While many shops, schools, and banks closed the third Monday of January in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Concord Academy community instead gathered together, honoring a long-standing school-wide tradition of taking the day off from classes as an opportunity for a day on. This year, CA’s Office of Community & Equity—helmed by Co-Dirrectors Vicky Orozco and Alex Holmes—opted for a change from the typical programming of the day, a shift that highlighted the importance of hands-on service; a means of learning by doing that embraces MLK’s work relating to reducing socio-economic inequality.

Previously, MLK day at CA has been composed of a keynote speaker, workshops and affinity spaces, and a closing all-community synthesis. Each element was designed to address MLK’s legacy and ideals in some capacity. There was one recurring piece of feedback that educated a shift away from this schedule; as Alex Holmes put it, “Historically, looking through the feedback forms that we send out every year, there was this tension of black and brown students doing most of the heavy lifting to educate the rest of the community—on a federal holiday.” This common sentiment or the racially disparate MLK day experience at CA catalyzed the shift to a different model.

Following opening remarks, the student body split by grade level. The morning consisted of three main activities: ninth and twelfth-grade students working on an open letter to the community, eleventh-graders exploring Boston and the Black Freedom Trail, and tenth-graders engaging in local community service. The open letter to the community seemed to be so open to the point that, even after division into smaller mixed-grade level focus groups, students struggled to synthesize qualms, let alone calls for action, into a letter. Eleventh graders reportedly had fun on their field trip, and the thought of walking the Black Freedom Trail, visiting Boston’s Black History Museum, and the newly unveiled Embrace statue of MLK in the Boston Common seems pertinent in concept. However, the material addressed at each stop of the trail was merely a short blurb from the National Park Service website. The museum was never entered due to a communication failure on the museum's part, and after the short tour, each student was given, by the school, a $20 stipend for lunch or whatever they wished during their roughly two hours spent at Faneuil Hall. So given these shortcomings, how is MLK Day moving in the right direction? Because of the tenth grade’s community service work.

Divided into 5 Groups, tenth graders engaged in a couple of hours of local community service. Some spent the morning in the Ransom Room, packing, sorting, and measuring out 10,000 meals for Devens, MA-based food pantry, Loaves & Fishes. Others took care of faculty children who had the day off from school for the holiday, while another group aided the Dining Services team with cleaning projects in the Stu-Fac. Yet another group spent the morning at the Concord Museum decorating and packing lunch bags for Open Table of Maynard, MA. The final group was dispersed around the town of Concord, partnered with Needham, MA-based Hope & Comfort, to collect essential hygiene items for the roughly 2,200,000 people in Massachusetts. Many struggle to secure such items, notably because they are not covered by SNAP Benefits, formerly known as food stamps.

After the morning’s activities and lunch, the sophomores convened to reflect on their work from just a few hours prior. In talking amongst the group of those who spent the morning soliciting donations from strangers, in sub-freezing conditions, spirits were high. Not only was there a sense of team success stemming from the quantifiable impact the work had had—hundreds of hygiene items collected in just a few hours—but many felt they had learned a lot in standing outside of local businesses soliciting donations of hygiene products, refining pitches on their feet, extending grace to strangers who did not always give them the time of day, and then immediately and courageously pitching the next stranger. This work was done alongside peers who too were learning and struggling with the same challenges endemic to customer-service-adjacent work when dealing with privileged people: disinterest and rudeness. Crowdsourced aspirations for the day were central to the opening remarks: thinking deeply about hard topics, expressing courage, and learning with peers. Many of the community service opportunities, coupled with follow-up group reflection, offered chances to fulfill all of these aspirations. Furthermore, in answering MLK’s famed call to service, the student’s horizons broadened a little beyond the CA Bubble.

Problems appeared with the morning of service when convening as a larger grade-wide group, with some questioning the very concept of mandatory community service, arguing that the essence of community service should be a personal drive to help others. Regardless of one’s belief surrounding the ethical merit of forced community service, the results are undeniable. Not only could the class identify the impact of the service on themselves, but the impact on the broader Massachusetts community as well.

Admittedly, those who participated in kitchen-duty-like community service and childcare may have had slightly different takeaways. I am by all means a believer in kitchen duty, however, the internal community service opportunities may not have pushed students beyond the CA Bubble in the same capacity, nor contributed to aiding socioeconomic mobility, in the vein of MLK, as other service efforts may have. The very need for childcare is a product of confining this community service to a mere day and a national holiday at that. Furthermore, many tenth graders expressed a desire to have the chance to familiarize themselves with the organizations they were working with, increasing their investment and therefore efficiency in the service process. Even with the kinks not yet completely worked out, the programmatic shift towards service learning is a good one, and the potential for this shift to continue—possibly beyond the confines of MLK day—is promising. Though growing pains are inevitable, so too is our ability to adapt and evolve our means of learning, especially in such circumstances where we can greatly serve others in our community, and beyond.