MLK Day: A Reflection on Service

Gaby Perez is an iMentor Program Manager in Oakland, working with seniors and post-secondary students from Lionel Wilson Prep. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Gaby reflects on the personal significance of Dr. King’s writings around service, and the role her own mentor played in developing her sense of obligation to those around her.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Most of you have done something for someone today, others last week, and some of you may not be able to think of a recent time. That is OKAY. This reflection isn’t to guilt anyone, but to provide insight about the impact you could be making, and what it could mean to someone like me.

If I’d been asked, “What are you doing for others?” in July of 2010 (the month before I went to college), I would’ve said I was not interested. You see, I come from an environment rooted in violence, oppression, and selfishness. In order to survive in Hunters Point, you mind your own business and look out for yourself. I had no interest in doing for others when I needed to watch over my own back first.

That narrative quickly transformed for me.

10 years ago, I arrived at Saint Mary’s College of California with this unsettling feeling of the unknown; of what was in store for me as a first-generation Latina in higher education. I was leaving behind the familiarity of the environment I had known my whole life and was entering a space that made me question every step that I took. I was met with oppression, pressure to meet the expectations of others, and a lack of social capital. For a time, I wondered if college was meant for me.

It was not until January of 2011 that I took a leap of faith and reached out to my academic advisor, Corliss Watkins. Questions about transferring to a different school and returning home were weighing on me, but I owed it to my immigrant parents to get a second opinion. I was met with a smile, and comfort that would become familiar in the years to come.

Corliss became my person, my mentor.

As resistant as I initially was to her because of the mistrust I had, she took a chance on me. Through her mentorship I found the support, resources, love, and validation I needed to survive in this new environment of college. I was guided to replace hopelessness with resilience, fear with confidence, and silence with resistance. And through this journey, she reminded me to stay inspired and focus on my truth.

On July 16, 2018 Corliss lost her battle with cancer.

I was given the privilege of having this amazing woman in my life for eight beautiful years. Because of her, I feel a deep sense of obligation to make the biggest impact possible to those around me because of the foundation she was able to provide me – a foundation grounded in love and purpose.

Corliss was my GPS. My reason to be a better person for others. While my path feels unclear without her presence, her lasting impact on my soul reassures me that I am not discovering it on my own. And THAT is the best gift she left me.

Why does this all matter? We can all think of someone that gave us a little bit of hope and cultivated our resilience. Who supported us through some difficult moments and who were always there to celebrate our wins. These people played a critical role in advocating for and contributing to positive change in our lives. As we celebrate this month, that long, and as of yet, unfinished journey toward liberty and justice for all - we celebrate, too, mentors like Corliss who dedicated their lives to uplift others.

So, I ask you. In honor of giving back, “What are you doing for others?”