By Briahnna Brown
Understandings of diversity and inclusion need to be grounded in understandings of history and everything that led us to this moment, said poet and author Clint Smith.
That means recognizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s scholarship as part of his legacy, Dr. Smith said, and engaging in deeper interrogations of the way racism shaped the United States into the country it is today. This includes everything from the role that the country’s Founding Fathers played in upholding slavery to analyzing the way programs such as the New Deal implicitly excluded Black people from attaining upward mobility.
“We are so committed to the idea of American exceptionalism that we suppress anything that makes us look unexceptional or that runs counter to that narrative, and what King was asking us to do—he was saying lean into that,” Dr. Smith said. “Lean into a recognition that our history is full of contradictory entanglements.”
Dr. Smith delivered the keynote address via Zoom at George Washington University’s 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Leadership on Monday, which was centered around Dr. King’s principles, ideals and values. President Thomas LeBlanc said that GW must be unwavering in its commitment to Dr. King’s values of inclusivity and equity, especially because we are living in a time when holding onto these values is more important than ever.
“As a comprehensive global research university in the nation's capital, we have a responsibility to use our scholarship, our resources and our time for the betterment of our communities,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We also serve as an example to others in the hope that our work locally makes a difference nationally, and even internationally.
“We welcome all 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,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We must remember this not just today, but also every day.”
In the past, GW’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Leadership traditionally drew about 1,000 GW students, faculty and staff to gather in Lisner Auditorium before going to different parts of Washington, D.C., to complete service projects. However, because of the pandemic, the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service hosted virtual service projects for participants to safely engage from their own homes.
Amy Cohen, executive director of the Nashman Center, said that in selecting virtual service projects, her team prioritized what would be the most meaningful for participants in a online format.
“There's just so many different ways that we can express our desire to be engaged with the community, and doing it virtually is just another mode of becoming involved,” Ms. Cohen said. “These are needs that are important.”
Virtual service opportunities included a letter writing campaign for military veterans led by GW Silver Wings, transcribing historical documents from the Freedman’s Bureau through the Smithsonian Transcription Center, and phone banking with Girls on the Run-DC, a nonprofit organization that empowers young girls in D.C. and in Prince George’s County, Md., to engage in physical activity. Beyond the day of service, there is also an ongoing Winter Care Package Drive in partnership with D.C. Public Schools to donate warm clothing and hygiene products for local youth in need.
There were also a number of workshops available for participants, such as a peace circle hosted by Little Friends for Peace where people reflected on Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy in a discussion on Zoom and an art therapy workshop where participants created artworks to tell stories about their personal experiences.
Alyson Campbell, a senior majoring in American studies in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, was a site leader for a workshop with Jumpstart at GW. Traditionally, the Jumpstart service project involves crafting early-childhood educational materials for the D.C. students that Jumpstart serves. This year, Jumpstart hosted a workshop focused on the disparities in education systems and how participants can make education more equitable by applying Dr. King’s philosophies around peace and civil disobedience.
Ms. Campbell said that even though constraints brought upon by the pandemic change the service experience, gaining a deeper understanding of the importance of service through educational workshops helps inform her work so that she can better serve in the future.
“It's really easy to just go about your day—you’re isolated you're at home, but there's still always these issues and things are still going on outside of our little bubbles of our houses,” Ms. Campbell said. “I think it's just important that these virtual service opportunities remind us of what's going on and kind of give you the momentum to keep serving and finding a new, creative ways to serve.”