Dr. King has been on my mind lately. January is fast approaching as is the annual MLK day of service and holiday. I was reading about his life, looking for a deeper perspective on his views and beliefs (past the typical yet profound “I have a dream” speech that we all learn about in grade school). I was reading some of his speeches and he said,
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
This thought really resonates with the idea of service and activism. It is important to offer direct help to those who need it; to those marginalized by a system. We cannot let them suffer and providing that help is a necessary service and human right that needs to be provided, either by the government or non-profits and third parties. However, it is not enough to just give these services. While engaged in our work, we must reflect on why these marginalized people are in the positions they’re in. Why do we have a system that systematically puts people in this place? As King argues, true compassion is helping the beggar, but also understanding why he’s begging. If we cannot understand it, we cannot challenge it, and if we do not challenge it, our systems will never change and the beggar will continue to beg.
This cycle is a crucial one to understand when trying to do good in this world. We need to continue doing the work we’re doing: helping kids learn to read, get into college, get access to quality health care, prepare them for kindergarten. These are all imperative duties in the great challenge of trying to achieve equality. But along side this work, we must challenge the system we all live and work in. Why do I have some privileges and others do not? How can we create systemic change to help all marginalized people in the long run? How can we collaboratively and collectively work towards the common goal of ending poverty?
These are not easy questions to answer. Some may argue they cannot be answered at all; at least not right now. But if we work together, focus on the relationships–both between people and institutions–and constantly reflect on the work we’re doing in relation to the bigger picture, we will be that much closer to actually changing the system, and those marginalized by it, for the better.