Reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy, San José State’s Hammer Theatre Center to Host Virtual Letter-Writing Event on January 18

MLK Day 2021

The Hammer Theatre Center is hosting an online event to encourage people to write letters to healthcare workers and survivors of COVID-19.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was originally established in 1986, and 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the day being established as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities—the only federal holiday designated with this distinction. 

According to the National Civil Rights Museum, Dr. King’s impact and contributions include “decisions, monumental actions and steadfast progressions of humanitarian rights that reach far beyond the civil rights movement.” 

To honor his legacy while addressing the destructive impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic, staff members from San José State University’s Hammer Theatre Center invite the public to join Letters to Heal, a virtual gathering to write letters to healthcare workers and patients recovering from COVID-19. Registration for the event, which runs from 1-5 p.m., is available online.

Though this event is inspired by worldwide letter-writing campaigns started during the COVID-19 pandemic, it clearly references King’s 1963  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote while being imprisoned following non-violent demonstrations for human rights. The historic document argues that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and is considered a landmark text for the Civil Rights movement. 

The goal of this free Zoom activity is to unite the Spartan community in the fight against isolation and the struggle to recover from the virus that has claimed more than 380,000 American lives to date. Data from the Center for Disease Control shows that communities of color have been especially devastated by the pandemic. 

Acts of service looks different during a global pandemic, says Maria Bones, director of Patron Services at the Hammer Theatre Center. While the Hammer Theatre Center would normally be bustling with regular performances, staff have had to convert its space into a recording studio to better capture programming for an online audience. Bones says that the King holiday offers a special opportunity to serve others and promote community engagement.

“We have so few ways to be of service during the pandemic,” said Bones. “While we can’t physically gather, we do have paper and pencils. There are no masks needed when writing from home. This is our call to service.”

Participants are encouraged to drop in to any of the event’s three zoom rooms. In the main room, Hammer staff will offer examples of what other letter-writers have done and encourage participants to come up with their own ideas. A host will answer questions and share an ongoing slide deck. There will be two breakout rooms, one with quiet background music to inspire letter-writers, and another where hosts will provide resources for addressing cards and letters. The Hammer Theater is reaching out to local hospitals and retirement homes to see if they would like to receive letters. The public is invited to participate in Monday’s event by registering online

“This outreach idea came about in our efforts to continue to engage our Hammer volunteer community in a digital capacity, and we are really excited to be able to encourage people who are either isolated due to the pandemic or on the front lines of battling the disease,” said Bones. “How can we give people a chance to gather, inspire each other and be in service?”

Building on Dr. King’s Legacy

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches on Monday, January 18, the nation continues to grapple with issues of systemic racism. These same issues, of course, are the hallmark of Dr. King’s life, legacy and impact on the civil rights movement.

Many universities have looked inward to address and identify institutional racism and are taking immediate steps—as well as developing intermediate and long-term plans—to create permanent organizational change with regard to systemic racism on their campuses. San José State University is now immersed in a systematic and strategic effort in this regard, with a focus on addressing commonly assumed practices, protocols, and knowledge designed to lead to lasting change.

Walt Jacobs, dean of San José State’s College of Social Sciences, says that it is important to recognize King as a three-dimensional leader. To build on his legacy, Jacobs says, Americans must think critically.

“It is more important than ever to remove rose colored glasses,” said Jacobs. “We need to see King clearly. He was not considered a hero in his time by the mainstream. He took complex and controversial stands, such as questioning capitalism. See how the labels used against him are being reused against today’s Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) activists. See that we are not a colorblind society, as protestors are treated differently by security forces depending on their race. See Georgia, where King was born, and where historic Senate races recently concluded. We can still dream, but dreams need coordinated collective action to become reality.”

“Dr. King devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice and economic opportunity, ” said Patience Bryant, director of Black/African-American Equity at San José State. “He understood the importance of addressing racism across multiple areas such as in the health industry, access to living wages, etc., in order for marginalized communities to succeed and grow. This past year has shown us as a nation that we still have significant work to do in this area and we really would like to honor Dr. King.”

