You can "adopt a spot" to maintain at one of Oakland's parks, creeks, or other public sites, as your MLK Day Jr. service project this year. Credit: Pete Rosos

It’s become a tradition for Oaklanders to gather every Martin Luther King Jr. Day for community service projects sponsored by the city, local organizations, and national volunteer groups. 

This year, needless to say, people shouldn’t assemble by the dozens or hundreds to work on hands-on projects. Instead, the city of Oakland has put together a list of activities and tasks that residents can complete by themselves, at home or in their neighborhoods, during “40 days of service” from Jan. 15 to Feb. 28.

The list includes a range of projects, some small, some large, some one-time-only, and some ongoing. You can offer donated items for COVID-19 relief, and the city will connect you with a recipient (usually a community organization). You can download an app called Be My Eyes to assist blind people with tasks virtually, like pointing out where something is on a shelf or reading an expiration date—or to request support, if you need visual assistance. You can create a personal map of Oakland, featuring city spots that are important to you, to be included in the Oakland Museum’s community atlas.

Other suggestions include ways residents can care for the environment, by starting a home compost system, for example, or by planting a drought-tolerant garden. If you have kids, you can learn together about gardening and nutrition through the Edible Schoolyard curriculum.

There are options that will take participants beyond the 40 days of service as well, like the “adopt a spot” or “adopt a drain” programs, where residents work on an ongoing basis to clean and maintain a designated park, storm drain, or other public site.

Own a home or rental property? You can consult the Oakland Fire Department’s tips for improving fire safety. Or you can offer a room to one of the thousand Oakland residents in need of a safe place to live. 

If you’re really, really unmotivated and want to complete a task that you’re hopefully already doing, you can follow EBMUD’s guidance about what to put down your toilet. (Yes, “Don’t flush wipes” is one of the options on the city’s list of MLK service actions.)

MLK Day of Service is a national event officially designated by the U.S. Congress, often described as “a day on, not a day off.” The tradition is meant to honor the civil rights leader’s legacy by encouraging people to engage with, and work to strengthen, their communities.

Others in Oakland choose to carry on King’s teachings differently, including through the annual Reclaim MLK’s Radical Legacy Day of Action. The community groups behind the popular march and related events say King’s revolutionary message has been sanitized and misrepresented. The march is continuing this year, in the form of a car caravan Monday calling on the city to redirect public funds away from policing to support housing, jobs, mental health programs, and other social services, and as “an immediate response to the violence in our streets that is NOT rooted in the carceral state.” A series of other workshops and events were held over the weekend, too, including an eviction rights training, a creative writing session, and a Black women’s “virtual wailing ceremony.” 

See the city’s full list of service projects online. Most are not time- or date-sensitive, so you can return for ideas throughout the year. You can report some of the volunteer activities so Oakland can track the impact of the service work on the city.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.