Embracing Tough Conversations on MLK Day

I have more MLK Weekend volunteering t-shirts than I know what to do with. In middle school and high school, I would meet up with a handful of students from my school, and a local Muslim school. We would sit around, talk, and learn from each other, and of course–get a free t-shirt. In many ways, those were the first times that I was able to engage with my privilege, and understand that not everyone has it as easy as I did as a teen. I remember a chaperone from the Muslim community telling us about the slurs and names they they were called on their own streets.

Then we made some sandwiches and went home. I’ve realized that it was a good start, but definitely not enough.

We need to regularly have difficult conversations about race, privilege, and inequality–not just once a year, and not just when it is convenient. When I help those in need sign up for SNAP benefits (food stamps), they are struggling with oppression every day. When I work with a client at the food pantry to pick out what food is best and most appropriate for their family, they are fighting against the political, social, and economic forces that leave ⅓ of all NYC families unable to afford the food that they need to feed themselves.

Dr. King Jr. said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Let’s devote a little bit more of our time to have some of those same conversations. A little bit more time to learn about the burdens of those who are by the system, who are also our neighbors. A little bit more time to understand what it might feel like to not be able to provide food for your family.

How can we be better allies in this battle?

We could start by listening to our leaders who have some experience. On MLK Day Weekend, Repair The World hosts many volunteer projects with our community partners to address the needs of our community members across the country. You can volunteer to ease the immediate needs of the most vulnerable in our communities, and also work towards changing the systemic and cultural problems in our society that are the means to long term change.

I want us to start off the year by starting to make a difference, in our own lives, by having conversations that help us to change our behaviors, our actions, and our beliefs. Additionally, we can make a difference in the lives of those around us by volunteering with and alongside underserved communities. With our many hands, we can start to lighten the burden that society casts on our neighbors and friends. With our many voices, we can break the silence on the issues that matter.

Sam Sittenfield is a fellow with Repair the World New York.