Mumford and Sons Funds SJSU Service Fellowship

Photo: Joel Simon Images

San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies honored the British folk-rock band Mumford and Sons with the annual John Steinbeck Award on September 18, 2019 at a sold-out event in Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall. Proceeds of the event funded a new Steinbeck Service Fellowship that encourages engaged collaboration between students at SJSU and Stanford.

The service program launches in the summer of 2020, and current SJSU undergraduates are eligible to apply for the fellowship until February 29, 2020.

The fellowship is funded by “Gentlemen of the Road,” the community organization the band founded in 2006, which connects with communities that share its passion for social justice and common good around the world.

Every year, San Jose State’s Center for Steinbeck Studies presents the John Steinbeck Award, celebrating writers, thinkers, artists and activists who embody Steinbeck’s commitment to social justice.

Mumford and Sons is the first musical band to receive the Steinbeck Award, and also its youngest recipients to date. The award ceremony featured a conversation with the band members, as well as an acoustic performance.

It was a fitting venue since 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck beginning his college studies at Stanford. The band’s pianist Ben Lovett also was an undergraduate at Stanford for a year, studying astrophysics before he left to become a musician.

In its inaugural year, the fellowship will bring together students from San Jose State and Stanford to engage in a summer of reflective writing and community service in California’s Salinas Valley, the land that birthed and shaped Steinbeck’s creative vision.

The unique and celebratory aspect of the fellowship is the intersection of English literature and community service—one that was championed by Steinbeck throughout his lifetime.

Professor of English and Director of SJSU’s Center for Steinbeck Studies Nick Taylor teamed up with his colleague Professor Gavin Jones from Stanford to design the fellowship and propose the idea to the band. The two professors decided to model the fellowship on the Cardinal Quarter at Stanford, a program of the Haas Center for Public Service that pays students a stipend so they can engage in a quarter or summer of service-learning projects in the community.

SJSU students will be able to apply though the Center for Steinbeck Studies and Stanford students will route their applications through the Haas Center.

Students who are chosen will work with their community partners at least 35 hours per week for nine consecutive weeks and receive a stipend of $5,500.

“We decided to do a pilot in summer 2020 with three students from San Jose State and three from Stanford. We are planning on assembling a cohort in February. It’s a great opportunity to bring students from SJSU and Stanford together. They are so close but don’t have much interaction,” said Taylor.

SJSU’s Center for Community Learning and Leadership (CCLL), celebrating two decades on campus, was also involved in the San Jose State iteration of the experience. CCLL supports classes that have a service-learning requirement embedded in the curriculum so students can apply what they are learning in the classroom by serving the community. Over the past 20 years, an  estimated 80,000 SJSU students have contributed more than 1,400,000 hours to the community through service-learning.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for our San Jose State students to receive funding for their service,” said Andrea Tully, CCLL assistant director. “In a recent study of SJSU service-learning alumni, we found that one of the biggest obstacles to their experience was being able to work, often full time, complete school work and serve. The stipend will likely alleviate some of the burden of needing to work and serve.”

Although the program will sync well with students studying American literature and social work, it is open to all SJSU and Stanford students across disciplines.

Professor of Psychology and CCLL Faculty Director Elena Klaw said the program also fits with SJSU’s ideals and objectives as a center. It emphasizes that academic learning and service should not be separate.

“The focus is to take Steinbeck’s scholarly work and bring it to life in real communities in which people are currently working. And there are still plenty of inequities to highlight, transform and address while engaging with Steinbeck’s fiction, both as a historical body of work but also as a literary body of work,” Klaw said.

Apply for the Fellowship

Get more information and apply for the Steinbeck/Gentlemen of the Road Service Fellowship by February 29, 2020.

Watch Mumford and Sons accept the 2019 Steinbeck Award