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When a sandwich board becomes a manifesto

On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I sit in the imbalance of two truths: deep admiration for how Dr. King changed the world with his life and deep admonition for how that world has failed to live up to that change.

Image from Smithsonian Magazine

Years ago I strolled the streets of Memphis and walked the path of the Sanitation Strike of 1968 – a strike activating over 1,300 Black sanitation workers for improved working conditions and higher pay after two men were crushed to death in a garbage truck. These men were doing gruesome, grueling work with no overtime, no paid sick leave, and pay so incredibly low many were eligible for welfare and food stamps[1] to make ends meet.

The strikers wore sandwich boards that read “I Am A Man” as a statement of their dignity, as a call to be seen.

Reflecting back on that fateful day, I am struck by the all too eerie familiarity of these words. Switch the word “man” with “essential worker” and you have the drumbeat of life as a frontline worker in the time of COVID – many of whom are Black and Brown, and many of whom are women. As a country, though we have made progress in worker conditions and worker rights over the years, we have a ways to go in living up to the dignity of work, in living out the ideal of the essential.

To do this, we have to deepen our understanding of the past, so we can co-create a stronger vision of the future. As I type these words, my shoulders scrunch up because I am imagining the sandwich board on my back – all it carries and all it means. The weight of the makeshift suspenders cinching on my clavicle, the sway of the board sitting heavy on my belly.

I. Am. A. Man.

What must it have felt like to paint those letters on the boards, to put them on as a uniform. A declaration of the obvious. An echo of the fractions this country has created to reduce the value of Black lives (and other people of color).

I read these words today and – as with most pain in our history – I want to listen for its lessons and do better for our future. I want to continue the walk of this strike and, in our work, help us help our country to see, hire, and advance the talent before them. This means ensuring social enterprises – arguably our country’s first “inclusive employers” – have the capital, capacity, and community they need to grow, to cultivate talent often beginning on the frontline, so they may connect to and ladder up careers that fuel their futures and their families in the process.

For MLK’s legacy to endure, we have to channel our admiration for his words and deeds into action in our own. May this be our shared manifesto.

[1] “The 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike That Drew MLK to Memphis”, Colette Coleman, History, July 21, 2020

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