Civic News
Culture / DEI / Good Works / Workplace culture

MLK Day 2021 means virtual programming and socially distant community service

Think Company is conducting virtual mock interviews with Hopeworks youth, for instance. Here are some ideas for your own Martin Luther King Jr. Day volunteering.

Code for Philly and Think Company working on Project Cognoma, an open source project to better analyze cancer data, on MLK Day 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is generally seen as a day to honor the civil rights leader’s legacy via community service. In a year when the pandemic and social distancing guidelines change what service typically looks like, local tech leaders have gotten creative in helping their employees show up in new — and safe — ways.

Think Company CEO Russ Starke said the design firm usually offers two mandatory volunteer days each year, and in the past, employees have been encouraged to use one of those days to serve on MLK Day. Think Company has also hosted in-office volunteer projects on the day, such as a civic tech hackathon with Code for Philly in 2017.

MLK Day will be different this year because for the first time, it will be designated an official company holiday, with a stronger expectation that employees use their time off for service. (In June 2020, Juneteenth was also named a company holiday for the first time.) The decision to make MLK Day a holiday felt necessary after a tumultuous 2020 full of social unrest that has spilled over into 2021, Starke said.

Starke credited Think Company senior experience designer Keith Rich and senior UX designer Chels Jones with connecting the company to Hopeworks, the Camden nonprofit that aims to increase tech equity for young people of color. Think Company employees and Hopeworks participants will meet virtually for mock interviews, portfolio reviews and open-ended conversations about their work and how the young people can get involved in the tech industry. The hope is that this will create relationships that go beyond MLK Day.

“We know African American and other groups are underrepresented in our field,” Starke said. “You can throw up your hands and say it’s a problem or be involved with fixing that over time. We’re actively trying to bridge the gap for people of all backgrounds. If we want to change the face of our industry, it’s access, creating relationships and following up for folks.”

The ethos of service has always been at the core of project-based charter school YouthBuild Philly’s work. Executive Director Scott Emerick said that during a non-pandemic year, YouthBuild staff and students would spend time, for instance, cleaning up another local school.

Emerich believes that community building can still happen in virtual spaces, and that while MLK Day service might look more complicated this year, socially distant in-person events like the clean-up event hosted by State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and sanitation worker Terrill Haigler (aka @yafavtrashman) can still provide people with ways to directly serve their community.

YouthBuild has been doing anti-racism work with its students for almost five years, Emerich said, which has become even more important after recent events like summer 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. To help staff and students find service projects, YouthBuild created a comprehensive list of ways they could serve. One option it’s suggesting is the Community College of Philadelphia’s virtual conversation and streaming of the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” part of the college’s Enough Is Enough series on how CCP is addressing inequalities. Other suggestions include writing letters of support to local healthcare workers and attending a virtual youth career fair.

For Emerich, coupling service projects with lessons on systemic injustice makes for a more comprehensive strategy for improving society.

“I hope people are starting to make connections between why service is important and underlying social conditions in society,” he said.

Life Science Cares Philadelphia Executive Director Peter Wolf said the nonprofit, with a year-round mission to connect local life science professionals to poverty-fighting volunteer opportunities, has adapted its typical MLK Day activities to the pandemic by sharing virtual opportunities. After volunteering with partner orgs like Cradles To Crayons, participants are encouraged to share pictures of their work online.

“I think it’s important that employees of life science companies are staying connected with the community,” he said. “That’s really what we’ve been trying to do. We hope they still find the information on what’s going on in the community and they can find ways to give back. We hear from life science companies a lot that they’ve been disconnected from community.”

Wolf said another way people can give back virtually is by fulfilling nonprofits’ Amazon wish lists. In the past, Life Science Cares has shared presentations from nonprofits with life science companies’ employees about reasons for the items on the wish lists, which helps those employees understand why the nonprofits’ work is so needed.

And company leaders, as make your own plans for this day of service or the upcoming Black History Month, consider this advice from Delaware high school students, as compiled by Delaware reporter Holly Quinn: Center Black empowerment, not trauma, and don’t single out Black employees to talk about their experiences — in any environment, but especially in a predominantly white one. Check out more advice here.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Think Company / Hopeworks / Youthbuild Philadelphia Charter School

Before you go...

Please consider supporting to keep our independent journalism strong. Unlike most business-focused media outlets, we don’t have a paywall. Instead, we count on your personal and organizational support.

3 ways to support our work:
  • Contribute to the Journalism Fund. Charitable giving ensures our information remains free and accessible for residents to discover workforce programs and entrepreneurship pathways. This includes philanthropic grants and individual tax-deductible donations from readers like you.
  • Use our Preferred Partners. Our directory of vetted providers offers high-quality recommendations for services our readers need, and each referral supports our journalism.
  • Use our services. If you need entrepreneurs and tech leaders to buy your services, are seeking technologists to hire or want more professionals to know about your ecosystem, has the biggest and most engaged audience in the mid-Atlantic. We help companies tell their stories and answer big questions to meet and serve our community.
The journalism fund Preferred partners Our services

Join our growing Slack community

Join 5,000 tech professionals and entrepreneurs in our community Slack today!


Philly startup Burro aims to revolutionize farming with robots

Philly is ranked one of the world’s best places to found a startup, climbing to No. 25 globally

Ghost Robotics is landing a $240M exit, dodging months of protests over military uses

As a returning citizen, she experienced tech overload. Now she’s fighting to end the digital divide

Technically Media