Paulette C. Walker galvanized the crowd Monday at the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs' annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Breakfast, challenging the audience to replicate the service King exemplified in his too short 39 years.
Walker, the national first vice president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, likened her call to action to that of a married couple "jumping the broom" to symbolize the sweeping away of the old and welcoming the new. Yet societal ills are what she wants to eradicate.
"We need to lock arms with other community organizations and jump the mop to symbolize cleaning up the dirt," Walker stated with the fervor of a preacher. "We need more than Mr. Clean and a Swiffer. We need to get on our hands and knees and scrub out the dirt that has been driven into the very marrow and bones of our communities."
The recently retired director of undergraduate programs at the University of South Florida's College of Education, Walker cited illiteracy, drugs, gun violence, underfunded education, bullying and hazing as ills that the community can no longer tolerate. She added that King's legacy serves as a blueprint to stand up and make a difference.
"I'm glad that his sense of direction did not need the Internet's MapQuest," said Walker, referring to the modern technology on which we've come to rely. "I'm glad he didn't need a daily calendar, a Palm Pilot, a BlackBerry, a blueberry, a red berry to remember to check the pulse of this country."
Walker didn't offer specifics, but it's not difficult to discern. Mentoring, volunteering and lending support to nonprofits all can be starting points.
We need stronger families and more churches engaging in meaningful service.
Pressing government for improved schools, economic development, voting protections and greater health care access also would help.
But we cannot pursue solutions without first gaining a true understanding of the problems. We may identify the symptoms, but we merely pull weeds that will regrow if we don't address the root causes.
For example, more than once I've joined the chorus of folks chastising parents at our most challenged schools for not engaging in the education of their children. We've chalked up the inattention to apathy.
Educators, however, discovered that some parents want to engage but don't — either because of their own educational deficiencies or the burden of making a living with multiple jobs. Through counsel, they have raised the level of parental involvement.
At the same time, we cannot confuse root causes with excuses. We must work to solve legitimate problems without giving people a pass on personal responsibility. Accountability begins within, but must extend to the people we're trying to help.
On Sunday, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority held a community dialogue built around one of King's most famous quotes: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?"
In the wake of the weekend events and Walker's call to action, I searched for an answer. In the end, I decided that as long as we have problems plaguing our communities, the needs of the poor going unmet and children suffering through no fault of their own, the answer proves persistent, indicting and inescapable.
That's all I'm saying.