By Greg Varner
The coronavirus pandemic could not stop the spirit of service from moving forward at George Washington University, which observed its 27th Day of Service and Leadership in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday.
The day of service kicked off GW’s King Week, a university-wide observance of King’s life. The theme for King Week this year is "It Starts with Me." After the opening program, sponsored by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, some 250 volunteers from GW and the D.C. community participated in virtual service opportunities.
Volunteers did virtual service with the Smithsonian Transcription Center, National Archives Citizen Archivist program and Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. In the first two, GW students and community volunteers were given an unexpectedly intimate look at history by transcribing and describing documents and artifacts to make them available in digital form to the public. Free Minds works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals on creative expression and job skills; participants provided review and response to work by these individuals.
University President Mark S. Wrighton delivered remarks at the opening program for the event, which featured a keynote address by Karl Racine, attorney general for the District of Columbia.
In his remarks, Wrighton recognized King’s ongoing relevance.
“We are more than 50 years from the death of Dr. King,” Wrighton said, “but his messages — and the Civil Rights Movement more broadly — remain just as important as ever, particularly in the wake of important movements such as Black Lives Matter.”
Amy Cohen, executive director of the Nashman Center, convened the event, thanking speakers and welcoming guests.
“Justice is something that we must work on every day and in every generation,” Cohen said.
Provost Christopher A. Bracey reminded students that, after the Day of Service, they can continue to lead lives honoring King’s spirit.
“I hope that you will continue to look beyond your service today,” he said, “and consider how your academic achievements can contribute to the improvement of the world and the enhancement of our democracy.”
Wrighton concurred. “Today and every day,” he said, “we must work together to dismantle systemic racism while developing and deepening a community committed to the values of racial equity, democracy and the care for others that was exemplified by Dr. King.”
The task of introducing the keynote speaker fell to Michael Tapscott, director of GW’s Multicultural Student Services Center. Tapscott said Racine’s work over more than 25 years of legal leadership reflects the social justice advocacy that would make King proud.
After praising the GW leadership team, Racine lauded King’s legacy of fighting for justice and decried the fact that at least 19 states have recently passed laws that would restrict the access of American voters to the ballot box. He noted King’s belief that the great obstacle to progress in America was the lack of social vision.
“Today, we see that lack of vision on streets named after Dr. King,” Racine said, citing research findings that in cities across the nation, poverty rates are almost double the national average on or near streets named after the fallen leader.
With some states taking voter suppression tactics to new levels, he said, we see clear evidence of the continuing need for justice. Racine urged students to move forward with confidence.
“You’re at an extraordinary university, with Washington, D.C., as your campus,” he said. “There is nothing that GW professors can’t access, and there’s nothing that you can’t access.”
Racine described some of the goals of his office, highlighting the mandate to use the law in the public interest. He mentioned cases against slumlords and against procedural inequity, noting that some decisions with an impact on housing, zoning, environmental and economic justice have been made in private.
“Those decisions were made in the past behind the curtain,” he said. “We’re going to knock that curtain down and everyone is going to see how those decisions are made.”
Racine spoke of the importance of ensuring that workers are treated equitably and with dignity, and of the need to rehabilitate, rather than merely punish, juvenile offenders caught up in the justice system.
“The juvenile justice system should always be about treating children like children,” he said.
Concluding his remarks, Racine touched on his wish to be young again, and a GW student.
“If I have one regret,” he said, “it’s that I’m 59 and not 19. Boy, would I have fun being a freshman or sophomore at the George Washington University.”