GUEST BLOGGER Helen Ruger — “MLK Day: A March to Remember”


East Falls Local Helen Ruger MLK piece email

With a new charter school knocking at our door, education is a hot neighborhood topic these days. More options are great but a strong public school is crucial for healthy business and real estate.

Such a complicated issue, really, one we’re totally not prepared to even try to tackle now.

Instead of talking about who’s teaching what in East Falls, we’re delighted to sit back and let an East Falls student school us in social activism, Millennial-style…

East Falls Local Helen and Ted chat

Kids today! If Helen hadn’t said she was a 9th grader in her email (above), we’d never have suspected just by reading it. When she met us with her father Ted Ruger at Germantown Friends School’s library, she didn’t seem particularly interested in her byline or any brouhaha about her article.

In fact, to this young author, the least interesting thing about her 1st person piece covering last month’s MLK march in Center City was… her.  She’s so into the process of discovery, she doesn’t even notice the leaps she’s making:

EAST FALLS LOCAL:  Your first march! So your class was studying social journalism, and you all had to go to a march or something…?

HELEN RUGER:  We had to do a project, I picked the march. I took a friend.

EFL: Annnnd… you arranged to meet up with a group of other students there?

HR: We went by ourselves. I researched what groups would be there so we  had an idea of who to talk to, but we just walked around the march, talking to people and taking pictures.

EFL:  Wait, what? Is your friend a 35 year old woman? You guys just walked right up to complete strangers and asked them their opinions..?

HR: <nonchalant nodding>

EFL: (to her father) Are you kidding…? Your 9th grade daughter and her friend just went wandering off into the crowd at one of the biggest marches ever in Center City Philadelphia..?

East Falls Local Helen and Ted

Ted Ruger:  I trust her. She knows what she’s doing.

EFL:  <kinda speechless>

TR: There are tons of people around. I was right there waiting the whole time.

HR:  It was fine. People who come to marches are looking to express themselves, and were happy to talk to me. I always asked before taking a photo, and everyone said yes.

EFL: How did you know how to approach people to interview? Was it weird?

HR: Yeah, but I got used to it. People were nice.

EFL:  (to her father)  Did you have any inkling that she could be so forward with people she doesn’t know, and ask them questions with such maturity and confidence?

TR:  <beaming> No idea. I mean, we’ve always known she could write and all but, yes — this was a new side of her we hadn’t seen before.  <more beaming>

EFL:  So what surprised you the most about the march? What’s next for you and social activism?

HR:  The diversity of people at the march, that was amazing and unforgettable. But there are more classes to take, plus tennis and track and violin practice…

 East Falls Local Helen smiles building snow profile CROP

Helen Ruger lives with her Penn-prof parents, Ted & Jen, and her younger brother & sister in Dobson Mills (they moved here from Connecticut about a year ago). Helen’s personal account from Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Day march combines her research skills with a flair for creative writing and developing passions for social and racial equality.

She’s using a sweet Nikon DSLR camera, a much-appreciated hand-me-down from her uncle Jason — please check out her YouTube slideshow (also embedded below).   

by Helen Ruger
January 26, 2015

Helen MLK crowd city hall

January 26, 2015

Volunteers, projects and service have always been a part of the annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service, the largest event celebrating Dr. King in the United States. However, this year there was another, more “assertive” ingredient that has been added to the mix: a protest march that aimed to reclaim the spirit of King by “taking action and demanding change.” I decided that I would find out what was behind the march, and take part myself, since I haven’t participated in a lot of activist work in the past, but I am eager to become more active in the community. I was drawn to the march since I feel strongly about all of the goals presented, but education specifically was one goal that I was fervent about, and I wanted to be involved in something that had the capacity to bring about change.

The motivation behind the MLK D.A.R.E (MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment) stemmed from the” Black Lives Matter” protests that were held in Philadelphia last month. The march’s organizers, a coalition of area organizations, identified three main goals of this march: justice, jobs, and education. Specifically, the participants marched to end “stop and frisk” practices by the police, encourage the “creation of a powerful police oversight board,” advocate an instant raise from a $7.25 an hour minimum wage, to a $15 an hour minimum wage, and demand a democratically controlled, completely funded system of schools.

One of the march’s organizers, Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe, said that the annual King day’s defining projects are “good and useful” however, “not his true legacy.” She described the protest march as an opportunity for people to stand up and act to turn “community concerns into citizen action” and transform the more “passive” acts of the past King Days of Service, into the direct actions of the present.

The march which brought many thousands of marchers to Center City, started out at the city school district office, headed south to City Hall, and then east to finish up at Independence Mall. It was meant to complement the record 135,000 volunteers working in service projects around the city. Many of the participants marching included labor unions, religious leaders, parent groups and students, and grassroots activist organizations.

