City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick emphasized service and collectivism in his keynote address on “A New Definition of Greatness” Wednesday night in the Dillingham Center as part of Ithaca College’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Week.
Taken from King’s last sermon, “The Drum Major’s Instinct” at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., two months before his death. “A New Definition of Greatness” is the college’s theme for this year’s commemoration of MLK Week. More than 100 students, faculty and staff, and local community members — including students from the New Roots Charter School — attended Myrick’s speech in Hoerner Theater.
Myrick’s address focused on this generation’s ability to place an importance on the lives of others affected by issues such as global warming and disease, whereas people of past generations may have placed a higher importance on their own personal gain.
Myrick said stories like those told of former President George Washington and other historical figures revered for epitomizing the American dream are flawed because they’re based on the “old definition of greatness,” a theory in which people were respected for pursuing their own self interest.
“If we believe these stories, then we ourselves will become complacent,” Myrick said. “And second, we will overestimate the power of individuals and underestimate the importance of systems and communities.”
Myrick said there’s been times in his own life when he needed assistance from others to help facilitate his own success.
Myrick said his major influences were family members who placed others before themselves. His mother, for example, worked several jobs and raised her children by herself. His grandparents, who are both retired school teachers, took Myrick and his family in when they lost their home and used their pension to buy Myrick shoes and clothes. Myrick said these experiences motivated him to become involved with service.
“When I help somebody else, it’s not because I owe them because this is the purpose that I am here for,” Myrick said. “Helping them is not about pity — it’s not even about gratitude. It’s an acknowledgement of the way the world works. It’s an acknowledgement about where I am in the food chain.”
John Rawlins, assistant director for multicultural affairs at the college and chair of the MLK Week celebration planning committee, said Myrick was the ideal choice for the this year’s keynote speaker. He said Myrick’s story embodies the new definition of greatness because Myrick did not let his previous struggles determine his path for the future.
“Greatness is not always what society dictates you to be or what society says your greatness is,” Rawlins said. “Greatness really is whatever you are and being the best you can be.”
Senior Questen Benjamin said she appreciated Myrick’s emphasis on helping others.
“The focus of service and the focus of togetherness was, for me, very profound,” Benjamin said. “It reminds me of the need and the purpose for service. I really appreciated that.”
Myrick said he hopes students took away not only the importance, but also the reason and urgency for the need of service.
“To give of yourself should not be viewed as sacrifice or even martyrdom,” Myrick said. “Service is a privilege, and it should be a pleasure.”