Mama Madison: Planning for the MLK holiday

It should be more than a long weekend, especially for kids

I have an uncanny ability to find parenting themes in just about every movie I see. The job, of course, is pretty easy when the film is kid-targeted like Disney's latest animated feature Frozen. I loved its ability to communicate both the icy challenges, as well as the warmth, of complicated sibling relationships. It also prompted me to remind my daughter that "eyes bigger than your wrists" isn't a particularly realistic body type to aspire to.

But I can also find child-rearing messages in the least family-friendly of films. The only thing racing through my mind after watching Leonardo DiCaprio embody The Wolf of Wall Street was "Forget cowboys. Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be stockbrokers."

It was my 11-year-old, though, who inspired my motherhood takeaway from Lee Daniels' The Butler, a film we saw together on a fortuitous whim just this past week. For those of you who aren't familiar, the film follows the story of Cecil Gaines, an African American and fictional White House butler who bore eyewitness to key turning points in our nations history, especially the rise of the Civil Rights movement, during his professional tenure.

"Mom," she asked as we watched the credits roll at the second-run theater, "If Martin Luther King" -- who has a "cameo" in the film -- "was such an important guy, why doesn't our family do more to celebrate Martin Luther King Day?"

And she was right. In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the day discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.

But this year, inspired by the film (as well as some civic-minded friends), my daughter and I will spend the holiday differently. On Monday, January 20, she and her buddies (I will chaperone) will take part in the Martin Luther King, Jr.: Youth Day of Service at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. The event, sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Madison as well as the King Coalition, will bring together 300 middle and high school students from across Dane County to answer, in the words of Dr. King, "Life's most persistent and urgent question...'What are you doing for others?"

The event's goal is to get youth engaged at the intersection of science and service; it's part of United We Serve, President Obama's initiative that calls for Americans, including those in grades 6-8, to work together to provide solutions to pressing national problems. The day will offer youth-oriented workshops on such important environmental issues as frac sand mining and wind energy. And it will also encourage kids to take place part in meaningful service projects to benefit the community.

The program is only one of many honoring the legacy of the Dr. King this coming weekend. On Sunday the 19th, the acclaimed 1993 documentary At the River I Stand, which chronicles the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and the subsequent assassination of Dr. King, will be shown at the Urban League's Park Street location. The screening will be accompanied by a talk from UW history professor William Jones, an expert on the intersection of race, class and labor.

I just may have to register for this, as well. I have no doubt the message -- parenting or otherwise -- will be a very valuable one to receive.

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