On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. famously revealed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial his recurring dream where all children, regardless their race, gender, religion or ethnicity, would one day be able to join hands together—free at last.
Less than a mile north of those very same steps on the annual day of service honoring his life and mission nearly 60 years later, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and person of color to hold the second most influential position in the nation’s executive branch of government, challenged George Washington University students to test the relevancy of their work by thinking about how it affects a child and whether those efforts properly answer King’s calling.
Harris visited the University Student Center on GW’s Foggy Bottom campus Monday to work with some of the 500-plus GW community volunteers participating in the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service’s annual MLK Jr. Day of Service and Leadership. The vice president sat at a table with civically engaged GW students involved with the AmeriCorps Jumpstart program who were creating math flashcards for schoolchildren in the D.C. area.
Harris—along with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona— grabbed a marker and joined in on the project while simultaneously conversing with the GW students about why each of them had decided to use their role as leaders to invest in the future of the country, especially through aiding children. She encouraged students to always ask how an idea to improve the country will impact young people.
“Because of the work that you each have been doing and are doing today, you'll be able to help answer that question with honesty and accuracy in a way that will challenge us to think about the direction we are headed as a country consistent with Dr. King's dream about who we are and who we should be,” Harris said.
“And you all as students here have dedicated yourselves to that approach to your leadership in our world and our country, and it is a noble pursuit.”
Cardona, HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge, AmeriCorps CEO Michael A. Smith and Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn, M.A. ’00, joined Harris at the MLK Jr. Day of Service festivities.
In her talk with students, the vice president advised hundreds of them at the University Student Center that any individual’s greatest measure of strength is based not on who they beat down but who they lift up. If they ever question their purpose, she said, their answer will come when they realize the impact they can have on another human being.
The vice president said she felt inspiration being surrounded by so many GW students who used the federal holiday as a day of action for others instead of a day off.
“I know when I look at the students here, our future is bright,” she said. “Keep doing what you are doing, and our nation and our world are counting on your leadership.”
GW students Cheyenne Baltimore and Cradler Volmar, both Jumpstart members who were at the table Harris and Cardona joined, have strong service backgrounds in their respective hometowns and felt a sense of duty serving in honor of King on Monday. But what started as an afternoon of making and coloring flashcards turned into one of engaging conversation with the vice president. For the nearly 30 minutes she sat at the table, Harris asked each of the students about their service journeys while offering advice about their futures and even recommended useful books based on the students’ interests and areas of study.
“She was honestly mentoring us the entire time,” said Volmar, a junior political science and business major. “She was more concerned about who we are as individuals just like okay, follow your passions and then gave each of us some career advice.”
“She was the one asking us questions,” added Baltimore, a senior human services and social justice major. “I definitely thought it would be the other way around, but she wanted to know why we are here, what we like to do and what we study.”
It was an only-at-GW moment they won’t soon forget.
Cabinet Members Hold Panel Discussion
Before the vice president’s appearance at GW, members of her and President Joe Biden’s administration engaged in a panel talk at the Lisner Auditorium. AmeriCorps’ Smith moderated the discussion among Cardona, Fudge and Spahn about service and how it can shape communities and bridge divides.
“It is indeed a hallmark of our country's respect for civic education and democratic participation, and we find dedicated leaders coming to us to talk about the ways that they support service and equity and how we can do so to foster civil society in our communities and in our neighborhoods,” said GW President Mark S. Wrighton.
The panelists shared with GW students how they became invested in service and provided context to challenges that threaten equality for all as well as solutions for paths forward.
In response to a GW student question about social issues becoming politicized and how civically engaged and service-oriented people can navigate the polarization without losing sight of the issue at hand, Spahn advised them to always look through the lens of shared humanity.
“When we boil it down, it is not a Democrat or Republican issue or even a U.S. issue,” Spahn said. “It is a global issue about how we decide to show up in the world. When we show up with compassion, as Dr. King has inspired in us all, and the principles behind that, we get the concept of a beloved community.”
Cardona pointed to GW’s MLK Jr. Day of Service efforts as an example of what he’d like to see from universities throughout the country. He looks for people of character and understanding to walk through the halls of schools that need help coming out of the pandemic. That way, when issues arise, people will know how to solve them because they put in the effort to serve and get to know people of different backgrounds.
“You are our inspiration, and hearing your stories are what keeps us going,” Cardona said.
Fudge grew up in the height of the modern civil rights movement and always understood who King was fighting for, and she believes she is a direct result of that. In her role as HUD secretary, she is addressing inequalities in the housing industry that disproportionally affect minorities and people living in poverty.
Citing King, she said that those who don’t have a sense of self or purpose cannot begin to help others, and that providing equal opportunities would help people in need figure out a path forward. That’s why, she said, it’s important to call out inequities when they are seen. She challenged GW students to be compassionate and never stay silent.
“If there is a kid in your neighborhood who is struggling, try reaching out to them,” she said. “Solve the problems in your neighborhood, in your dormitory, in your school and in your community, and then it gets bigger because then you have more people to help you.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day serves as a reminder to just how significant a movement can blossom based on the actions of few. GW located just blocks away from the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, has a long and proud history of producing changemakers and leaders striving for a more just future, evidenced once again on Monday.
“On this MLK Day of Service and Leadership, we are grateful to be able to bring folks together to accomplish important and meaningful tasks for others,” said GW Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Caroline Laguerre-Brown. “I am proud to be part of a university that strives to live out the legacy, promise and principles of Dr. King.”