Sometimes you know you want to do something, but it takes a push for you to actually go out and do it.
By senior year of college, Tracey Vitchers ’10 had spent most of her life as a competitive swimmer. Her days revolved around the pool – morning swims before sunrise, lifting sessions in the afternoon, another workout before dinner. At Williams, Vitchers’ best friends and roommates were on the swim team and her social life revolved around team functions.
Over the course of her time at Williams, however, Vitchers’ discovered new passions. On a whim, she enrolled in Women’s Studies 101 and two years later became one of four Women’s and Gender Studies majors in her class. She became chair of the Women’s Center Board and started organizing and attending a variety of rallies. “I was constantly the person stirring the pot. It was all because I felt that Williams could be a better place and a safer community.”
To Vitchers, the move to activism was as unexpected as it was invigorating. She continued to participate on the swim team, but more out of a sense of obligation than enthusiasm. “As time wore on, I realized that I loved the swimming community, but that swimming was dictating a lot of other things in my life. It got to a point during senior year that every time I got in the pool, I was thinking about what else I could be doing that better matched my passion.”
Vitchers’ struggle between activism and athletics came to a head on a cold day during December of her senior year. A few days earlier, homophobic graffiti was found on a student’s door in Mission. While many students brushed the incident aside as an isolated act, a movement was growing to hold the perpetrators accountable and implement a series of institutional changes to help marginalized members of the campus community.
Walking across campus that day, Vitchers ran into one of her mentors – Justin Adkins, the Queer Life Coordinator. “He looked at me and said, ‘they need you. You need to go to Hardy House (where the students were organizing) because it’s about to blow up.’ I said, ‘I can’t, I have to go to swim practice.’ He said, ‘fuck swimming – this is much more important. Has anyone ever told you that swimming is optional?’”
Adkins’ question struck a nerve. Vitchers had never thought of athletics as a choice. She had been a swimmer her whole life, and though her interests had drifted away from the pool, the thought of actually giving up the sport partway through her final season had never crossed her mind. “Justin said, ‘I want you to think hard about whether the most important place for you this afternoon is at the pool or at Hardy House.’
“I went to class. I left class. I went to my coach’s office and said, ‘thanks for a great three years, but I quit,’ and I walked out and never went back.”
Vitchers walked to Hardy House where she quickly became one of the prominent faces of the movement. “It was a time when we had an interim President, and the whole administration seemed to be in limbo. We didn’t hear anything from the President, and I felt like he was letting the student population down by not saying that the actions were unacceptable. I walked into the Dean’s Office and told them that the President needed to be back on campus that night. They said he was traveling, and I said, ‘I don’t care where he is. Either he’s back on campus tonight or I’m going to the New York Times with this story.’ He was back on campus that night.”
The interim President met with the students for two hours, during which Vitchers issued a series of demands, calling for gender neutral housing options, a full-time gender and sexuality resource center, a full-time staff member dedicated to helping women and LGBT students on campus, and a tenure track women’s and gender studies position. By the time Vitchers graduated in June, all of the demands had been met. “That’s when I realized that if I demand things, I can get them. I was really excited about that possibility, and I knew I was graduating, but I thought, ‘this is what I want to be do with the rest of my life. I want to be an activist.’”
After graduation, Vitchers got her Master’s in Comparative Women’s Studies and spent a year traveling around Europe conducting research and learning non-profit management skills.
Following her year abroad, Vitchers moved to New York and worked for a number of non-profits, including her own youth service-learning program. While she found the work engaging, she longed for a project that matched her feminist activism roots.
Vitchers applied for a volunteer position with a non-profit called SAFER that was focused on addressing campus sexual assault. “In the first two years that I was on the board, the issue of sexual assault exploded. So many students were stepping up and saying that they weren’t willing to accept the status quo. I got that feeling I got when I quit the swim team, which was, ‘I need to be a part of this – I can be a leader in this.’”
Inspired by her work with SAFER, Vitchers left her day job in order to find a way of working on campus sexual assault issues full time. For months, she sustained herself on a handful of non-profit consulting gigs. She began speaking at college campuses and writing about the issue for the Huffington Post and Policymic. Then, in April of 2013, Vitchers was hired at Sexual Health Innovations, a tech-based company that was looking to create “the nation’s first third-party sexual assault reporting system that’s trauma informed and survivor centric.”
A year and a half later, Vitchers is in charge of fundraising, business strategy, and hiring for the organization, but has also been able to use her position to help mentor young activists, draft legislation, and increase exposure to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.
“In the last year, the work I’ve done on this issue has grown by leaps and bounds. I was elected chair of the board at SAFER. I’ve been consulting on federal legislation that Senators Gillibrand and McCaskill have brought to the table around campus sexual assault. It’s a weird feeling to know that in less than five years I went from walking into Hardy House to someone who is referred to as a go-to person to talk to about campus sexual assault legislation.”
Reflecting on her journey, Vitchers emphasized the importance of believing in yourself and taking risks to get where you want to go. “A lot of times young people suffer from impostor syndrome where they know they have a good idea, but because no one’s told them to go do it, they question whether they’re really qualified to go for it… If you’re willing to take risks and willing to put yourself out there, you can achieve what you want to achieve.”
You can read Vitcher’s full interview here and learn more about Vitcher’s story at traceyevitchers.com.