During the past few months of nationwide Black Lives Matter activism, Salli Sanfo ’22 has dedicated her time to petitioning for change at the College of William and Mary.
Creating multiple petitions regarding the College’s statement on the Black Lives Matter movement and helping raise tens of thousands of dollars, Sanfo hopes to help the College actively change its legacy.
“Our school has had a large, really insane legacy of upholding these systems,” Sanfo said. “William and Mary always talks about being progressive, upholding diversity, all those things, but those aren’t passive things, they’re active things. Our school actively stood for things like the institution of slavery; we weren’t just in the background like ‘oh I guess;’ we actively fought in the Civil War.”
Two months ago, Sanfo and fellow student Alton Coston III ’23 created the first petition on Change.org titled “William and Mary Administration Needs to Stand Up,” where they urged the College’s administration to stand alongside their Black students and release a statement condemning the murder of George Floyd. This petition earned over 8,200 signatures and holds hundreds of comments demanding justice and stating support for the cause.
“It can’t just be a passive ‘oh that’s so sad. It has to be the same initiative we saw 50 years ago when it came to being against segregation. It has to be that same thing now. Especially since the school wants to kind of create a history legacy for itself, which is important, but creating that new legacy is what requires that initiative.”
“It can’t just be a passive ‘oh that’s so sad,’” Sanfo said. “It has to be the same initiative we saw 50 years ago when it came to being against segregation. It has to be that same thing now. Especially since the school wants to kind of create a history legacy for itself, which is important, but creating that new legacy is what requires that initiative.”
Following the creation of the first petition, the College did release an official statement; however, many students — including Sanfo — believed the response was inadequate in addressing racism and the intersectionality of many issues faced by the College’s Black community. Consequently, Sanfo co-created the Cooperative Change Fund which is a coalition of over 100 student organizations working together to raise money for the National Policy Accountability Fund and Campaign Zero.
“The school gave a statement that was very, very vague, and the first one had very few actionable items in it. It was kind of like ‘oh this is very sad,’” Sanfo said. “But the student body seemed very passionate about these issues, and from what I was seeing on social media, and talking with my friends, people seemed like they really cared about what was happening right now.”
In just 36 hours, the CCF raised over $30,000 for the two organizations. For the following year, Sanfo hopes to expand their work and create a space where all student organizations will be working together to shed light on bigger issues.
“It was really, really cool for the entire campus to come together in unity under one united cause, and it worked really well. It was very efficient. People were very, very helpful, so we’re actually going to keep that org open and just like have it open in case we ever need it, so we can foster collaboration across clubs and groups on campus.”
“It was really, really cool for the entire campus to come together in unity under one united cause, and it worked really well,” Sanfo said. “It was very efficient. People were very, very helpful, so we’re actually going to keep that org open and just like have it open in case we ever need it, so we can foster collaboration across clubs and groups on campus.”
Working with other students, Sanfo then helped create and advocate for the name changing of buildings which still hold the titles of slave owners. According to Sanfo’s personal research, over half the buildings on campus are named after famous slave owners, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Ewell and many others.
“The more I’ve researched it, the more I was like ‘wow,’ because you know there’s a famous few — like Jefferson, Ewell. But it’s actually almost all of them, and if the school wants to change its legacy, it has to change those,” Sanfo said. “The school can’t honor slave owners and slaves. It can’t do both.”
Though the petition was just recently created, Sanfo has been advocating for changing these names since she was a freshman, along with other students and alumni.
“The discussion about the names has been happening for a lot of years here … they’re not new ideas,” Sanfo said. “There’s nothing new or groundbreaking about them; it’s just a very different time right now with quarantine so a lot of students have the time to dedicate a lot of time. … This is me just trying to add my little penny to the pile that’s been created.”
Sanfo’s latest petition details Highland Plantation, which is a historic museum at the home of James Monroe in Charlottesville, VA. Currently owned by the College, Sanfo called for the school to be more transparent on the money and operations at the historic site and hopes Highland changes the angle on how they advertise themselves.
“I started a petition on Highland for it to be transparent, so we can know what’s going on there,” Sanfo said. “I got an email from somebody about it and did some research, and it’s taking in a lot of money. It’s very interesting. … I just want the student body to have clarity between each other and see the school go in the direction that it really wants to go in overall.”
Though Sanfo’s actions and petitions have recently been making waves through the College’s community, Sanfo has been no stranger to activism. At the age of 12, she began writing articles for the magazine Feminist Culture and then later for Affinity Magazine, where she wrote on issues regarding modern day feminism, race and gender. Outside of her work, she is a member of ROCKET Magazine’s marketing team and a dancer in multiple clubs across campus.
“I just want William and Mary to be on the right side of history. … At the end of the day, I truly believe that admin knows what’s best to do. I just want them to actually do it.”
“I just want William and Mary to be on the right side of history,” Sanfo said. “… At the end of the day, I truly believe that admin knows what’s best to do. I just want them to actually do it.”
When asked what message she would send to students as they return to campus this fall, Sanfo said she wants everyone to take care of each other.