Rayla Clemons seeks social justice after her life-changing trip to Alabama

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Rayla Clemons didn’t know what to expect when she arrived in Alabama this summer. The plan was to spend a few days with a handful of other collegiate athletes at key Civil Rights landmarks like the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Civil Rights Memorial Center and the Equal Justice Initiative Museum.

But she met certain people who experienced the civil rights movement firsthand, like Lynda Blackmon Lowery and Sheyann Webb-Christburg.

“I hear around me people always saying they support these things and posting on social media, but I’ve met individuals who actually participate in social movements,” Clemons said. “It motivated me to be a better person and to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Clemons, along with linebacker Mikel Jones, represented Syracuse as part of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s UNITE platform.

In Alabama, Clemons learned the history of social justice and learned about himself. This trip gave her a whole new way of thinking. Clemons wants to be more of a leader and bring more positive change to the world like the people of Selma and Montgomery did. She has a greater appreciation for those who sacrificed their lives to give her and her loved ones a better life.

“Personally, I believe this was an experience of a lifetime that I will never forget and will always cherish,” Clemons said.

In early June, Clemons received a call from Salatha Willis. Willis, Syracuse’s assistant athletics director for diversity, culture and climate, presented Clemons with the opportunity. Originally, the initiative was slated by the Big Ten Conference in February, but they invited the ACC and the Pacific Athletic Conference to join them on the journey.

“Each conference was about something very similar, so we were able to work together,” said Kelvin Anthony, Chair of the ACC Champions of Racial Equity (CORE).

As Syracuse’s representative for ACC CORE, Willis had to select two athletes from SU. With her academic excellence (2x CHA All-Academic Team and 2x ACC Academic Honor Roll) and skill on the ice (8th in the NCAA in shorthanded goals as a sophomore), Clemons was an easy pick for Willis.

Jones was also selected by Willis. Before the trip, Clemons and Jones didn’t really know each other. But now Jones considers Clemons a kind of sister to him. Clemons and Jones made a special bond because of their similar beliefs, similar situations, and the reasons they both chose Syracuse.

Clemons and Jones shared a common goal of teaching their teammates the history they had learned.

“To have the experience that we had, you just had to be there,” Jones said. “The biggest goal (when we got back to campus) was to pass what we learned on to our teammates… Rayla did a great job on that.”

Clemons also bonded with other athletes like her roommate Jacoria Burton, a sprinter on the Florida State women’s track and field team.

Clemons and Burton created YouTube vlogs, comforted each other whenever something troubling arose while learning Alabama history, and prayed together each night when they returned to their room.

Additionally, on the final night of the trip, Clemons and Burton invited a group of other athletes from the Big Ten, Pacific 12 Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference to hang out in Birmingham. They organized a karaoke night, explored nearby waterways, met locals who shared their experiences of life in Birmingham and ended the night in a games room set up by the ACC. After experiencing those few days with her in Alabama, Burton noticed that Clemons had changed for the better.

“Throughout the trip, I noticed that[Clemons]dropped a kind of vigilance,” Burton said. “She started walking with a purpose. I could tell she was shy at the beginning of the trip, but by the end of the trip a kind of confidence came over her.”

Clemons returned to campus as a junior and immediately became involved with the Diversity and Inclusion Student-Athlete Board at Syracuse. Clemons has become an important part of the club as she helps student athletes learn and develop culture. Clemons was also named one of four assistant hockey team captains, a role she would not have filled had she not made her trip to Alabama, she said.

Everyone’s opinion counts, especially when we want to change something

Rayna Clemons

“I used to be a little quieter, a little shy and just kept a lot of things to myself, but I’ve learned that everyone’s opinion is important, especially when we’re trying to make a difference,” said Clemons.