By now, you have already planned your Martin Luther King Day, Jr. celebrations for next week. But it’s not too late to get started for next year.
Many communities follow the lead of non-profit organizations in their community and participate in events organized by educational institutions and community groups. The City of Rockville uses its Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration as a way to honor and commemorate the work of Dr. King while celebrating the diversity of the community. The celebration is planned and organized by Rockville’s all-volunteer Human Rights Commission (HRC) and includes presentation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Youth Award, which goes to a Rockville high school student who has worked to fulfill Dr. King's dream, and the F. Michael Taff Award to a business, organization, or adult that has helped to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Because Rockville has over 40 years of experience under its belt, we reached out to Marylou Berg, Rockville’s Director of Communication and Engagement, to better understand how the day comes together for the city.
Q. Could you give us a bit of history about how Rockville’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day got its start?
Rockville’s Human Rights Commission started the event to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. The Rockville celebration started before the holiday was signed into law. This will be our 45th annual event. The first event was small, held in the Mayor and Council Chambers. Since then, it has grown steadily and become a community tradition.
Q. How does the city engage volunteers to help plan and coordinate the celebration?
Each year the HRC chooses a theme and speaker for the event. For 2017, for instance, the theme is “Modern Day Dream,” and our speaker is a well-respected director from the county’s schools administration whose specialty is diversity initiatives. The HRC also provides input on performers and invite other community service groups to attend and share information about their services. We use student volunteers from the local high school to help the day of the show as ushers, and for set up and break down, and tech assistance. This also lets them earn Service Learning Hours.
Q. How does city staff get involved? Is it an official day off? Did you consider a day of service as some communities do?
MLK day is a city holiday. While the county does a day of service program, employees participate on their own. We do see quite a few employees at the event.
Q. How many residents typically participate in the event? What promotional outreach works best?
The MLK day celebration has more than four decades of history in Rockville, and has become a real, tangible, growing tradition. We typically see about 600 attendees, and more come each time. Over the years, we have had to move the event to a local high school with an auditorium that has room for the growing audience.
We do a full-court press to promote this event — print/posters/social media/emails/web — the whole gamut. Detailed planning is critical to ensure our outreach is as effective as it can be. Months beforehand, one of my public information officers develops a comprehensive communications plan that outlines exactly how we’ll be approaching the event from a communications standpoint. We meet frequently to flesh out that plan out using notes on what was and (importantly) wasn’t effective from the previous year. That way, everyone knows their responsibilities and communication expectations.
Rockville is a diverse community, and becoming more so every day. One thing we’re diligent about is to provide information in several languages throughout all our communication platforms, and distribute print posters and fliers throughout the community.
We also include information about the celebration in our newsletter, “Rockville Reports,” which is mailed to every residence in the city, and is online at www.rockvillereports.com. (You can see our article on MLK day here.) Rockville Channel 11, our municipal TV station, promos the event. Their staff will cover the celebration for broadcast that evening, and video will go up on our YouTube.com channel. Summing up, we use all our communications channels in hopes that we’ll reach residents in one or multiple ways — the more times we can touch base with them, the more effective we can be about reminding them they have a chance to attend this long-standing celebration.
Q. What advice would you give to other cities who want to either start or update their Martin Luther King Jr. Day events?
In Rockville, the holiday is about people coming together to celebrate what Dr. King referred to as “love in action.” We celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, but we also provide an opportunity for the community to meet and interact with people they may not meet in their everyday lives. After every MLK Day event, we have an “after party” (with refreshments!). This is a real opportunity for a community as diverse as ours to engage with each other in person — something that’s becoming more and more critical to a divided country — and get to know the people in municipal government who work for them. To see so many people coming together on this special day, interacting with the Mayor, Council, City Manager and city staff, is really quite special, and what Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is meant to represent – service to others.