Coming together for a day of service and activism

Written by Aarian Marshall

Coming together for a day of service and activism
Showing a spirit of togetherness, more than 1,100 MIT community members on Tuesday joined forces for good causes — by rolling up their sleeves for numerous local community service projects or participating in an extensive civic-engagement program on campus.
Throughout the day, about 125 faculty, students, and staff spread out across 16 nonprofits in Cambridge and Boston, as part of the second annual Together in Service Day, organized by the Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center, Community Giving at MIT, and the Office of Government and Community Relations. Several MIT offices and departments also partnered with nonprofits on collection drives for food, and school and art supplies.
“Together in Service gives the MIT community the opportunity to see some of the vital work that Cambridge and Boston-area nonprofits are doing, and to make a personal contribution to their efforts,” said Kate Trimble, co-chair of Together in Service Day and senior director of the PKG Public Service Center. “Engaging with pressing social issues, learning from local experts, helping our neighbors in need — these are really expressions of MIT’s mission to work for the ‘betterment of humankind.’”
Together in Service organizers also used the day to initiate a fundraiser for a new all-purpose van for the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, a nonprofit organization in Cambridge — and frequent volunteer spot for MIT students — that provides a free computer lab and computer classes, a food pantry, meeting rooms for public activities, and after-school services and summer camp for children.
Back on campus, the Day of Engagement, Day of Action — organized by a group of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and postdocs from all five MIT schools — drew about 1,000 MIT community members to nearly 80 activity sessions held across campus, which focused on major political, economic, and social challenges. Sessions included lectures, panels, workshops, poster presentations, film showings, poetry readings, music performances, and food-preparation tables, among other activities.
In addition to introducing participants to diverse perspectives in hopes of revealing common ground, the program also aimed to “promote a norm” of civic engagement among the MIT community, said co-organizer Roger Levy, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences.
“Being engaged and taking action is about persistent, sustained involvement, integrating it as part of your life,” he said. “Being a member of a university is not just about staying inside and working on problems. MIT’s mission is also about bringing knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges, and that’s [at] the heart of civic engagement.”
Together in service
The Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House was one location where several groups of MIT students and staff took separate shifts throughout the day, making breakfast for some of the house’s regular visitors, and cleaning and organizing rooms.
“MIT cares deeply about its host communities,” said Sarah Gallop, co-chair of Together in Service Day and co-director of the Office of Government and Community Relations. “While we partner year-round with local agencies that support residents, it’s very meaningful for us to roll up our sleeves as one community on behalf of our neighbors.”
Heidi Bluming, senior director of programs at the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, said Together in Service Day provides valuable volunteers who, in turn, can learn about the people and issues in their own community. “It’s community engagement,” Bluming said. “Understanding all the different facets of what this community has to offer, and what MIT can give too. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Alexis Cuellar, a senior in biological engineering, was one of three Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers who spent the afternoon cleaning the house’s food pantry. Volunteering helps students glimpse life beyond their dorm rooms and classes, he said. “At MIT, students are very focused on their studies and what they’re trying to accomplish for their own lives. But it helps to realize there are other people in need,” he said while scrubbing down the lid of a freezer. “Part of MIT’s mission is helping better mankind.”
A few miles away, at the John M. Tobin Montessori School in Cambridge, students and staff spent a chilly morning and afternoon working outside for CitySprouts, a program that plants gardens at elementary schools and creates curricula around agriculture, food, nutrition, and the environment. Among other projects, the students replaced wooden borders around small gardens, moved vegetation, and made dozens of stakes children can place in the dirt to label their crops.   
Greg Beach, garden coordinator for CitySprouts, said MIT’s program provided a much-needed boost in productivity for the day. “Right now, we’re replacing three garden beds, and it’s just something that wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have support from organizations like MIT,” said Beach, about an hour into the volunteer shift.
Economics undergraduate student Olivia Zhao used the CitySprouts volunteer opportunity to get some fresh air while contributing to a good cause. “We used to garden a lot back home, so it’s good to get back to it,” she said. “Whenever you do anything public service-related, there’s a personal value to it, and it’s also really nice to explore the community we live in.”
The other Boston and Cambridge volunteer locations were CASPAR, Cambridge Community Television, Cambridge Science Festival, Charles River Conservancy, Rosie’s Place, Women’s Lunch Place, People Making a Difference, Esplanade Association, ReVision Urban Farm, The Food Project, Room to Grow, Community Servings, Greater Boston Food Bank, Fresh Pond Reservation, and InnerCity Weightlifting.
Together in action
On MIT’s campus, signs posted all over halls and on doors directed an estimated 1,000 attendees to the dizzying array of sessions for the MIT Day of Engagement, Day of Action. Sessions were organized around four themes: self-awareness, content knowledge, skill building, and taking action.
Some panels and talks brought in MIT experts to discuss social and political issues, including case studies in illiberal democracies, the economics of Brexit, the future of U.S. health care policy, dilemmas surrounding nuclear weaponry, and strategies for improving the quality of jobs.
Professors and students from local universities — including Boston University, Harvard Law School, and Northeastern University — government legislators, and representatives from various local organizations were also on hand to discuss such topics as inequality in federal housing policies, Cambridge as a sanctuary city, perspectives on the global refugee crisis, lessons in nonviolent resistance, securing progressive urban agendas, and promoting neighborhood racial integration.
Speaking in a panel in Building 32-123 about the benefits of introducing a carbon tax in Massachusetts was energy economist Chris Knittel, the George P. Shultz Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
In his talk, Knittel made three key points: Carbon taxes are the most efficient way to cut emissions; each extra ton of atmospheric carbon emissions causes about $40 in global damages; and carbon taxes have been embraced by the government and public elsewhere, most notably in British Columbia since 2008. “We need [a carbon tax]. We can measure how high it should be, and we have good experience and actual evidence that it works,” he said.
A number of workshops gave attendees the chance to discuss recent acts of violence and LGBTQ issues, learn strategies to stop being a “bystander” during tough situations (such as when a friend or coworker makes a sexist joke, or a supervisor publically berates an employee), make “zines” about personal and political issues, and organize a multimedia protest party.
In Building 66, people gathered in a classroom to learn about, sign up for, and make signs for the People’s Climate March in Washington on April 29.
Event co-organizer Josué Lopez, a PhD student in physics and a member of Fossil Free MIT, said the workshop demonstrated that marches can bring diverse groups of people together to impact government and present solidarity around an issue. Lopez marched in the first People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014.
“[Marching] really shows you the power of how communities can move forward agendas and call for action,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to engage with the MIT community and Cambridge community as a whole — to demonstrate that, and to show how to do it in a peaceful manner that engages different communities.”
Apart from talks, workshops, and panels, there were also world music performances, poetry readings, and literature discussions centered on thinking positively, strengthening communities, and protest. In the Stata Student Center, where food and drink were provided free for attendees, various activities — such as an “Ask a Philosopher” booth, and poster presentations and demonstrations of MIT’s sustainability and climate research — remained open for several hours during the day. For a few hours in the afternoon, attendees also participated in a data rescue session to help back up at-risk federal data resources for the public.
The broad and diverse agenda aimed to encourage people not just to take action but to take action together, Levy said. “In today’s political climate, people in the community may be asking, ‘What can I do?’ The effect I hope we have is turning that question into ‘What can we do together?’” he said.

Topics: Special events and guest speakers, Volunteering, outreach, public service, Community, cambridge, Cambridge, Boston and region, Students, Student life, Faculty, Staff, Public Service Center (PSC)

Local volunteer projects and an extensive civic-engagement program draw more than 1,100 MIT community members.


About the author

Aarian Marshall