By Thalia Halloran

This post is the first in a series called Profiles in Leadership, chronicling the extraordinary endeavors of Hart students during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

Margaret Gaw (SOL ’20, Trinity ’22) has risen above and beyond since the COVID-19 crisis hit Duke. Gaw, an English major and Chemistry minor, worked with Catherine McMillan (Trinity ’22) to create the Duke Accountability Project, a program where students who are struggling to adjust to the new virtual education system are partnered up to keep one another accountable. Students fill out a form with information about their classes and interests, and then are assigned partners. The two students make their own arrangements about how to keep one another motivated. “So far we’ve heard back from a few of the groups that it has been helpful in keeping them productive and on top of their homework even while they’re at home,” Gaw said.

For Gaw, home is Nashville, Tennessee. Not only has COVID-19 hit Nashville hard, a few weeks before cases began showing up there was a major tornado which took 6 lives, caused 220 injuries, and destroyed many acres of property. Upon her arrival home, Gaw and a friend from high school have taken action to help set up Nashville Mutual Aid. Inspired by similar efforts at Duke, Stanford, and other communities, Gaw is emphatic that mutual aid is “not charity, not a one-off giving of a resource.” Instead, mutual aid is “a mutual and collaborative relationship where people give and receive both ways.” Gaw and her friend set up a Facebook page and a spreadsheet where Nashville locals could sign up if they had a resource they could provide or if they were in need of a resource. Then, people could exchange what they had, whether that be money, food, or medicine. Gaw set out to contact local community leaders so that the mutual aid fund could be “a connection within a neighborhood so that more long-lasting and sustainable health is achieved.”

However, this has been one of the biggest challenges she’s faced in her endeavor. “It’s been hard to find those liaisons and build those relationships because we are full-time college students.” She added that “there’s a whole community of organizers and advocates who are trying to do this work in the most ethical way,” and that she’s been able to team up with some of these organizations and nonprofits to create a more centralized hub for COVID-19 and tornado aid. “I’ve learned from this experience that it’s important to go into something with goals that are realistic and with a certain amount of humility. For me, having an impact on a handful of people was the goal, and we’ve done that,” Gaw said.

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaw planned to do her SOL summer project in London working with refugees and asylum seekers. Now that Duke has announced that many summer programs are suspended or virtualized, she’s looking into more local virtual opportunities instead. Though her new project is still in the early stages, she’s interested in looking into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s literacy and readership.

Her final advice for other students? “Everyone’s in such a unique situation. Look out for one another, and take advantage of those resources Duke has provided.”