Over three months ago, Felecia Hayes ’21 began organizing protests in Williamsburg against police brutality. Since then, the College of William and Mary track and field athlete has organized over 13 Black Lives Matter protests in the local community.
Hayes’ inaugural protest began with just four friends, a professor at the College and his family, all marching through Colonial Williamsburg. It has since become a weekly occasion, with upwards of 120 people lining the streets from Confusion Corner down Jamestown Road every Saturday afternoon.
Hayes’ inspiration for protesting police brutality and systemic racism closely aligns with the motivation behind many marches this summer: George Floyd.
“All of this started with me waking up one morning, a couple days after George Floyd was murdered and saying I had to do something,” Hayes said. “I could not stay in bed and be upset about this anymore, I had to make sure my voice was heard.”
“All of this started with me waking up one morning, a couple days after George Floyd was murdered and saying I had to do something. I could not stay in bed and be upset about this anymore, I had to make sure my voice was heard.”
As for the reactions to these ongoing protests, Hayes recognized the pervasiveness of positive responses and increased allyship with each new protest but admitted there had been more than a few unpleasant moments.
“There’s always someone out there who believes in what we’re doing, who gives a honk, they’re going to tell us ‘good job’ – we appreciate that,” Hayes said. “But there are people who oppose it. Whether they’re walking through looking to break up the assembly, whether it’s people yelling at us ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Among other things, Hayes and her fellow protesters have been followed, yelled at and called anti-American.
While coordinating these protests, Hayes has worked with her peers and other community leaders to advocate for change on campus. Her approach to improving the challenges faced by Black students and faculty on campus is multifaceted and often materializes behind the scenes.
“I’ve been working a lot with Salli Sanfo and some other community leaders like Carl Fowler, Ted Hefter, and Anthony Joseph, Student Assembly president, and just trying to figure out what we can implement around campus to make sure that Black lives truly do matter,” Hayes said.
Around two months ago, Hayes and several others were able to sit down with College President Katherine Rowe to discuss specific steps they hoped the College would pursue in order to demonstrate that the lives of their Black students, professors and faculty did in fact matter.
Hayes and others emphasized removing statues, changing building names, working with the campus and local police on police reform and establishing greater support for Black students and faculty. They stressed the importance of making the College’s history more accessible in a way that could not be ignored.
“Another point was implementing more education of this school’s history and not white washing it, making it inescapable as a student or a faculty member,” Hayes said.
“Another point was implementing more education of this school’s history and not white washing it, making it inescapable as a student or a faculty member.”
Following the meeting, Hayes still had some concerns and pointed out how far the College still has to go in terms of addressing systemic inequalities on campus.
“We got some good feedback, but not a lot of action toward the things that we want,” Hayes said “We know there’s a working group to change statue and building names, but to be honest I just don’t want that to be yet another thing that the school says they’re going to do and we never see it happen.”
One place where her platform has allowed her to see valuable advancements take place is in the athletics department. As a short sprinter on the College’s women’s track and field team, Hayes has had unique insight into the diversity of the community, or the lack thereof. When she first started her college career, she described her surprise at the lack of representation across the College’s teams.
“I went to a very diverse high school, so when I came to William and Mary, I expected that there would be more people that looked like me on the track team, but that was something I had to adjust to,” Hayes said.
Hayes asserted she has always felt welcomed by her team. However, when it comes to communicating her perceptions of the program to friends and future track and field athletes, she feels stuck.
“I’ve been having this conversation with my coaches and asking the question, how can I sell this school, in regards to recruiting, if I know there’s not as much representation as I want there to be?” Hayes said.
Despite these circumstances, Hayes has been appreciative of the response she has gotten while advocating for change in the athletics program.
“In all the conversations I’ve been having with the athletic department and with my coaches, since all of this began, they’ve been extremely receptive to the information, moving in the direction which I would hope to see the athletic department go,” Hayes said.
In these conversations, most of the progress Hayes has pushed for is in terms of the resources being facilitated to Black athletes. Her focus has been on the systems in place that provide for the academic and psychological well-being of these students.
“I demanded for the return of study hall, academy, more academic advisors, a Black athlete mentorship program and our own mental health counselor,” Hayes said. “And, I explained to them that when we lack in resources Black lives suffer.”
“I demanded for the return of study hall, academy, more academic advisors, a Black athlete mentorship program and our own mental health counselor. And, I explained to them that when we lack in resources Black lives suffer.”
According to Hayes, several of these requests have already been fulfilled and the Black mentorship program is attempting to gain footing. Other items, particularly those that involve hiring are still on the list.
While she has seen success in changes to the athletics department because of the platform she has there, Hayes made it clear every change she had driven forward within athletics was applicable to all Black students and reiterated the crucial nature of resources.
“When we lack in resources, Black lives suffer,” Hayes said. “That’s true of every space on this campus.”
The efforts Hayes has made and continues to make across campus has resulted in tangible change. More than anything, she hopes the movement that gained momentum following George Floyd’s death and became a catalyst for her and so many others proves something important about change.
“I’ve found that in order to get things done, in order to really make a difference, there’s never going to be a right time in your life to do those things,” Hayes said. “I look back at all the change I’ve wanted to make and wondering if it was the right time. The fact that this came during the time that it did, during a pandemic- what I’m saying is, there is no better time than right now to act on how you feel. There’s never going to be a perfect time to make sure your voice is heard. If you feel passionate about something, go do it.”