MLK: A Man for All Times and People

01/21/2011 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stories help us define and understand societal issues.

Take Jimmy Wayne for instance. His dark childhood was marked with abuse, abandonment and instability. With his mother in and out of prison, he bounced around a series of foster homes and was shuffled between 12 schools in two years, ultimately becoming homeless as a teenager.

With the support of a loving foster family, Wayne has lived to sing about his experiences. As a chart-topping country music singer, he advocates for the well-being of the nation's 25,000 foster youth who age out of the foster care system.

Or consider Melissa Majors, who lost her decade-long job as a result of unreliable child care. When her child support stopped unexpectedly and her unemployment money was delayed, she packed her family's possessions and moved out with her children, 12-year-old Admurel and 9-year-old Vanessa. Soon, the car became their permanent home. Admurel and Vanessa are two of at least 1.5 million American children who experienced homelessness last year -- and the number is growing.

These two stories depict different ways that poverty impacts a child's life -- bringing instability and poor outcomes -- and underscore the fact that poverty knows no color barriers since Wayne is white and Majors and her children are black. These are part of the collection of stories we in child welfare have about vulnerable children who make up our communities' chapters.

As I reflect on Martin Luther King and his numerous achievements, I realize that most people think about MLK only as someone focused on the rights of African Americans, but in reality he was concerned about the whole story: making sure that all people are able to reach their full potential. He was especially concerned about the poor, the most fragile and children -- like Jimmy and Melissa. If he were alive today, I imagine he would be excited by our progress, but also saddened that these narratives are still common.

After all, his concerns extended well beyond skin color. Before his untimely death, King had started organizing the "Poor People's Campaign" to address and solve economic issues facing the nation's poorest communities. As part of this effort, he was working to build "a multiracial army of the poor" to march on D.C. in support of poor Americans.

His broader interest in all vulnerable people is also reflected in his progressive "community of man" writings. In them, he discussed the challenges of globalization and the challenge and opportunity presented by technology. He also talked about the fact that, as a country, we will never be able to achieve full success unless we make sure that everyone is able to meet his or her full potential.

We continue to struggle with the challenges and opportunities resulting from globalization and Dr. King predicted. He also continued to be right about the need to adopt and embrace basic understandings and values as a means to overcome obstacles, including that:

• we are all part of the same community of man,

• we cannot achieve greatness unless we recognize that each person must meet his or her potential,

• love and respect are paramount,

• every person has a gift, and

• we must help everyone realize that gift on behalf of the full community.

As I think more about the child welfare profession, I know we have so many dedicated people who are living and applying these values on behalf of the Jimmy Waynes and Admurel Majors. Every day, we see the most vulnerable children and families in our work, and we see the most remarkable children and families. Often they are one in the same -- characters in real stories who are struggling to adapt and overcome the challenges they've been given.

It's those who serve -- and those we serve -- that remind me that Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech is as significant today as ever. We also know from his teachings that the dream pertains to even broader cross section of people: the poor, the newly poor, immigrants and children. As a man of all times...for all people, Dr. King remains a visionary author and thinker, continuing to guide and inspire us. But the story continues to be written and we still have much to learn.