The following are two of the student reflections given at the 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. pre-celebration reception held by President Thomas.
I am a habitual listener of news radio, NPR in particular. I have listened to NPR for years, I was a weird kid in middle school who liked to listen to the news and when I got into high school and my sister and I shared a car it became quite a contentious issue with our radio presets, but in the end NPR was always #1.
Every year I listen to NPR on Martin Luther King Day, and today as I drove a 15-passenger van of volunteers around Tacoma was no different. Every year is a constant reminder that this day means so many different things to so many different people: it is a day of celebration, remembrance, reverence, struggle, freedom, discussion, debate and justice.
With so many different perspectives on what this day is, what does it mean to participate in Martin Luther King Day? What does it mean to do service, to celebrate on this day? What are we doing?
So as I was writing my speech today, I was trying to answer this question of what this day means. It seems so complicated when you take into account how many opinions there are. As I was thinking about I was reminded of the earthquake that hit Haiti almost exactly a year ago. I was lucky enough to be able to go to Haiti to volunteer after the quake hit with my father, I say I was lucky because the experience I had there impacted me so much and so profoundly and yet the impact I felt I was making was negligible. While there I worked at two orphanages and a hospital, although I love kids I had never worked in an orphanage before and it was a completely new experience for me. When I got back to school I really didn’t know how to process all that I had seen and felt. My friends can attest that I pretty much locked myself in my room for two weeks and didn’t really speak about Haiti.
While I was trying to come to terms with my experience in Port-Au-Prince I kept remembering a phrase I would hear over and over again while working at the younger kids orphanage. Pote mwen. I had used my French studies to serve as only a mediocre translator but this term was easy enough to understand. Carry me.
The orphanage I was at had children ranging in age from infancy to around 6 years old. At any point in time you would have a child tugging at your clothes or limbs, clambering to be held. Once you picked up one you would immediately have at least four others climbing over you, trying to find the safe spaces close to your body. If you sat down five or six could easily find a place to be held, all they wanted was to held, to have someone touch them affectionately. Pote mwen, pote mwen, pote mwen they repeat over and over.
So when I got back I kept hearing this phrase, and it meant so much to me I even had it written on my arm permanently. As I was thinking of this speech I was reminded of the phrase once again. Pote mwen. Carry me. Through all the complexity and discussion this day provokes, in the end maybe that is what this day really is about.
During his time Martin Luther King, Jr. became a flagship to a movement already alive in many grassroots community members. Beyond his eloquence and rhetoric, it is the message and the movement of individuals recognizing their common humanity and the need of the underserved. What this day really stands for is the need to carry those around us, and in so doing recognize we are being carried ourselves.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
First of all, I would like to thank you all for taking action today to show that this community – and Dr. King’s message – still matters to you. By volunteering your time in Tacoma at all of the various sites, I am confident that you were accomplishing two equally important things. First, you were exposing yourself to the injustices that exist very near our campus, whether they are environmental, political, or having to do with local community members. Second, you were doing something to right these injustices. Some of you cleaned Washington Park, where many of our students, faculty, and staff enjoy the running and walking paths. Some of you helped Habitat for Humanity build homes for low-income families. And I had the privilege of mulching young plants near the shore of the Sound. Our small actions may not have seemed very significant today, but I am sure that Dr. King would have been immensely proud to see us speaking up and taking action to improve what matters most to us. No, it is not 1963, and wee are not marching on Washington DC, but we are part of a larger movement of volunteers acting fervently against injustice of all kinds. We are expanding our lives to be more full and passionate by volunteering our time to local and national organizations. But, tomorrow, classes will begin and Dr. King’s message of passionate service against injustice may slip to the back of our minds. Instead, papers and exams will take precedence. I challenge you, however, to let the difference you made today inform everything that you do this semester and beyond. Choose paper topics that allow you to learn more about an injustice in this world, and find some way that you can change it. Take an hour or two each weekend to volunteer with the same organization that you worked with today. Place one of Dr. King’s inspiring quotations on your mirror to remind you of your individual power each morning. Do something. Anything, really, to make this world a more just place. If we don’t, as Dr. King said so eloquently, our lives and the lives of those we help begin to end. Thank you. I would now like to introduce G.A. Kang, a fellow Puget Sound student.