“An inescapable network of mutuality”

Note from RLF President Avi Garbow to staff on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service 2022.

As I come to the end of my first week with you all, and as we remember and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday’s holiday and day of service, I wanted to share some reflections on the meaning of our work, our purpose, and our opportunities to participate in the building of Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community:

On Christmas Eve, 1967, on the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what would be his final Christmas sermon. He spoke about war, about nonviolence, about love, about the coherence of means and ends, and about a dream he first told the nation about four years earlier on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And he spoke about interdependence:

[A]ll life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Dr. King knew that racial justice was inextricably linked to economic justice, that voting rights and equity in healthcare were related, that “injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere.” As he was coming out in opposition to the Vietnam War, and promoting anti-poverty policies that would become the foundation of his Poor People’s Campaign, he also spoke of “cities gasping in polluted air and enduring contaminated water.” And he understood that working to integrate schools and lunch counters was foolhardy if there was no concern about the survival of the world in which to be integrated. Long before the term “environmental justice” was first used when hundreds of people were arrested protesting the decision to send thousands of truckloads of PCB-laden waste to a poor and majority-Black community in Warren County, North Carolina, Dr. King’s embrace of interdependence made clear that equity and justice are not concepts severable from people and place. What affects one affects all.

Fifty years after Dr. King’s assassination, Reverend William Barber II, a pastor from North Carolina, revived Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. In 2018, he marched with several hundred protesters to the Kentucky statehouse. They were there to protest a Medicaid work requirement that would deprive thousands of healthcare. Denied entry to the statehouse, Rev. Barber said: “We understand the connection between systemic racism, voter suppression, and ecological devastation. They are interlocking injustices and we can’t ignore any of them.” This is the interdependence of which Dr. King preached.

Whether you work with First Nations to conserve the boreal forest in Canada, or on transforming communities in Los Angeles by ensuring the equitable distribution of infrastructure funds; whether you work on biodiversity issues and solutions to the climate crisis, advance the rights and elevate the voices of Indigenous Peoples, or work on coastal and marine conservation in California, Hawai’i, and beyond; whether you work to restore the free-flow of our rivers or protect our iconic western landscapes; whether you work to uphold our democratic values by protecting voting rights, women’s health, or advancing social and racial equity; or whether you provide the administrative support upon which all of this work depends: you are part of Dr. King’s network of mutuality.

The work that each of you do, with our funders and partners, is bound together not merely by organizational association but by a recognition of interdependence, a common purpose, and a commitment to service. And we are bound together by our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusivity – where we work, how we work, and with whom we work. Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement begins by saying that “people and nature are inextricably linked and … the health of both depends on full and meaningful participation of all communities in decisions that define and shape a resilient future.” That is our network of mutuality.

Dr. King gave his last Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. He was invited to speak about the Poor People’s Campaign, which was planned to commence the following month. There, he gave hope to those in despair, delivering words that would find resonance in a multitude of contexts in years to come: “We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But no air of inevitability would dampen Dr. King’s call to action. “Time is neutral,” he said. “It can be used either constructively or destructively … so we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

As we honor Dr. King with our service–on his birthday, and on every day–let’s always remember that the time is always ripe to do right. And on this Martin Luther King day of service, I will be grateful for the opportunities that lie ahead to do right with you.