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From a National Day of Service to the Promise of Citizen Power

It was a Martin Luther King Day like none other! Via videos, both Barack and Michelle Obama movingly called us to get out and make it a National Day of Service. I was thrilled, hearing of millions of Americans connecting in common purpose — many, for the first time. But I sense a surprising misfit between this call for “service” and the Obamas’ own work empowering communities, as well as what our hurting nation most needs.

Might this be the perfect moment to reflect on “service”?

My own hesitation about the service frame is simple: If I serve, someone else is being served. If I serve, I act, but the other — the beneficiary — does not. Making ourselves servants, we might also ignore our own legitimate needs as well as be tempted to imagine we already know what others’ needs are. In any case “service” seems to create two classes: the givers and the receivers.

And that’s a big problem. Doesn’t this dichotomy help blind us to the reality of the human condition that Martin Luther King, Jr. called us to see? In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

”The strong communities we need in order to rebuild our nation, and our own lives, arise, I believe, only as we focus on Dr. King’s “network of mutuality.”

Through this lens, we realize that in serving others we serve ourselves. And that’s good: all self-interest is relational. A study of over three thousand people found a “helpers’ high,” with fully 95 percent of volunteers reporting they feel better emotionally and physically — with more energy and serenity — after helping others.

But these rewards may be the thinnest layer of our “receiving.” For through the lens of “networks of mutuality,” we realize that the quality of our lives depends on the liberation of talents* of all other members of our communities. Just think for a moment of the doctors, teachers, and scientists lost to America today because almost a fifth of our children are growing in life-stunting poverty. A recent study found that childhood poverty costs our country yearly about $500 billion; and dollars capture but a fraction of the real value of which we’re robbing ourselves.