GW Students Honor MLK Jr. with Day of Service

Over 300 members of the GW community volunteered with 13 organizations and the acting U.S. labor secretary around the D.C. area on Monday.

January 16, 2024

GW volunteers at Takoma Elementary School in NW DC.

GW students were joined by Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, at Takoma Elementary School. (William Atkins/GW Today)

George Washington University students and other members of the GW community reflected on how to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy while working on service projects on Monday, marking the 29th MLK Jr. Day of Service and Leadership.

The day of service kicked off GW’s King Week, a university-wide observance of King’s life. 

After the opening program, sponsored by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, around 350 GW volunteers moved to various schools and organizations around the D.C. community.

Irish Quarshie, a sophomore studying psychology at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), was one of the site leaders who spent the day serving at Takoma Elementary School in Northwest D.C.

She has volunteered at other D.C. schools as a tutor in the past and loves to spend her time helping local students.

“So signing up for MLK Day of Service was another way to give back to the schools,” Quarshie said. “We’re just here making sure that we can aid the school however they need.”

She said she was excited to volunteer and take part in the community with fellow GW students.

“I feel like it's a good introduction to the semester,” Quarshie said. “Of course, being a GW student, we're known to be advocates for our community. I like to see that many others have the same goals. So, it’s very motivating to be in such a unifying space.”

The volunteers at Takoma Elementary spent the day organizing school supplies, files and books for the students.

Bri Attey Mouanjo, a junior studying organizational science at CCAS, said it is important for her to spend MLK Day giving back to her community.

“I think this is a great way to celebrate and commemorate just the notion of the day and what MLK and others who sacrificed so much stood for,” Mouanjo said.

She said she would encourage others who want to use the holiday to honor MLK’s legacy through community service to volunteer their time to causes that mean the most to them.

“It’s okay if you can't go out and do something today,” Mouanjo said. “But maybe use reflecting on this day as kind of like your starting point and then continue volunteering throughout the year.”

Madeleine Brown, a senior studying graphic design at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, has volunteered through the MLK Day of Service since her first year at GW.

Brown, who is chapter president of the MU Beta chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, was at Takoma Elementary with her fellow chapter members.

“I love getting to help in the local communities around D.C.,” Brown said. “King was always in the community fighting for issues that affect the Black community. I appreciate Dr. King for bringing out the community to help. And so today, I brought together my chapter members."

She said MLK gave such a great example of the importance of giving back to your community, there’s not better way to spend the day than through service.

“You can learn about MLK and his history and what he did for people,” Brown said. “But when you learn about his history and his legacy, you know that he was out there on the front lines protesting, advocating for people. So, when you participate, when you come out to schools, when you serve at workshops, that's how you actively participate and continue his legacy. By doing the work too.”

Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su
Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su (in maroon sleeves with dark vest) joined more than 300 volunteers from the GW community on service projects on Monday. (Nick Erickson/GW Today)

Service participants contributed about 1,000 service hours in total at 13 different sites with projects including local school cleanups, creating harm-reduction kits, removing broken glass from park trails and transcribing Freedmen’s Bureau documents. Volunteers in the Grand Ballroom of the University Student Center were joined in a project to create math, literacy and social, emotional learning materials for preschoolers in GW Jumpstart by acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su.

Su participated in Jumpstart at GW’s service project at the University Student Center, grabbing a pair of scissors and joining student volunteers in cutting paper for craft projects that Jumpstart will eventually use to serve preschool-aged children and families in low-income neighborhoods around D.C. through language and literacy development programming.

Su, whom President Joe Biden appointed as acting secretary of labor in March, is a nationally recognized expert on workers’ rights and civil rights and has a distinguished legal career fighting for justice on behalf of disenfranchised communities. She felt energized and hopeful Monday interacting with the service-minded students at GW.

“These projects that relate to making sure every young person has the same opportunity as anybody else are just so fundamental to who we are as a country,” Su told GW Today. “Honoring Dr. King’s legacy and doing something to help advance that idea that every young person deserves a chance is really important, and to come here and see so many young people volunteering really gives me a lot of hope for our future.” 

In Southeast Washington’s Horton’s Kids hub, a brightly lit community center that provides wholistic support for youth development, families and community, GW students led by site leaders Lauren Schumann and Melissa Epstein, split up. One group remained at the hub to help teachers set up for an after-school program in math and literacy tutoring that would open the following day.

“This is just something beautiful. I’m here with people who want to make change, who want to be in education. I want to be in education,” said sophomore Javier José Castillo. “It’s very important. We’re celebrating a very important hero in American history. I grew up learning the history, however small and slight, the information of Martin Luther King’s presence in the civil rights movement in the 60s—similar to Malcolm X. I looked up to them.”

Landon McDonald joined Castillo in reorganizing a storage room where a stash of toys is kept that reward children’s attendance in the tutoring program. “I had ample time, a day off from school and everything,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to come out and help today.”

A few minutes away at Horton’s Kids center in the Stanton Oaks housing complex, junior Melissa Epstein, sophomore Meghan Montgomery and other GW students jumped right in, setting up tables, warming biscuit and cheese sausage sandwiches, and laying out muffins and juice boxes for children from the neighborhood who lined up for lunch.

“My work is with nonprofits. I really enjoy the work,” said Epstein, who is a service site leader with the Nashman Center. “I love facilitating these days. MLK Service Day is awesome because people are really motivated and dedicated to it.”

Montgomery volunteered as a poll worker when she was in high school in a Colorado neighborhood she’d never been in, so she was glad Granberg talked about giving back to the community and going to places you’re not familiar with.

“It’s awesome. This is a great community,” she said, “interacting with all the different people and my peers. It’s been great.”

Junior Imani Granville, who is part of the GW Caribbean Students Association that makes a point of volunteering for MLK Jr. Day of Service every year, shrugged and said, “Like they say, 'It’s a day on, not a day off.'”