Alumnus Lives Spirit of MLK Day of Service Year-Round

This past January, 140,000 people in the Philadelphia region set out on a Monday morning to paint walls at a city elementary school, sort clothing to outfit job-seeking men and women, and cook food for the homeless, among other things. The 21st annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service was the largest event of its kind ever held, with volunteers working at 1,800 service projects in southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Introducing the governor and mayor at the event’s kickoff ceremony was Todd Bernstein ’79, who had spent months orchestrating the hundreds of details involved in recruiting projects and assigning volunteers to them. As the founder and organizer of the event, Bernstein has had more than two decades of experience running the nation’s first and largest Martin Luther King Day of Service in his hometown of Philadelphia.

“It was Todd who put it together and built it year by year, going beyond anything that any [other] city in the United States has done,” says former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, a Pennsylvania Democrat who helped Bernstein launch Philadelphia’s day of service in 1996 and attended this year’s event.

Bernstein was working as the executive assistant to Wofford—who was the state secretary of labor and industry at the time—when they had a conversation one night at their Harrisburg office about Martin Luther King Day, which had become a federal holiday in 1986.

“After so many had campaigned for years for a federal holiday to honor Dr. King’s legacy of social justice and citizen action, in the short span of just two years this important holiday had become, for most, just another day off,” Bernstein recalls.

When Wofford, who had been a legal advisor to King, was appointed to the Senate in 1991, he then appointed Bernstein as his chief of staff in his state office in Philadelphia. Over the next three years, Bernstein helped Wofford and U.S. Representative John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights era, write legislation that would become the King Holiday and Service Act. The law, passed in 1994, called on Americans to transform the day into a celebration of volunteer action.

Two years later, Bernstein founded the nation’s first Martin Luther King Day of Service in Philadelphia, which drew 1,000 volunteers—in the aftermath of a record snowstorm—to work at homeless shelters, churches, and schools across the city. As Philadelphia’s became the nation’s largest day of service, it inspired cities and college campuses across the country to turn Martin Luther King Day into “a day on, not off.”

“The intention was really to bring together broad coalitions of people of all ages and backgrounds to break down barriers and to build understanding and ongoing partnerships that [would] result in harnessing the resources of the community and bettering the community,” says Bernstein, president of Global Citizen, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable civic engagement.

This year Bernstein attended IC’s own MLK Day of Service, which attracted 80 students to sand tables at the New Roots Charter School, deliver used furniture to needy families, and spruce up the grounds at the Cayuga Nature Center, among other volunteer assignments.

During his three-day visit to Ithaca College, Bernstein also met with several administrators and students from the People of Color at IC, the group that organized protests against racism on campus last fall. The students’ activism reminded Bernstein of his undergraduate experience in the 1970s. A political science major at IC, Bernstein had started a campus organization to pressure the Ithaca College trustees to divest its investment holdings in corporations operating in South Africa, which students maintained supported racism through the apartheid system.

“I just have an enormous sense of pride that the students here mobilized in a way to say that the inequities of the community will change and that we will lead that change,” Bernstein said while visiting campus.

In a discussion capping off the college’s day of service, Bernstein encouraged the students to continue volunteering in the community beyond the projects they had worked on that Saturday. “Dr. King was a champion of action 365 days of the year,” Bernstein told the students. “We call it the day of service, but to really have an effect on the community, this has to be a springboard to an ongoing commitment to civic engagement.”