On January 13, 2023, the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), the Anderson Freeman Center, and the Scott Center collaborated to create Food and Fellowship: A Celebration of MLK Jr’s Legacy. The event was an interactive dinner that focused on MLK Jr’s legacy, open to both on-campus and community wide participants and hosted by Justice Elijah, AmeriCorps VISTA with the CCE, and keynote speaker Esther Charlestin.
As an Americorps member, we are responsible for organizing an event around MLK Jr and his legacy for MLK Jr. Day of Service. The celebration of MLK Jr. and his legacy is a prominent memory from my upbringing in southern Georgia. So, when I was tasked with curating a service related project– I wanted the event to feel like home. I wanted folx to be well fed, feel heard, and to learn something. Thus structuring an interactive dinner, a social media campaign and centering the black experience. Highlighting the atrocities and the fight black/brown people still having to face with an attitude described by Esther (the keynote speaker) as “YET, WE DID IT ANYWAY”.
To help with planning this event, the CCE hired two student interns to help promote the event and provide day-of logistical support: Gabby Chalker ‘25 and Samimah Naiemi ‘26. We asked them to provide their reflections helping to support the event while also participating in discussion with other campus and community members.
-Justice Elijah, CCE AmeriCorps VISTA member 22-23
What were your first impressions and/or your experience attending the event as a participant after helping to plan it?
As a J-term community service intern for Middlebury’s Center for Community Engagement, I had the opportunity to take part in Food and Fellowship: A Celebration of MLK Jr’s Legacy. I worked with Justice and Shannon at the CCE to assist them with any logistics in the planning of this event, which served to remind us of all of the work that has been done and that still needs to be done regarding racial justice in this country.
In preparation for this event, I researched civil rights leaders less popular than MLK Jr and posted them on CCE’s social media to educate students/community members about important historical figures. I also gathered marketing materials about the CCE to share with guests at the event and curated a donation list of Black-owned businesses in Vermont to put in our program, including food, hair stylists, nonprofits, retail stores, farms/agriculture, and civil rights/BIPOC affinity groups. Further, I helped develop reflection questions for after the keynote speaker’s address, gathered children’s books and games centered around diversity and racial justice for the children’s room, and developed the event program to be put at each attendee’s seat. Helping in this planning definitely helped me to appreciate the small details, like the time that went into the creation of the program, the coordination of catering such incredible food, all of the decorations, and the seating/name cards. If I hadn’t been involved in the planning process I probably would not have taken so much time to really appreciate these small additions and reflect on the effort (and usually collaboration) required for each.
As a J-term Community Service intern, I worked with the Middlebury`s Center for Community Engagement (CCE) that provided me with an opportunity to be part of Food and Fellowship: A Celebration of MLK Jr’s Legacy. I worked with Shannon and Justice in helping them with planning this event.
Attending the MLK event was my first experience [with this holiday]. As an international student from Afghanistan, I learned about the importance of celebrating this day for the first time. The MLK dinner event played an important role in fighting social and racial injustice by bringing people in the community together to remind them about the existing social and racial injustice. Speakers in this event talked about how they fought for their rights against social and racial injustice and they reminded us that we can all fight it by coming together and discussing it. The MLK dinner provided an opportunity to discuss ways on how to reduce social and racial injustice.
I had not worked on planning a lot of events, so I did not know how much work and effort
making an event requires. In helping plan the MLK dinner event, I learned how to get different tasks done such as making invitations, drafting emails, and making RSVP forms. I learned that a lot of planning, communications and work needs to be done in order to make an event happen. I would not realize this by only attending the event. I felt very accomplished to see the event that I was working on with my team brought so many people together. I was inspired by a lot of people at the event, and I felt honored to be part of the planning of such an event.
What was your favorite part of the event planning process?
I feel like I learned most from creating the social media posts about other civil leaders aside from MLK throughout the week. Even if I was familiar with some figures already, doing a deeper dive into their upbringing, education, personal lives, etc. revealed a lot to me and provided me with more context about their work. This really shaped my understanding of civil rights leadership– what motivates/cultivates it, the different paths each took to leadership, the barriers that persisted even after success, how much community and teamwork was required to successfully create change.
I also loved discussions with the team (Justice, Shannon, Samimah) because I learned a lot about event planning logistics, as well as navigating discussions about race in Vermont – from a reflective and an administrative standpoint. The team really cultivated a community so quickly (in a matter of 1 week) and in that short time I felt I already had a support system that was extremely helpful in navigating the process of event planning, especially an event on a complex and important topic. This was important to me because I had others to look up to in this process of event planning I was unfamiliar with. Instead of just checking tasks off a to-do list, I was given genuine feedback on each assignment and was able to have honest conversations about pros/cons of different approaches to what was and wasn’t included in the event and about solutions as problems arose.
During planning the event, I learned even more than just attending it. It helped me learn how to plan an event, how to work with a team, and how to get tasks done on time. My favorite part of the planning process was working with the team. The team was supportive and they helped me find ways to [accomplish my work]. Working with them closely rather than just checking the task off from the list helped me feel more engaged with the work and the team. It was a feeling of community and collaboration.
Where did you see community building at the MLK Day event?
I was surprised to see so many Middlebury students there and excited to see several community members’ faces who I did not recognize. It made me feel more connected to the wider community, reminding me that it is not just students or our generation that is passionate about these issues. This made me feel more connected to Vermont as a place where justice and civil rights is a shared goal/virtue. The number of people there made me excited at the various stakeholders who were there to learn about, participate in, and celebrate MLK’s legacy. I also think that the different colored seating tags [to vary campus and community members at each table] and the reflection questions really facilitated dialogue and new connections amongst participants.
The speaker, Esther Charlestin, was also very impactful in the energy that she created which everyone in the room felt. Her vulnerability in sharing her experience as a Black woman in Vermont set the tone for others to share in this open space. It was clear that each person in the room could resonate with at least one of her messages/statements. I feel this really built a community of people willing to listen, learn, and act from/with each other.
During the event I met so many people from different races, different ages and backgrounds- students, faculty, community partners, and so on. I made a good network with a lot of good people from Middlebury and outside of Middlebury’s circle. I found it very valuable that this event really brought so many people together to share about their experiences and hear about others. I felt very connected to the community outside the Middlebury College for the first time because many of us could relate to social and racial injustice existing in society. When the speaker as a Black woman shared her story of facing racial injustice, many of us in the event could relate to her story. This really brought people in the community together which reminded them that we all relate to painful experiences of each other that were caused by racial injustice.
What was your biggest learning moment being part of this event (either through the planning process or during the event itself)?
Collaboration is crucial to the facilitation of an event which truly fosters community engagement and collective learning, reflection, and action. This collaboration was fostered through experiential learning about community engagement and event planning via my work with more experienced staff members to learn about the community stakeholders and diverse perspectives that must be represented in justice-oriented events.
Everyone in the team had a role and a voice. Every task was done with good communication and collaboration among the team. I learned that we learn more when we work together. The good result of the team work was what made this event happen and seeing this was the biggest learning experience.
Throughout the planning, Shannon and Justice were very nice and supportive. This made me feel more comfortable with them. When I had a moment where I did not know what to do, I had the courage to ask them instead of panicking. This helped me feel more motivated to get the task done as well as I felt more confident.