BUFFALO-On February 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the congregation inside Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and served up an unconventional guide to achieving greatness, one void of the televised publicity, printed notoriety or Tweeted updates that have come to define today's perceived "stars."
Within that day's influential speech, entitled The Drum Major Instinct, Dr. King said, "If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But, recognize that he who is the greatest among you shall be your servant. That's your new definition of greatness."
It is with this selfless and service-focused message in mind that Erie Community College-in conjunction with the New York Council for the Humanities-held their first annual "Community Conversations" with faculty and students from February 14th through February 23rd on their trio of Western New York campuses. With a focus on excerpts from Dr. King's enlightened offering, each gathering discussed a new idea of greatness and how to best put such noble ideals into practice inside ECC's host communities.
"During this academic year, there's been a real push to focus on community involvement and civic responsibility (with our students)," said Nathan Wallace, assistant project coordinator in ECC's Student Services Office, as well as one of the Community Conversations organizers. "The idea is to teach them of the responsibility of service and connect them to service opportunities. And, we've been able to focus on Dr. King's speech as a jumping off point to discuss the importance of service and community involvement."
At each event, distributed packets not only contained the words of Dr. King, but also questions and links to help put his suggestions into action. Contact information for a variety of local community service opportunities-with organizations like UNYTS, Compass House and Campus Ministry-provided students the ways to connect to neighborhoods and organizations in need. For students like freshman nursing student Pierra Bester, the conversations' discussed ideas merely augmented her own altruistic beliefs.
"To me, service means you've got to give back," said Bester, who attended the City Campus conversation. "You have to serve the community, because if you don't, it'll go down. You have to help, and you have to give back."
Through an Erie Community College student's enrollment, they are promised specific "learning outcomes" or educational benefits by the college. One of those outcomes is the eventual embrace of civic responsibility, which is not only the essence of King's enduring legacy, but at the heart of every scheduled discussion.
"Through the perspective of these conversations, the definition of greatness is determined by how much you help others," said Wallace. "It's about what kind of a positive impact you leave on the world, not about what kind of a degree or job you have. As Dr. Martin Luther King says, it's okay to have the drum major instinct that many of us have, this desire to be important. But to what end do you want to be important? To serve your own ego, or to actually make a positive impact on others?"
For students like freshman Kevin Phillips, King's words ring instructive and clear. The Buffalo resident is studying business so that, one day, he can go into the fashion industry. But, for Phillips, he's not pursuing the field for the financial spoils. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to provide affordable clothes to the less fortunate members of his community. By way of King, he wants to achieve his own definition of greatness-one selfless deed at a time.
"Martin Luther King said he didn't want to be remembered for any of the awards or achievements that he had because none of that stuff really matters," said Phillips. "He was rewarded by helping people, and that's how I want to be remembered. Even if I graduated with a Master's and had a million dollar company, being recognized for that isn't going to help the next person."