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Elizabeth Rigby

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Rejecting Cynicism this MLK Day

Posted: 01/19/09 10:58 AM ET

Before rushing off to the orientation for ACORN's Day of Service in Houston Neighborhoods, I wanted to post this article from this morning's Houston Chronicle [print edition only], in which I explain why I am giving up my general cynical take on small symbolic actions and embracing this very exciting moment...


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On this of all MLK Days, Commit to Service Projects
Published in Houston Chronicle; 1/19/09 [print edition]

I must admit, I rarely do anything special to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is just too easy to treat it as simply a day off from work, as well as a great opportunity to catch up on all those to-dos that fell by the wayside over the holidays. And for those of us at the University of Houston, today also represents our last day off before classes begin for the spring semester making it feel like a final vacation day to truly savor.

But, my true reason for passing up opportunities to honor Dr. King stems from my general skepticism of small symbolic acts. Nothing that I would do on MLK Day seems important enough, large enough, or significant enough to honor a man or a movement that has so inspired me. As a result, I tend to do nothing.

The absurdity of this thinking has really hit me this year. At this moment, I am torn between hope and despair for our country, my fellow Americans, my family, and myself. Each day's news seems to highlight more bad news: rising unemployment, more foreclosures, additional states in budgetary crises, and escalating international tensions. Yet, on the eve of a historical presidential inaugural, I can not help but be inspired by the crowds on pilgrimage to our nation's capitol to bear witness to the swearing in of a president that ran on a platform of change with a campaign strategy rooted in public engagement and hope for our collective future.

At this intersection of crisis and optimism, I feel both powerless to produce change and inspired to act. And I am starting to understand the appeal of symbolic action that embraces this contradiction, as well as the appropriateness of taking even small and symbolic action to honor a man who called on each of us to keep moving forward even in the face of great challenges.

And so this MLK day, I will celebrate the efforts of Dr. King, as well as of all those who continue to work for economic security, equal rights, and political equality in our country, by participating in just one of the many thousands of MLK Day service projects planned across the country. This is a fitting tribute to Dr. King who stated that "Life's most urgent and persistent question is: What are you doing for others?"

Over the last decade, the symbolic action of volunteering in your community on the third Monday in January has been promoted as a federal initiative (see www.mlkday.gov). This national day of service has grown in size each year with more than 50,000 Americans participating last year. On this scale, even cynics, such as myself, must acknowledge how individual's symbolic gestures can combine into something quite substantial.

Even greater participation is expected this year in which the holiday falls on the eve of the inauguration of a president who is making public engagement and volunteerism a foundational element of his governing strategy. In fact, the president-elect is partnering with the MLK Day of Service initiative to kick off his community service push, beginning with another call for all of us to participate in community service projects over the holiday weekend. More than 8,500 service project options are posted on the administration's newly-launched USA Service website (www.usaservice.org).

The Obama family will be taking part in service projects in their new hometown. And here in Houston, this year, I will join in too.

Elizabeth Rigby, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston and a Research Associate at the University's Center for Public Policy.