Service can take us on a path from charity to justice

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, he described a “fierce urgency of now.” Six decades later, we still find ourselves holding this same sense of urgency.

Today, we’re facing a series of unprecedented and interlocking crises: a devastating global pandemic; upheavals in the economy; a national reckoning on racial inequity; tragic gun violence, the shrinking of long-established rights and freedoms, and more.

In the midst of it all—the trauma and the tragedy, the injustice and the inequality— I am reminded of the words of Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

The spirit of service is the light and love our country so desperately needs right now.

Dr. King’s legacy compels us to move forward with intentionality despite our shared challenges. And we know that the only way to truly be successful in this endeavor is to do it together.

National service and volunteering are our best tools to build bridges, heal divides, and lead our country into a better, brighter future. That’s because they invite us to find common ground and remain strong against forces that try to divide us.

Further, volunteering can open the door for possibility and spark a lifetime of service and civic engagement. When you bring a young child to volunteer at a foodbank, you could be inspiring a future policymaker to draft legislation that roots out hunger. Picking up littler at a local park with friends could lead to a career in conservation. Spending time reading to older Americans could lead to better research on aging, mental wellness, and our country’s health care systems.

That’s why the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service is so important. Coretta Scott King once said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” As the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service, MLK Day inspires millions of Americans to act with compassion and embrace their roles as changemakers in their communities.

These everyday Americans, doing extraordinary things, show us how service can take us on a path from charity to justice. When we unite in service with our neighbors, it gives us the necessary power and momentum to address the root causes of injustice, so that we can eradicate the persistent, damaging effects of inequality, racism and discrimination.

Even though we’re living through challenging times, I have never been more optimistic about the power of service to tackle our country’s most pressing challenges. AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteerism,remains committed to the belief that service can bring us one step closer to realizing Dr. King’s vision of creating a global “beloved community”—one in which no one is left behind.

We have the opportunity to ensure MLK Day represents more than just a single day of giving back. This is our moment to build a true culture of service in our country to build a stronger, more united America.

Please join me in honoring Dr. King’s legacy by visiting Make a commitment to serve on Monday, Jan. 16, and pledge to work alongside your neighbors in your community all year long.

Your community and our nation need you.

Michael D. Smith is the eighth CEO of AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteerism.