HARLEM — The way Kyle Ragland sees it, everyone, especially young people, has the power to channel the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
"He was willing to risk his freedom and even his life because he was fighting to change the world," Ragland, an eighth-grader at Manhattan Country School said during his speech Monday before 200 people in front of St. Philip's Church on West 134th Street.
'We want to pass his message on because everyone has a chance to do something and pass on the power to change," he said afterward.
Ragland was one of hundreds of young people across Harlem working to make the birthday of the celebrated civil rights leader a day of service. In East Harlem, middle school students at P.S./M.S. 96 attended workshops on how to resist the pressure to carry a weapon and express their hopes for their community through spoken word.
In Central Harlem, at the Harriet Tubman Learning Center, dozens of young people danced, sang and rapped about Dr. King's message while community organizers offered ways to volunteer and registered young voters.
"This day is really a special day because Martin Luther King Jr. fought for all people and I appreciate that," said 17-year-old Frank Gyeabour, a junior at Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music after performing a couple of trumpet selections.
"Young people can stay in school get good grades and live up to what Dr. King fought for and not be less than he expected."
Abdul Kareem Muhammad, of the community group Circle of Brothers, which organized the event with Street Corner Resources and Harlem 4, said he was encouraged by the turnout.
"We want to have the youth involved and give them a primary role because a lot of the problems we are trying to solve affects them," said Muhammad.
During an event at P.S./M.S. 96 sponsored by City Year New York and the Youth Violence Task Force, Frank Lopez of Peace Poets led a spoken word workshop, helping kids to write and recite their own pieces.
"When you do step up and tell your story, it's powerful," Lopez said after three young women stood to read a poem about themselves, their families and values.
"We can't tell the story of our community if we can't tell the story of ourselves."
In the gym, volunteers built bookcases and planters for the school and for a community center at Wagner Houses. In the hallways, volunteers painted inspirational messages above the classrooms.
"Most people think today is a day off, but it's really a day to do something and give service," said Jalen Watson, 11, as he painted a sign for Wagner Houses.
P.S./M.S. 96 first-year principal Betty Lugo said the day's events shows that "it takes a village."
"One of the things we are working on in building a great school is changing the culture. I'm hoping this will make a difference and our kids will learn about being leaders," said Lugo.
At the Harriet Tubman Learning Center, a rapper known as The 80s Baby, told the crowd how he recently graduated from Penn State University. Because he was from Harlem, others can do the same, he said.
"I definitely am the dream," he told the crowd.