Marching to the beat on MLK: Team Chicago at COIP

By Savala on January 18, 2012 in AmeriCorps

“Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? …[The answer, is that], despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially. … [To solve the issue of equality, there must be] a revolution of values… .The whole structure of American life must be changed.” –“A Testament of Hope,” Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968

This is an uncomfortable idea to meditate on after a successful day of service!  The immediate implication is that painting a wall is not a substantial step toward equality. It is even arguable that small acts of service like painting at a community organization are a part of the problem. They do not directly challenge the structure of American life, and can undermine this mission if upheld as the ideal model of service.

These are uncomfortable ideas to ponder, but it is necessary to do so if we are to honor Dr. King’s legacy: Yes, he had a Dream. Yes, we can call him a drum major for justice. We fall by the wayside, however, when we don’t work to make the dream a reality, or only sample the beat of his drum.

King’s imperative is relevant to Team Chicago’s service-work at Community Outreach Intervention Projects (COIP). COIP (est. 1986) is an outreach initiative located on Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood that serves substance users . The services COIP provides include: street outreach; syringe exchange; population-led research projects; counseling & testing for infectious diseases associated with substance use, including HIV; drug abuse & risk reduction counseling; and a program that enhances linkages to care for HIV positive women exiting jail.

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Painting the COIP office was an encouragement to staff working in ways that promote an anti-racist, economically & socially just society. Such encouragement is vital to the justice movement. Our service was not “insufficient”. Even still, we cannot ignore that painting walls is on par with advocating for the rights of PLWHA. So, what room is there for painting walls in King’s Dream? What does a distant act of service like this mean?

If we were to discount our time on the walls, we’d pigeon-hole service into the heroic, the non-quotidian. This is not what Dr. King called for. Instead, he asked us to practice service in every day life. Note his argument from Where Do We Go from Here?:

“Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook… . … When Negroes looked for… the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared.” –”Where Do We Go from Here?”  Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

Though Dr. King specifically speaks on the years immediately after the Civil Rights Movement, his point is one not bound to this historical moment: It is not enough to do the large, made-for-TV acts of service. As service providers in the HIV field, it is not enough for us to care only about counseling and testing. We must care about the quotidian acts of service that keep the movement motivated, organized, together.

Painting walls at COIP is a show of support; a nod of affirmation. These are necessary and crucial to the continuation of the work. It is the practice needed to move from working for justice, to living for justice.

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