Freshmen Joanna Chou and Jaskeerat Mann have raised more than $1,500 to support clean water projects in Africa – the result of a joke started on the roof of Mitchell Hall.
One night last month, the two were talking about spoof Facebook events – like “Run around Central Park like Spongebob and scream ‘I’m Ready’” and “Destroy Hurricane Irma by cooling the Atlantic with ice cubes” – that have gone viral online, drawing thousands of virtual “attendees,” when Mann thought of one herself.
“Sing ‘Africa’ by Toto at the White House – how funny would that be?” she recalled saying to Chou.
That same night – Sept. 14 – Chou created the event page, scheduling the singalong for Oct. 6 and writing in its description, “Sing along to the greatest song ever composed.” The song, an early 1980s soft rock hit, has recently regained widespread popularity.
But after the pair shared the event on GW’s student-run Facebook memes page, the plan took off with more than 20,000 users marking themselves “interested” as of Sunday. After seeing its surging popularly, the two decided to do something “a little more substantial” with the attention, they decided to use the platform to support a charity.
The girls partnered with The Water Project, an international nonprofit organization that helps provide clean water and proper sanitation to people in sub-Saharan Africa. They created a fundraiser on the group’s website, shared the page in the Facebook group and set a goal of raising $2,000 by the day of the event, where they will also collect donations in person.
“We tried to search for something that’s related to the song, and we also tried to find something everybody could agree on,” Chou said. “That way we could get as much support as possible and do as much good as possible.”
During the five-minute event Friday, attendees will gather on the North Lawn of the White House – more than 4,000 marked themselves as “going” on Facebook – bearing glow sticks and instruments, according to the Facebook page. Because of the event’s popularity, the two had to file for a permit with the National Park Service to congregate in front of the White House.
“I think it’s actually a bigger project than we thought we would take on,” Mann said.
The event gained so much traction that Toto’s keyboardist David Paich and Susan Porcaro Goings, the widow of the band’s late drummer Jeff Porcaro – contacted the girls.
Goings said she was impressed with the girls’ work on the project and how organized they were in putting it together. She donated $500 to the cause and will fly up from Florida to attend the event this week, she said.
“‘Africa’ has been such a heartwarming song for so many people for such a long time,” she said. “I just knew that Jeff would be really pleased, especially that they linked it with the campaign for clean water in Africa.”
Lisa McAllister, The Water Project’s director of marketing and communications, said after Chou and Mann set up their fundraiser on the nonprofit’s website, the group sent the girls wristbands, window decals, t-shirts and water bottles to hand out at the event.
“We work in Africa, so we love that band, and obviously that song. So when we saw this we were like, ‘oh cool – we’ll see what happens with this,’ and then we saw that it was really going viral on Facebook,” McAllister said.
Maggie Reilly, the group’s communications assistant, said she was proud of the girls for using their viral platform to “speak out for the water crisis.” Almost 1 billion people in developing countries don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water, perpetuating poverty and spreading disease in those communities, according to the nonprofit’s website.
“They could have just done the event and just sang in front of the White House, and that would have been it,” she said. “But they decided that since they have all this attention, why not bring some good to it and some light to it?”
More than $1,500 has been raised for the event so far through The Water Project’s online platform. The money raised will be combined with other fundraisers and be dedicated to a water project in Africa that the group has not yet determined, she said.
Reilly said it takes about $12,000 to complete one water project, which can include installing wells with hand-pumps, household sanitation units and rainwater catchment systems to improve access to clean water.
Chou and Mann said they plan to continue using social media to promote charitable efforts and are in the process of creating a student organization focused on that work.
So far, the girls are weighing two names, though neither is confirmed: “Memes for Dreams” and “Memeingful Action.”
“This whole meme idea has struck up a lot of interest in people,” Mann said. “I feel like we could focus a student org on that, that also helps out student charities. That would also probably be really successful because it is geared toward college students and young people.”
Riley Burke and Dani Grace contributed reporting.