By Briahnna Brown
For Jody Olsen, director of the Peace Corps, her service began in August 1963, when she witnessed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that Martin Luther King Jr. led to fight inequality.
She said that she was “overwhelmed by the dignity” of the event and was inspired to join the Peace Corps so she could also serve. Dr. Olsen was volunteering in Tunisia in 1968 when she learned that Dr. King had been assassinated, and she was devastated. Yet, she used that moment as a recommitment to service as a way to honor the man that inspired her to serve.
Dr. Olsen shared her story during George Washington University’s 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Leadership, where 900 volunteers from the GW community served in honor of Dr. King at service projects throughout the Washington, D.C., area.
Volunteers contributed about 2,700 service hours in total at 21 different sites with projects ranging from local school cleanups to CPR training, from transcribing Freedmen’s Bureau documents to preparing paracord bracelets for active-duty military.
The Day of Service and Leadership is part of GW’s annual King Week events, celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King throughout January with thought-provoking and inspiring programming.
President Thomas LeBlanc welcomed the day’s participants in Lisner Auditorium by saying that days of service—as well as the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion—are part of GW’s broader mission.
"As a comprehensive research university, we have a responsibility to use our scholarship, our resources and our time for the betterment of our communities," Dr. LeBlanc said. “We welcome all of you to make your mark here, and we support you in your efforts to make life better for everyone, particularly those among us who are vulnerable, marginalized or discriminated against.”
In his first MLK Jr. Day of Service at GW, Provost M. Brian Blake said that honoring King is personal to him. As an African-American computer scientist, he has seen how much progress the field has made in welcoming African-American computer scientists in the decades since he first started.
Dr. Blake said this progress embodies Dr. King’s values, and volunteers honoring Dr. King through their service are also working to fight injustice and work toward a better society in their own way.
“Today, you are agents of change who are helping build a more just society,” Dr. Blake said. “Through your commitment to action and being here today, you honor the legacy of Dr. King, and after today I encourage you to continue to do, to thrive, to be and to set in motion; the world needs you."
Journalist Zinhle Essamuah, B.A. ’15, M.A. ’17, used her keynote address to talk about Dr. King’s mission in combatting injustice. Ms. Essamuah, a correspondent for NowThis News, said that her work involves reporting on the evils that Dr. King identified: poverty, racism and militarism. Poverty deals with unemployment, illiteracy and income inequality; racism deals with prejudice, sexism, homophobia and colonialism; and militarism deals with war, imperialism and violence, she said.
She also talked about Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence that need to be cultivated, and she focused on believing that the universe is on the side of justice and choosing love instead of hate. She told the stories of two women who were “extraordinarily ordinary,” her grandmother in Uganda who is a community matriarch that serves by regularly driving people to the hospital more than 20 miles away or donating her land for a community church, and Wendi Winters, a Capital Gazette reporter in Ms. Essamuah’s hometown who was killed during a mass shooting in 2018 and, according to witnesses, tried to stop the gunman by grabbing a trashcan and charging at him with it.
These women embody the principles of nonviolence that Dr. King championed, Ms. Essamuah said, because our actions as servants ultimately bring us together.
"The three evils are clearly present in our world but we're not called to be defeated by them,” Ms. Essamuah said. “I do not believe pain is to be ignored, but ultimately, the overflow of love and faith and hope in our lives, stemming from relationship and community, should spur us to act boldly in the face of darkness."
Off-campus, volunteers served at schools and nonprofit organizations to help with cleaning and beautifying the facilities. At Thomson Elementary School, Sam Chuan, a senior studying criminal justice, led the project working to clean the school’s garden in anticipation for warmer weather, as well as sanitizing common areas to help protect students during flu season. He said that serving is important for him because it helps in addressing inequalities seen throughout the District.
In the Marvin Center, volunteers participated in service projects like Jumpstart at GW, which involved crafting literacy activities for pre-school children. This year’s project involved making materials for individual, hands-on work with the students that Jumpstart at GW serves. Site leaders Leila Wynnyckyj, a sophomore studying international affairs, and Alyson Campbell, a junior studying human services and social justice as well as American studies, work with Jumpstart at GW throughout the year. They said that their work helps bridge education gaps for Washington, D.C., children, and this service project is important in their work.
“Service has been an integral part at my college, Ms. Wynnyckyj said. “I'm certainly glad George Washington has this day of service to commemorate MLK and be together as a community.”