This year, the Black Cultural Center planned a week of events to commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including a screening of Selma, a candlelight vigil hosted by the BCC, a luncheon with keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan of St. Paul’s Church in Philadelphia, and a concluding community collection in Friends Meeting House. On Monday morning, the BCC and Office of Religious and Spiritual Life co-sponsored community service project to bring school supplies to students in Chester.
Classes have not been cancelled for MLK Day in previous years. The decision to hold classes on the holiday concerned students, faculty, and staff who believed it would be impossible to adequately honor and reflect on King’s legacy while following their normal schedules. Further criticism stemmed from the fact that Haverford and Bryn Mawr have observed the federal holiday since 2008. This year was the first that Swarthmore observed the federal holiday, and marked a unique occasion where the campus community could gather and collaborate in a day of service in remembrance of King’s work.
About 28 people gathered in Upper Tarble near the beginning of Monday’s event at 8:30, with that number growing to around 40 by 8:37, despite the frigid 18 degrees and snow-frosted ground. Playing in the background was a combination of contemporary music and King’s speeches. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins, who helped organize the event, estimated a total of 65 individuals came in support of the initiative, nearly half of whom were students. This surprised the coordinators, who had received only 45 registrations in advance.
Among those in attendance were Provost Thomas Stephenson, Associate Dean of Students Nathan Miller, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Diane Anderson, Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ‘90, and Residential Communities Coordinator Karina Beras. Also present were members of the Swarthmore Men’s Basketball Team, who volunteered by bagging donated supplies.
At the conclusion of the event, many of the student, faculty, staff, and community member volunteers were treated to brunch while surplus donations were packed away. Tompkins explained that, even after the items specifically requested by various organizations were distributed, a surplus of donations remained.
Assistant Dean and Director of the Black Cultural Center Dion Lewis discussed the reasoning behind this event. He said in an email exchange, “We [the organizers] wanted to present the Swarthmore community with an opportunity to participate in Day of Service activities which have become a national common theme for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King holiday.” Working with the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility’s Cynthia Jetter, they identified various agencies in Chester which were in need of additional school supplies and prepared the morning’s agenda.
Louis Lainé ‘16 described the event as a success in community-building. “To see people together was good for me,” he said. “Like there was a little girl that I didn’t even know. I met her today and she was really cool.” During the interview, this child approached Lainé and gave him a hug. He continued to explain that seeing the abundance of individuals, such as those from environmental services, from the campus was refreshing. Lainé said that campus as a whole needs to be “more active in our community.”
The event’s success still came with some level of confusion. With roughly 20 more volunteers than expected, there was often not enough work for everyone, which created a mildly hectic atmosphere. According to Tompkins, this event was “sort of a trial run,” with the original plans set to occur in the community. Initial ideas involved transporting students outside of Swarthmore College to participate in service directly. The organizers, due to the inundation of volunteers many organizations receive on MLK Day already, decided instead to host the gathering and donation drive on campus.
Despite the confusion, those involved appeared to enjoy participating. “If we just keep doing what we did today, I think it would be a really good setup [for future years],” said Lainé. Lewis saw gravity behind the event, and elevated it to a call to action: “Dr. King’s work and legacy should not be relegated to one day of service. We should put forth energies each day to advocate for equity and defeat injustice.”
For those wishing to get involved, there will be a luncheon with speaker Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan on Wednesday in Upper Tarble from 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM, as well as a collection at the Friends Meeting House on Friday from 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM.
Naomi Caldwell, Matthew Chaffinch, Anna Garner, Sona Kumar, Eduard Saakashvili, and Arjun Vishwanath contributed reporting.