MLK Day of Service
Cambridge represents possibilities. It is a place of ideas, of imagination, and creativity.
Interview by Heidi Legg
What work are you most passionate about today?
Martin Luther King Day of Service on January 20th in Cambridge. Four years ago, a small group of women in Cambridge decided to join other cities around the country who have done this for several years to honor Martin Luther King by making the day of his birthday a 'day on' rather than a 'day off.’
When we started, we weren't sure that anyone would show up and five hundred people did to do an afternoon of hands-on service for people in need in the community. The next year, eight hundred people showed up. Last year, 1,500 people showed up. This year we're thinking somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people will show up.
We are asking people to pre-register this year on our site.
What do you do on this day?
People come and sit next to family and friends or someone in the community that they don't know yet who could be from across town, and get to work. It could be someone who comes from completely different life circumstances than they do, but they're coming together to do something that will benefit people in need in our community.
What will they work on?
Designing a polar fleece scarf for one of the 450 homeless people in Cambridge. The first seventy-five scarves go out to people who are sleeping on the street in the middle of the night on the last Wednesday night in January. The next ones will go out to people staying in homeless shelters, including adults, teenagers and children. Last year we made 318 scarves and 155 blankets for children in shelters in Cambridge and Somerville.
Describe the day's energy.
The energy's amazing. There is this buzz of people coming and saying, 'I can do something. I can make a difference in someone else's life,' whether it's giving a scarf to be warm or the over 3,000 Valentine cards that were made for shut-in and isolated elders in Cambridge and Somerville. Many people will sit down and they may intend to make one Valentine, but they end up staying for two hours and make ten. They are then delivered to elders in the community either through Meals on Wheels or by individuals who'll volunteer to put them under the doors of people who don't have any family around, or to nursing home residents.
What motivated you to start this?
I had a teacher back in school when I was in sixth grade who organized students in my elementary school to get involved in community service, and from then on I have been involved in volunteering, knowing that communities thrive when people are engaged in their community and that the nonprofits can't meet all the needs alone. It continues to be something that I care deeply about.
Having someone make a person to person connection with someone who's in difficult circumstances in their life can be very transformative both for the person who finds out that they're not forgotten, that they're not invisible, that someone took time to sit down and to make something for them and recognizes that they're in a difficult place in their lives, and for the person who's sitting there making a scarf or delivering a Valentine.
As an artist, is 'making something' an important part of it for you?
I think the hands-on piece is important for me, and it probably does have to do with being an artist. If I wasn't an artist and didn't feel capable of making things that bring pleasure, I might have had a different lens.
You also hold a monthly women’s breakfast here in your home. Why is it important for you to bring women together?
I started the breakfast as a way to start a conversation about an MLK Day of Service. I had been to President Obama's first inauguration in Washington. The day before the inauguration was Martin Luther King Day, and Washington had many community service activities going on all over the city. Over a million people in town for the inauguration participated in these events and projects. Our family went to a school to help pack books that had been donated to the children of the school, and we went to RFK Stadium to put together personal care kits for troops overseas with a personal letter. There were thousands of people lined up to get into RFK Stadium to do this from all over the country, and the energy of the day was just amazing.
When I came back home, I started asking around and Ellen Semonoff, the Assistant City Manager of Cambridge, who's amazing, said ‘this sounds like a great idea. We wouldn't create it as a city program, but if you do it, we can help facilitate it.'
I had participated years ago in City Year’s Servathon, which was a day of service that brought people together from all over the community. One of the founders of City Year, Mike Brown, had worked for me as a summer law firm associate, and then he had gone off to clerk for now-Justice Breyer but left that clerkship to go start City Year. I brought my kids and organized teams for my school, so I knew the power of this type of community service day.
I'm also chair of the social action committee at my temple, Beth El Temple, which is on the Cambridge-Belmont Line, and I have run a mitzvah day there for almost twelve years. We hold that in May, and it involves 300 people doing about eighteen projects inside and outside the temple.
What early influence drove you to do this work?
My parents weren’t activists, but they were socially and politically liberal. But I think it really has to do with teachers who started programs where I became engaged and motivated by social justice.
Where did you go to law school?
I went to the University of Miami School of Law. Before that I went to Princeton, and then took a year off to paint and to be involved in the community. My family had moved to Florida when I was fifteen, so I had gone back to Florida for that year. My first job out of law school was working with a very activist lawyer to create a community leadership event in Miami. His goal was to create a program called Leadership Miami in order to get people in their twenties and early thirties involved in the community and in issues that mattered to the city of Miami. He wanted them to understand that there was a great deal they could do to make it a better place to live for everyone in the city. I created it with him. I was the first sort of director in charge of making it happen, and the exciting thing is it still goes on.
How did you know you were on to something?
I sent out an email one Saturday with the subject line: Be The Change, inviting people to breakfast at my house. I wanted to see if I could get people interested in an MLK Day of Service. I basically invited all the women I knew who had any Cambridge connection - whether they lived here, had kids in school here, had worked here, and who I also knew were very active in different circles in their life. I invited maybe a hundred people, and something like sixty people showed up for breakfast five days later.
At that first breakfast, we went around the room asking people to talk about what they were passionate about, and three hours later, people were still talking. Then someone said, 'well, so we're doing this again next month, right?'
