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Innovating volunteerism and inspiring action amid a pandemic

by Becky Lattof, on 2/3/21 1:30 PM

As the Vice President of Marketing and Director of Programs at L.A. Works, Gyasi Ross engages volunteers and community advocates in social justice initiatives across the Los Angeles region.

In this episode of the Participate podcast, hosts Mike Washburn and Dr. Julie Keane talk with Ross about L.A. Works’ mission of engaging communities and making a social impact, specifically through a recent initiative around its first-ever multi-platform virtual MLK Jr. Day of Service.

An unprecedented need for flexibility

Prior to the presence of COVID-19, L.A. Works hosted volunteer events that mobilized hundreds and even thousands of people in person in California. One of its biggest volunteerism days has been the MLK Jr. Day of Service.

Overview of L.A. Works’ 2020 MLK Jr. Day of Service

As the pandemic continued and L.A. Works was setting an example of what effective virtual volunteering could be, Ross considered the various ways to bring innovative ideas to the 2021 MLK Jr. Day of Service. L.A. Works wanted to continue to honor Dr. King’s life and legacy and give volunteers the tools needed to advocate for real change.

And the result was a new effort to transform how volunteers engaged in the community. Through virtual learning workshops about equity and race, a virtual Minecraft March on Washington with live tours and a socially-distanced drive-through experience with murals and prepackaged school supply bags for students, L.A. Works still created unique opportunities for volunteers to learn and connect with their communities and move the needle of issues of equity, together.

Welcome video for L.A. Works’ 2021 virtual MLK Jr. Day of Service

Education improves advocacy

L.A. Works’ mission is to increase volunteers within Los Angeles, provide access to resources for nonprofits and educate the broader Los Angeles community on issues that affect them.

In the past couple of years, Ross says L.A. Works started leaning heavily into education to prompt volunteerism, bringing in leaders to teach community members how to advocate, write to Congress members, get initiatives passed, etc. This year, the nonprofit has specifically targeted hunger relief and COVID-19 to help rebuild Los Angeles in addition to educating volunteers on current social justice issues.

This work continued during the MLK Jr. Day of Service, through virtual sessions with experts addressing the intersection of criminal justice, homeless, food insecurity and race. Volunteers talked about what they learned, shared virtual and local volunteer opportunities they were engaged in and connected in reflections on the day’s experiences.

Full recording of the Criminal Justice and Race virtual workshop

Education through an immersive, timeless virtual world

Part of the education efforts for the virtual MLK Jr. Day of Service involved dreaming big and considering what a virtual March on Washington might look like. After many months of volunteers setting up the servers and the map for the National Mall, designing the landscape and buildings, researching the people involved in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for educational non-player characters and attending trainings to guide players through the experience, the Minecraft world was ready.

Minecraft March on Washington

Hundreds of people, including classrooms, signed up for tours held throughout the day and thousands on the internet toured the world live. Visitors explored, learning the stories of social justice advocates, both past and present as they followed the path of the march, visited other important locations in the nation’s capital and culminated their visit by building their own meaningful artifact in the reflection space.

Ross says providing volunteers with the space to reflect really shows how they took the world in and learned. One of his favorite pieces was a heart with many signs posted on it with uplifting words.

Minecraft reflection

Ross sees an opportunity for continuing this type of programming, connecting schools to promote learning and volunteerism in a format that is acceptable for students and seamless for teachers. He reminds us that Zoom fatigue is real and that even after a long day of work on the project, it was fun to fly in a different type of virtual space.

L.A. Works looks ahead to continue building an ecosystem of service, giving more information and learning opportunities for volunteers to continue the dialogue of equity.

“If we're all included in the conversation, we can all be included in the solution,” says Ross.

Want to create multi-channel virtual learning experiences like L.A. Works’ MLK Jr. Day of Service?

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