In a speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., once said,“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Embodying this message and the techniques used by the famous civil rights leader, the Interdenominational Ministers Conference created the Martin Luther King Leadership Development Institute.
Based in the greater Harrisburg area, the institute aims to provide people with leadership tools and resources to improve themselves and their community regardless of age, race, gender or religious beliefs.
In June, the institute held its sixth graduation, featuring 20 students with a mix of “emerging and existing leaders,” according to President Joseph Robinson. Some of the most notable graduates over the years have included HACC’s President John “Ski” Sygielski, Harrisburg Councilman Cornelius Johnson and Chief Rob Martin, Susquehanna Township’s public safety director.
“People owe it to themselves and to our community to align themselves with the institute,” Robinson said. “They’ll come out of there with a different perspective on themselves and a new cadre of individuals who will help them achieve their mission.”
Over the course of six months, Keith Ellison, founder and CEO of the Ellison Group, meets with students to discuss and teach community and leadership. The program is designed around six key areas mentioned in Tavis Smiley’s “The Covenant with Black America”: education, economic development, quality of life, racial opportunity, harmony and leadership, as well as practices and policies used by Dr. King.
Students are divided into teams and develop a project that they present at the final meeting. The goal is to help them engage with their community and take what they learned back to the community.
The institute also hosts presentations and panels with accomplished people such as retired University of Pennsylvania Professor Carol Spigner, members of the NAACP, state legislators, police officers and lawyers. They discuss everything from criminal justice reform to public policy to business tactics.
“We talk about how to engage in your community and how to bring direct action in your community,” Robinson said.
In 2008, the institute originally targeted the “brain drain” of young people of color who were leaving Harrisburg because they felt like they did not have a place here.
The founders wanted to establish a forum and provide young people with the training tools they needed to work into leadership positions while keeping with Dr. King’s “beloved community.”
A year later, a group of 24, predominantly black, emerging leaders, graduated. Today, the institute has a wide range of students, varying in race, ethnicity, gender and religious beliefs, from ages 20 to 75.
“We have people with GEDs in the same class with people who have Ph.D.s,” Robinson said. “You have all these people, who are basically a microcosm of society in general, and you put them all in the same room and give them all the same foundational training and orientation to the concepts of Dr. King, as well as other tools and techniques on how to make change in their community.”
Aaysha Noor, founder of the Asian American Pakistani Heritage Group, was invited to join the MLK institute after developing her name within the community.
“I am an American Muslim, and I am an immigrant, a woman of color, so I have been involved with social justice,” she said. “I am passionate about equality and equity. I am passionate about immigrant rights and the empowerment of women.”
Robinson attended one of her events and encouraged her to join. Noor graduated in June, saying the institute gave her a better understanding of herself and helped her develop connections.
“They gave us that safe space where we can have those honest conversations where we can build relationships and rely on each other,” she said. “We had some intense conversations, we had some laughs, we had some tears, but, through all of that, we have bonded.”
Before joining the program, 42-year-old Lamont Jones had already found his place as a mentor and life coach for juveniles and adults in the Pennsylvania State Prison and in halfway houses. The CO at the prison recommended the institute and even offered to pay his way through.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Jones said. “I just went and I liked it. I liked everything about it.”
His favorite moment came when the group discussed criminal justice reform with a panel of law enforcement professionals, including judges, prosecutors and lawyers. They talked of unfair treatment by law officers, sentencing and bail.
“Every aspect that we were talking about, there was someone to represent it,” he said. “It was a very intense group, but we got some good results out of it. That was my best moment there.”
Moments like this, when the students engage with their community and its members, Robinson said, are also some of his favorite parts.
“What’s exciting to me is to see the light that goes on, and every last one of them at the end of the sixth month, they always say, ‘Are we done already? Can’t we come back the next month?’” he said.
Down the road, Robinson hopes to see the institute grow even more to the point that it will need a full-time staff.
Even at $500, the cost of the program should not deter anyone away from joining, he said. If you have a calling for helping your community, they want you.
“Forget about your education. Do you want to do something? Do you want to make a change in your community?” he said. “If we get enough people with that mindset linked together, it just helps now to enhance the opportunity to actually make a difference in the community.”
For more information on the MLK Development Leadership Institute or how to get involved, visit their Facebook page @MLKLeadershipHBG or contact Joseph Robinson at 717-919-4392.