Sam Sittenfield volunteering at a community center. Photo by: Becca Suffrin
Sam Sittenfield volunteering at a community center.
Photo by: Becca Suffrin

By Sam Sittenfield

I have more MLK Weekend volunteering t-shirts than I know what to do with. In middle school and high school, I would meet up with a handful of students from my school and a local Muslim school.  We would sit around, talk, and learn from each other, and of course–get a free t-shirt.

Sam wearing one of his many MLK Day Volunteer T-Shirts
Photo by: Caitlin Feldenhouse

In many ways, those were the first times that I was able to engage with my privilege and understand that not everyone has it as easy as I did as a teen. I remember a chaperone from the Muslim community telling us about the slurs and names they they were called on their own streets.

Then we made some sandwiches and went home.

I’ve realized that it was a good start, but definitely not enough. We need to regularly have difficult conversations about race, privilege, and inequality–not just once a year, and not just when it is convenient.  When I help those in need sign up for SNAP benefits (food stamps), they are struggling with oppression every day.  When I work with a client at the food pantry to pick out what food is best and most appropriate for their family, they are fighting against the political, social, and economic forces that leave ? of all NYC families unable to afford the food that they need to feed themselves.

Dr. King Jr. said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Why can’t we devote a little bit more of our time to have some of those same conversations.  A little bit more time to learn about the burdens of the oppressed minorities, who are also our neighbors.  A little bit more time to understand a fraction of what it feels like to not be able to provide food for your family.  A little bit more time to have a sliver of recognition of what it feels like to walk into a store and have all eyes on you, expecting you to steal something or pull out a knife.

How can we be better allies in this battle?

Sam volunteering at New York Cares Day Fall
Photo by: Shannon Ferguson

We could start by listening to our leaders who have some experience.  On Friday, September 15th, Repair The World NYC is hosting a dinner to prime us on these topics of racial injustice.  We Are Allies will feature a conversation between Rabbi Rachel Timoner and Tynesha McHarris, two thought leaders on thought leaders.

Then we will pierce that same silence that Dr. King Jr. spoke about with our actions.  This MLK Day Weekend, Repair The World NYC is hosting an array of more than 20 volunteer projects with our community partners to address the needs of our community members in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  You can volunteer to ease the immediate needs of the most vulnerable in our communities, and also work towards changing the systemic and cultural problems in our society that are the means to long term change.

Let’s start off the year right by starting to make a difference, in our own lives, by having conversations that help us to change our behaviors, our actions, and our beliefs.  Additionally, we need to make a difference in the lives of those around us by volunteering with and alongside underserved communities.  With our many hands, we can start to lighten the burden that society casts on our neighbors and friends.  With our many voices, we can break the silence on the issues that really matter.


Sam Sittenfield is the Food Justice Team Leader Fellow at Repair The World NYC, working to educate and recruit volunteers around areas of food justice in Central Brooklyn


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