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June 2008
Volume 3, Number 6

The MLK Challenge:
A Day of Community Building at the Community College

Cassie Moore

For almost a decade after the first observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday in 1986, the third Monday in January was, for many Americans, a time for sleeping in and closed post offices. Since the 1994 passage of the King Holiday and Service Act marking the day as a national day of volunteer service, however, the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday has evolved into a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation and sharing. Instead of a day off of school and work, Americans of all different classes, colors, and creeds are asked to come together in the spirit of community, spending the day painting walls, building houses, and picking up litter.

Service learning centerMartin Luther King, Jr., Comes to Campus

At Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), the Service Learning Center decided to sponsor this national service day and provide the CPCC community a reason to get up early on their day off. Dena Shonts, Service Learning Coordinator, implemented a project first started by Appalachian State University’s Associate Director of Student Programs, Jenny Koehn. The project, “The MLK Challenge,” has become a campuswide day of service in which students sign up blindly, not knowing who they will be working with or what the project will be. The day begins early in the morning when students arrive at the campus to register and to be sorted into teams. After team assignments are made, students are given a team leader, $50 to $150 in resource money, and a project to benefit a local community partner and to be completed by the end of the day. For example, students might be assigned to a team project to plan, prepare, and serve a meal to twenty residents at a local assisted-living center. The team uses the resource money to buy necessary supplies, and might also solicit donations from local grocery stores. After planning the menu and gathering food and supplies, the team prepares the meal and serves it to the residents, and they do all this within a five-hour time frame. That’s the challenge! The MLK Challenge has become a campus-based model for institutions across North Carolina.

ChallengesChallenges for the Community College

Recognizing Appalachian State’s and CPCC’s success with the Martin Luther King, Jr., project, North Carolina Campus Compact, a coalition of 35 higher education institutions across the state, began providing colleges and universities the resources to get their campuses involved, and awarded CPCC a small grant to help support this year’s challenge. Regardless of this financial support, however, CPCC, as a two-year commuter institution, had a different set of obstacles to overcome in taking the Challenge than did its traditional residential college counterparts.

In 2003, when Central Piedmont first began the program, the Service Learning Center had only a handful of colleges to use as models, all markedly different from CPCC and all with more readily available student volunteers. Central Piedmont is a large, extremely diverse institution, where the average age for students is 33 years old. CPCC’s average student also has competing priorities such as work, school, and family, with little time for much else. The college does not have on-campus housing, and classmates rarely see each other outside the campus. CPCC and the Service Learning Center had to be strategic in adapting the program for a community college and in recruiting students to participate. 

RecruitmentRecruitment, Recruitment, Recruitment!

CPCC began by using flyers, clubs, and word-of-mouth, hoping to get enough students involved in its first annual MLK Challenge. That year, more than 50 students and faculty members showed up to help, and the Service Learning Center was assured not only that students wanted to give back, but also that they wanted to keep giving back. CPCC had become the first community college in North Carolina to sponsor the MLK Challenge.

The Service Learning Center recruited students in this collegewide community project by completing over 50 in-class orientations on six campuses across the county, in each case telling students about the importance of Dr. King and explaining the MLK Challenge. CPCC related the college’s diverse population to Dr. King’s dream of forging common ground where people in all walks of life could come together to address important community issues affecting us all. Dr. King knew that service was a great equalizer, and the Service Learning Center relayed his message to students, hoping they would be inspired to take the challenge. By the time of the 2008 MLK Challenge, more than 100 CPCC students and faculty joined teams that gave back to the community on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Keys to successKeys to Success

After hosting the challenge for four years, the Service Learning Center has begun to identify factors that make the program  successful, as well as the outcomes of these successes:

  • Each MLK Challenge participant receives a T-shirt and is fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Teams take lunch to the project site and prepare it themselves.
  • The service learning group goes to classrooms and club meetings, including the Student Government Association and Phi Theta Kappa, to spread the word about Dr. King and why giving back to the community is important.
  • Service learning faculty lead teams and provide transportation.
  • Service learning faculty have begun to offer participation in the MLK Challenge as class credit if students write or reflect on how Dr. King relates to their course.
  • The project sites are diverse in the people they serve. For the 2008 Challenge, teams went to Joshua’s Farm, a rehabilitative horse-riding center for children with disabilities; Jewish Family Services; two elementary schools; an assisted-living community; a rehabilitative day program for adults with brain injuries; and the Latin American Coalition.
  • North Carolina Campus Compact provided a small grant that CPCC extended 100 percent to the community partners, enlarging the seed money for each project.
  • Students are assigned randomly to teams, where they make new friends, meet new people, and tackle problems together. The friendships that begin on a Challenge team encourage students to come back the following year and encourage others to take part.

Generation engageAmong the strongest reasons for the MLK Challenge’s success are the opening and closing ceremonies. After students finish their morning coffee and bagels, Generation Engage, a nonpartisan, youth civic engagement initiative that connects young Americans to political leaders, begins the day with an educational and inspirational piece about Dr. King, the social issues he tackled in the 1960s, and the racism that remains today. This opening ceremony is not a lecture, but a conversation that gets young people charged and passionate about the topics being discussed. Even after students break into teams, many of them are still eager to share their views.

Core competenciesAnother high point comes at the end of the day when the teams have made their way back to campus to reflect on the experience. Students are asked to work together as a team to paint on fabric paper what the day meant to them. The Service Learning Center provides this activity as a way for students to work together and express themselves in a way other than words. And, it is fun and messy, too! After each team finishes, they share with everyone what their painting and their service means to them.

Core Competencies

CPCC is a community college, and embedded in our name is the word “community.” With this emphasis, community engagement stands as a pillar for student success. We want students to leave this college with not only good communication, math, and reading skills, but also the skills we can’t measure on a test, such as responsibility, personal growth, leadership, and teamwork skills that service can help develop and hone. Dr. King knew that by working together toward a common goal, we can achieve remarkable results: strengthening our community, empowering individuals, and building the bridges for a diverse community and campus.

Volunteer service is an important way to establish common ground where all races and classes can come together and do the same work. No one gets paid, and no one is celebrated. Working side by side, participants begin to think beyond themselves and see that we are more alike than we are different. The MLK Challenge is no longer a day where all the CPCC doors are closed; instead, the doors are open to students wishing to connect with others not only to discuss social injustice, but also to do something about it.

After four years of building success, we finally see the program building its own sustainability, with students rising as leaders to inspire others to join us on this special, very important day. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Challenge is not just another extracurricular activity; instead, it has become a standard part of the CPCC calendar. This cold day in January has become a day “on,” instead of a day off.


Cassie Moore is Assistant Service Learning Coordinator at Central Piedmont Community College, North Carolina.


Cynthia Wilson, Editor