East Falls Local Helen MLK crowd racism is a deadly force

Finally, the march was intended to facilitate change and send a message to those in power. “This march is a continuation of the efforts of Dr. King and others who fought for racial justice,” says Bishop Dwayne Royster, who is the pastor at the Living Water United Church of Christ, “While a day of service, and giving back is a good thing, we need to take it a step further by taking action and demanding change.”

On Sunday, January 18th, a day before the march, I spoke with Nomi Martin–Brouillepte from the Philly Student Union, which was one of the organizations that planned to march. She said that their organization participated because protests are a “tool for change” to fix many of the “serious problems” going on across the country now, and called protests a place to gather for “collective emotional healing,” which America needs because of all of the “scars” caused by racism across the country.

When Martin Luther King Day finally arrived, I was met with a wave of exciting emotions sparked by my eagerness to participate in my first protest march. Since I was inexperienced as a marcher and slightly unaware of the common actions associated with it, I was a bit anxious, but those feelings disappeared within seconds of the march’s commencement. Gathered outside the school district headquarters was a crowd of about 2,000 people listening attentively to the multiple speakers who rallied the people with chants and passionate words. One of the speakers, Reverend Alyn Waller, exclaimed with intensity in his voice that now, the marchers needed to “take back Philadelphia” and “turn this city around,” and was met with shouts of agreement from the marchers.

When the rally concluded, we turned south to City Hall and began to walk together for justice. We continued to march down the street, packed together, a sea of signs and all calling a wide range of chants such as “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it? Shut it down!” The signs, many hand-made with thoughtful quotes, were held up with confidence and determination. Quotes such as, “Racism is a deadly force,” and “police = Who do they protect? Who do they serve?” brought additional attention to the seriousness of the social justice issues at hand.

Helen MLK crowd signs on street

Given the mass of the crowd around me, I couldn’t help but shift my focus to the wide variety of people that were participating in the march. We were a collective group marching for the same reasons, however none of us looked the same at all. Young, old, black, white, and brown, we all came together despite racial, ethnic or socio-economic divisions. No matter which way I turned my head, there was always a different sight greeting me.

Focusing on the incredible diversity of the marchers led me to ask some of them about their reasons for marching. Laura Wentz, the president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, told me she marched to support all of the causes of the march, but specifically to promote unions and the “effectiveness of collective bargaining” as a means to hear opposing groups of people. Randy Conley, a white man carrying a sign “Black Lives Matter”, expressed deep personal connections to the march as he said, “I am not okay with the unequal treatment of blacks and I want my neighbors, friends, ministers, and my children’s teachers to have the same benefit of the doubt as I do based on skin color.” I also spoke with Ron Whitehorne from the Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) and he said that PCAPS decided to march because “education is very much related to broader issues of social justice” and that “[they] really identify with the legacy of Martin Luther King.” PCAPS was “really excited about the possibility of a march that would raise up the question of racial justice and in particular how that relates to the schools.”

Just as the temperature dropped slightly, marchers began to spill into the final destination of the march: Independence Hall. Directly in front of the historic building was a stage with large black microphones and strong-minded speakers ready to rally the people one last time. The numbers of the march had grown significantly over the course of the afternoon, so it took a good twenty minutes for everyone to fill in the space in front of Independence Hall. Reverend Waller once again gathered everyone and spoke of liberty and compared justice in the time of Martin Luther King to justice now, finding many parallels between the two eras. He ended his speech calling, “it’s time for jubilee and justice now!” Many talented and intense speakers were introduced next, each one received with agreeing chants from the crowd.

As the rally began to close, I took one more look around me and smiled. The feelings I had inside of me matched the feelings inside of all of the other marchers that day. I felt a light lit inside of me, a spark of desire to change as much as I could that I felt passionate about. We all were proud of ourselves for participating in such a march. I walked away with my family, since it was time for us to go, and as I walked along the street away from the crowd, I could still hear the chants echoing for blocks to come.

In the future, no one can predict the number of marches or protests that will occur, however Ron Whitehorne says that the MLK D.A.R.E coalition will stay together and continue “organizing and keep fighting to meet the three demands of the march.” Specifically, individual organizations that participated, such as PCAPS, have gained “new allies” because of the march and now “people are coming together around broader concerns.” Many positive causes have come out of this MLK day march, and now the support and drive around justice is stronger than ever.

Helen MLK crowd at old liberty bell plaza

 More photos in this 90 second slide-show Helen created for this post:

Thanks, Helen, for sharing your unique perspective with your East Falls neighbors!

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