The Group

Participants were AmeriCorps members who serve in an urban setting.

The Program

A group of 12 AmeriCorps members were present for the third session in this series. We had pizza before diving into the discussion of "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. I began by having members share something in the piece that struck them or raised questions for them. We then discussed the significance and relevance of King’s text.

Overview

Members were asked to read this piece ahead of time. At the beginning of the session, I asked them to share something that had impacted them during the reading. Some read sections aloud; some built upon the statements of others. One individual suggested that because of her race, she was better able to understand and relate to the piece than others. This thought led to some polarization in the group, with people taking one position or another. I tried to guide the conversation toward reflecting on service activities within AmeriCorps and ensure that everyone’s voice was heard. 

A major theme we explored at some length was whether the piece is still relevant today. Most members agreed that it was. They argued that we need to be extremists for justice and against injustice; that inaction is a form of action—of maintaining the status quo. The group discussed ways in which American society is still segregated today, by class and politics as well as race. Members debated whether there is a duty, a responsibility, to help others suffering from injustice. Some said yes and felt that this responsibility was particularly strong for AmeriCorps members; others said that, simply by being AmeriCorps members, they were already vested in social change.

Next Time

In future, I would better prepare for a discussion about King’s letter, which is set at such a key moment in American history and race relations. Participants seemed uncomfortable discussing race and their perspectives of other races. I would think more carefully in advance about strategies I could use to facilitate the process. And I would focus more on themes that emerged about justice, the fight for justice, and the present-day implications of King’s writing.

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