Eventually we decided to focus on a different issue every month. They’re either ones that I think might be an interesting issue or it's one that people say, 'I know this interesting person who is starting something with climate change and she’d like to speak to all of you. That’s how it happens.
You are also a very talented artist. What is the essence of this large scale work that is hung all around this room.
I'm interested in painting women at work around the world and in particular, recognizing that women play such an important role in so many facets of the lives of communities, as mothers, and often, as people within the community; in markets, working in fields, and in the spiritual life of their community as well. Over the years as I traveled, I have been so struck by the power and grace of these women, and because of places we've traveled, in spaces that are also incredibly vibrant and colorful.
Where are these women in your paintings?
A lot of my paintings are of Bali. That again, comes from a teacher. You can tell that I think teachers are amazingly important. I had a seventh grade teacher who showed us a film by Margaret Mead about her work in Bali, and it was so amazingly different than anything I had ever seen in the late sixties. The world was not as close a place as you see it now, in terms of knowing what's happening on the other side of the world.
Her work was so different from anything I knew that I just carried it with me, and when Eric (her husband, Eric Lander, is one of the principal leaders of human genome) and I graduated from college in 1978, we were going to teach English in Japan for the summer. Since I was taking the year off to paint, as I said earlier, I thought, ‘I don't know if I'll ever be back in Asia.' My parents had never traveled to Asia, so I went to Bali by myself for six weeks and traveled around. It was everything and more than I had remembered and carried with me since I was a twelve year old. I took lots of photographs and came back and just started painting these women that I was so struck by when I was there.
I’ve now been back to Bali at least once every five years since 1978.
Do you still paint from some of those original stills?
Some of them, and I take a lot of photographs when I'm there. I'd say I paint less from the older ones now. That painting behind me is from an image from the first trip.
Are you formally trained?
Not formally. On one hand, I had great art teachers in elementary and high school. When I still lived in New York in middle school up to maybe the first year of high school, I studied at the Art Students League in New York on Saturdays, and I've taken summer workshops at Bennington and such. I studied political theory in college. I went to law school. I practiced law for twelve years, but I painted all the way along.
How do you see your husband's world of science and your world overlapping?
I think that they overlap between the science, art, and community engagement. It's about passion. It's about doing something that makes a difference. I think that Eric does the work he does at the Broad Institute and in genomics because of the belief that he can make a difference in people's lives. He believes that knowing and learning more, understanding more, will allow them to find cures for diseases to save lives, or to make lives healthier. Knowing that he can make a difference drives that passion. And I think similarly, for me, I love making art.
The breakfast gatherings, Martin Luther King Day of Service, and creating the Many Helping Hands 365 website that makes it easier for people to be involved in their community: I do all of these things because I love them and because the idea of impacting people's lives and making a difference for good is incredibly fulfilling and motivating.
What does Cambridge represent to the world and America?
What it currently represents or what it could represent?
You tell me.
I think Cambridge represents possibilities. With the universities in Cambridge, there are the possibilities of futures, a sort of limitless possibility of scientific advancement in thinking hard about problems that impact our society. Cambridge is a place of ideas, of imagination, and creativity.
With the passion of people in Cambridge, there's the possibility of taking on problems and creating model solutions. We live in a city where 44% of the kids in our schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. It's a city that has a significant low income population but at the same time it's a city that's rich in resources - not just wealth, although there is wealth - but in brains and hearts of people who want to make a difference in the world, who want the world to be a better place, and who are willing to engage their energies and resources into making those changes happen.
I think we thrive on the possibility of attacking issues like how to make public education work for all kids. How do we ensure that kids who are first in their families to go on to college can succeed in college? How do we support them? How, at a community level, can we reduce gun violence? How can we, as individuals, move forward on climate change and moving toward clean energy? How can we address issues of mental health and wellness within our community, and integrate mental health and wellness with physical health to make each better? How can we address issues about women on the margins and issues about domestic violence?
In Cambridge, we have the possibilities of looking at these problems, trying out solutions, and trying to make a difference. Then we can be a model of possibilities for other communities around the country and the world.
Where is your favorite place to go in Cambridge?
In the mornings, we love Hi Rise Bakery. If we're going out for a fancy dinner, I especially love going to Rialto. I love Jodi Adams (see our interview with Jodi) and how she pours her passion into the food, but then uses that to leverage her work on different causes that she cares about, whether it's Partners in Health or hunger.
I really like to look for gifts (jewelry or home accessories) at [beyt] by 2b Design, 185 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge (across the street from the Cambridge Skating Club). It is a store with a mission: to restore the beauty of the broken – broken homes and heritage destroyed during the Lebanese civil war, broken people, disabled and hidden away out of sight, and broken relationships among the peoples of the Middle East. The owners, Benedicte de Vanssay and Raja de Blavous Moubarak, have trained disabled men and homeless and/or refugee women to recycle reclaimed objects into beautiful lamps and tables. They also sell beautiful necklaces made from repurposed bullet casings. When I can, I try to make my spending choices matter.
What event are you most looking forward to?
It would have to be Martin Luther King Day of Service in Cambridge on January 20th.
How do people get involved?
There's an easy button to click on that will then get them to more information.