Signs of Success: Carrying the Torch Forward
We asked Sam a few questions to understand more about what motivated and inspired him to create and lead this unique and innovative initiative.
NG: How did you think of the “Seat for Social Justice Project?”
SM: I was an AmeriCorps member for HandsOn Atlanta, serving in the office to support and coordinate community volunteer projects. Rosa Parks died in October 2005. During one of our project planning meetings, the HandsOn Atlanta team divided into teams to thing about potential project ideas. I wondered and asked if there was anything planned for Rosa Parks, but because the focus is usually on Rosa Parks, no one believed anything had. Following the meeting, I continued to think about Ms. Parks as I was feeling deeply affected by her passing, and I began to think about ways we could honor her legacy. At some point, I took a yellow note pad and started scribbling down thoughts in my mind. HandsOn Atlanta had a decorated cow in the office for this cow parade public art exposition. On the yellow pad I wrote, “ROSA PARKS-BUS SEAT-COWS ON PARADE.” After some research, that piece of paper turned into a concept paper and then a “one-pager.”
A few years have gone by and the project has now gone on to 14 cities, including New York, Boson, Orlando, and Portland. The seats drew inquiries from the Smithsonian and they were highlighted on Good Morning America. “A Seat for Social Justice” has been installed in various institutions, most notable the King Visitor's Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. As the project has grown, people have often said that I'm an artist. The truth is I have no artistic ability whatsoever, particularly in the visual arts. When I though of the project, I had no idea what was possible. For example, I did not know that paint and other materials would adhere to the seat. I was not sure about the welding and other details required to complete the project. Looking back, I think I was just inspired by a life. I still keep that yellow piece of paper.
NG: What does Social Justice mean to you? Is social justice for America only or is it “world-embracing?”
SM: Social Justice means full equality and “rightness” in society. It speaks to humanity, community and justice; what is fair or equal and what is right. My favorite quote by Dr. King is, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I think that is powerful and speaks about how injustice, no matter how small or remote, needs to be uprooted. With that thought, social justice is relevant for all times for all people, in all places. It most certainly is world-embracing and I think within the subject matter of social justice is a huge umbrella of issues from the environment to racism, education, housing, the economy, the penal system, sexism, animal rights, GLBT rights-human rights. In the world we live, social justice really touches every core part of humanity and in some respect, it is a lifetime of work. I want my life to count for social justice.
NG: Who is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to you? Why is it important for America to celebrate MLK Day as a “Day On not Off?”
SM: Martin Luther King, Jr. was and is a great man full of charisma, courage, and great conviction. His life, legacy and ideals represent the hope of humanity. He is one of my heroes. I would also say, in addition to my amazement, I also try to keep a sobering viewpoint of Dr. King and other iconic figures. After all, he was a man, he made mistakes and he did not do everything right. I try to avoid glorifying individuals, even iconic figures. I think the essence of Dr. King and the “Day of Service” is not about one mane or one person. Rather it is about every man and every person. It is important for the world to celebrate and serve with those ideals and around that legacy, not the person so to speak. However, because Dr. King so well personifies “community and brotherhood,” people can more readily rally around him and the day of service. I fully believe this is important as an entry point for service, ongoing partnerships, and deeper community impact.
NG: How do you feel AmeriCorps and/or AmeriCorps members"fit" with social justice? Are there things AmeriCorps members and Alums can do everyday to address social justice?
SM: I understand the heart of AmeriCorps as, “Get things done.” Social Justice is not just a concept or ideal; it involves action. AmeriCorps members and alums can take action regularly through service and other civic engagement opportunities to address social justice issues. As I stated before, there are a myriad of issues and AmeriCorps members and alums should try to be sensitive to the needs around them and allow those needs to affect them. Become affected! I know for me sometimes, sensitivity requires effort and cultivation. Some of my sensitivity comes by listening to others and then doing something. Once affected by something, members and alums alike will find innovative ways to address social justice. National service really helps propel people along the spectrum of service and community involvement and by participating in service projects and programs. It eventually inspires people to do something about the issues that affect the needs of others.
NG: Do you feel we still have powerful leaders today or has that era passed? What about "collective power or leadership?"
SM: I think we do have powerful leaders today. Leadership is best measures by influence. We live in a less inspired time. I think most folks feel that life is pretty much okay for them and others. Leaders shine during hardship and today hardship is more subtle. Society has progressed so much that matters unaddressed seem to be “no big deal.” I think collective power and leadership is the real leadership; this is where the real work happens and change happens.
NG: I'm curious about your thought on people who serve behind the scenes. Take Claudette Colvin for example. Why is it important for people to know her and other behind such powerful movements in our world?
SM: This is a great question, which connects to the prior one. Personally and professionally, I find if meaningful to uncover the people you served behind the scenes. For me it is like finding something of great values passed over. Often times, knowing about these people enriches ones understanding of service and movements and the process of change. That understanding is important as we hope and strive for change today. I planned and researched the “Seat for Social Justice” project and learned so much about history and the civil rights movement that I did not learn (or retain) growing up. One thing I learned was about a teenager named Claudette Colvin. At fifteen, she refused to give up her bus seat 9 months earlier than Rosa Parks and on the exact same bus line!!! However, although the NAACP was looking for a test case, the events surrounding her arrest and some personal history and circumstances, the NAACP found Rosa Parks, a well-known woman in the community. Rosa Parks is now hearld as “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Dr. King and others rallied behind her act towards starting the Montgomery Bus Boycott and gave her credit to Ms. Parks for her bravery. Clearly, Claudette Colvin was an unsung heroine of the era. Although, Ms. Parks speaks of her, she has no schools named after her, no foundations or institutions in her name, no streets; however she remains a real heroine. Ms. Colvin did go on to be a witness for the Browder v. Gayle case that desegregated buses. I had the opportunity to meet her last year during a “Seat for Social Justice” event in Buffalo, New York. As I sat and talked with her, it was if I was spending time with any of the other iconic and great people of the civil rights movement. I think I learned from her story that there are strategies to movements. Everyday people can make a difference in society; you never know the people around you and you cannot judge one person's impact or significance based on acclaim.
Since 2005, the project has been accessible to cities all over the country and has even found itself adapted to other kinds of seats. Sam reminds us that everyday people can, and will surprise us. Look at the needs around you. The Corporation for National and Community Service is currently promoting and advocating for service opportunities and rights of Baby Boomers and AmeriCorps members with disabilities. Often specific needs remain unrecognized in your workplace, your service site, and in your community. As Sam advised, take a look around you and allow yourself to become affect by the needs and issues affecting others and perhaps you will discover ways to act and serve, inspired by those who you serve beside and those who have come before you. Together…..alone…you can be a leader.
You can find more information about conducting “A Seat for Social Justice” by visiting: http://www.handsonnetwork.org/vca/images/stories/project%20recipes.pdf
. To learn more about the project or to see images search on the internet for, “A Seat for Social Justice,” or search, http://www.youtube.com/