Sometimes a day has more than just 24 hours: It can also have historic meaning.
When the founders of the Freedom Project, an area nonprofit that helps prisoners transform their lives through nonviolent communication, looked for a significant day to incorporate, they knew which one to choose: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
This year, with the Freedom Project's 11th anniversary falling on Mon., Jan. 16, the organization will celebrate its birth, and honor King's use of nonviolent tactics to confront oppression, with a blues performance by Elnah Jordan.
"Blues comes from the background of people being oppressed and having a hard time getting through life," said Vern Garvie, managing director of the Freedom Project. "That's the heart and soul of blues right there."
And the heart and soul of local MLK Day celebrations touch upon ways to infuse contemporary life with the nonviolent pursuit of social justice. Events run the gamut from musical performances to forest preservation, from sharing personal tales of empowerment to recapturing the Nobel Peace laureate's revolutionary spirit.
Garvie said the Freedom Project's practice of offering nonviolent communication tools to prisoners allows them to connect as equals, without being influenced by hierarchical power structures. Not only are these evident in the prisoner/guard dynamic, but also the prisoner/prisoner dynamic, where inmates can victimize one another.
"We're trying to show that they have options, and it's the kind of training that is not provided by the criminal justice system where it's all about punishment," Garvie said.
And indeed, King experienced that system of punishment himself. According to his wife Coretta Scott King, in her speech commemorating MLK Day, her husband was jailed 29 times during the civil rights era.
For Monica Thomas, outreach and media coordinator of the Nature Consortium, nonviolent principles apply not only to interpersonal interactions but also to human interactions with the environment. As in years past, her group will celebrate MLK Day by bringing together volunteers to help restore the West Duwamish Greenbelt, Seattle's largest remaining forest.
"It's really a positive way to shed light on the issue and to make direct change to the environment," Thomas said of her organization's two-day event.
Thomas said restoration work on the greenbelt also highlights another issue: community building. In past MLK events that have drawn as many as 150 people, she said when passersby see others making a positive impact on their surroundings; it causes them to want to participate as well. "They all come wanting to give back," she said.
On a personal level, Thomas said she continues to learn from the lessons King has to teach. "I'm trying to figure out the best way to apply those lessons in my daily life to the causes I'm passionate about," she added.
Garvie said that prisoners involved with the Freedom Project have become passionate about learning nonviolent principles. Some of the classes are so popular they are now led by prisoners, who use their inside perspective to pass on communication skills to fellow inmates.
Part of what makes nonviolent communication work, he said, is its ability to demonstrate that when people work together for a common goal, they can experience a positive outcome: "If we're both working for the same thing, we're apt to get our needs met."