MLK Service Day Founder Reflects on its History

Todd Bernstein holds his 3-year-old daughter Alexa as he speaks at this year’s MLK Day of Service opening ceremony. | Photos provided

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Todd Bernstein attended an assembly at his school.

“I remember that following morning a special assembly that we had, all coming together with grief,” recalled Bernstein, who was then a sixth-grader at Greene Street Friends School. “I remember the impact it had on me then, at a Quaker school, which holds building a sense of community and social justice as a tenet of its mission.”

Bernstein has since spent much of his adult life working to preserve Dr. King’s legacy with the MLK Day of Service he started 23 years ago.

The message of tikkun olam from his upbringing inspired Bernstein, who works as the president of Global Citizen, where he builds coalitions between communities through volunteering. He was also moved by a service trip his 10th-grade class went on to help clean up after Hurricane Agnes in 1972, when he saw people from different backgrounds coming together to do tasks like digging up mud.

“That had a transformational impact on me, realizing that, in fact, you can make a difference,” Bernstein said. “But collectively, bringing folks together, uniting, you could do so much more.”

A few years after the first MLK Day in 1986, Bernstein had a life-changing conversation with Harris Wofford, with whom he worked at the time. Wofford, then the Pennsylvania secretary of the Departmentof Labor & Industry, knew King personally.

“We were talking late one night, and talking about how people had fought and campaigned and struggled for recognition of Dr. King as a national holiday,” Bernstein said. “Two years later, it was ironic that for many, it was turning into just another day off.”

The two teamed up with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to recognize the national holiday honoring King as a “day of service.” Wofford, then a U.S. senator, and Lewis co-authored the legislation and, later that year, President Bill Clinton signed it.

Wofford lost his re-election bid in 1994, so when January 1995 rolled around, not a lot had gotten done to push the MLK Day of Service forward. That motivated Bernstein to make sure the day happened again.

Students from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy participate in the MLK Day of Service at Girard College.

On Jan. 15, 1996, the MLK Day of Service began in Greater Philadelphia. A week before, a huge snowstorm struck the city, so much of the volunteering that day centered around snow removal. The MLK Day of Service also partnered with Habitat for Humanity to provide service projects for volunteers.

“We had 1,000 volunteers,” Bernstein recalled, “mostly Philadelphia public school students and AmeriCorp national service members.”

The following year, the MLK Day of Service expanded beyond the Philadelphia area. This year, the day of service grew to 150,000 volunteers, who worked on about 1,800 projects throughout the region.

Bernstein said he isn’t that surprised by the day’s growth.

“Philadelphia has such a rich tradition of civic engagement, from the first volunteer fire department to the first public library,” said Bernstein, a 10th-generation Philadelphian whose ancestors helped found Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1740. “There’s just been a foundation of that kind of involvement in the city.”

Bernstein, who has worked for the ADL and the Jewish Community Relations Council, said his main work is in communities of color. He has a passion for bringing different kinds of people together and an interest in developing relations between the Jewish community and communities of color.

One MLK Day project Bernstein noted was a joint project between students at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and the Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy. This joint service project started after 9/11 as an act of solidarity against the resulting violence on people perceived to be Muslim.

This year, the students went to Girard College, where 5,000 volunteers participated in more than 100 service projects in the region’s largest MLK Day of Service event. There, the students broke up into groups and participated in some of the projects, such as an African drum circle, where they had the chance to share music from their cultures.

“It’s eye-opening,” said Rabbi Will Keller, director of Jewish life at Barrack. “We hear about other communities all the time, but how often do you get the opportunity to have your hand held by someone who’s your peer and showing you their perspective?”

As for Bernstein, he also spent MLK Day this year at Girard College, where he led volunteers in sorting and packing food and constructing grow light stands as part of a special focus this year on food justice to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s Poor People Campaign.

“Dr. King was an enemy of apathy and a champion of action 365 days of the year,” Bernstein said. “It’s really not good enough to just get out one day and expect to really create fundamental change. That has to be an ongoing commitment throughout the year. 

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