increased threats to his life, he came to Memphis on April 3, 1968 to further his work with sanitation workers that were on strike after enduring years of discrimination, unfair wages, and unsafe working conditions.
It’s often said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the act of persevering even when fear is great.
I cannot imagine how afraid Dr. King and his family must have been during this time. The courage, conviction, and compassion that they displayed is one of the most inspirational moments in American history. I feel that we can best honor Dr. King, not merely with remembrances, but with continued acts and choices that follow his example. That begins with placing ourselves in situations – and communities – far beyond our usual comfort zones.
Having lived in the Bluff City for the past 5 years, first working in education reform and now advocating for change within our criminal justice system as part of the Just City team, I believe that my initial placement in Memphis was no accident. Memphis is a city for a servant’s heart.
With a poverty rate of 29.8%, Memphis is in desperate need of servant leadership. Reducing poverty, its underlying causes and its symptoms requires us to do more than engage with these issues only on Dr. King’s birthday. In order to honor his legacy of service, we must do more than remember and recite his words at a parade. We must do more than serve others to satisfy a requirement for school.
As Memphians, we will best honor Dr. King’s legacy by committing ourselves, year round, to doing not what’s comfortable or convenient, not what makes us feel powerful or feeds our egos, but by doing what needs to be done to serve the highest priority needs of our fellow Memphians.
A native of Miami, Florida, Allison Gibbs moved to Memphis in 2011 to teach 4th grade students at Vollentine Elementary (Go Jaguars!). After 5 years of working in education reform, she made the transition to the world of criminal justice reform as the program manager for Just City, an organization that is advocating for strong, consistent adult and children’s right to counsel policies and accelerate community-driven solutions to the problems presented by the criminal justice system. In her down time she enjoys studying public policy and administration as a grad student at American University, centering her scattered mind at Midtown Yoga and eating brunch on Sundays at Cafe Pontotoc.