Alec Willis is “racing” against racism.
On Aug. 30, the SJC Brooklyn alumnus ran 16 miles from the north shore of Staten Island to the south shore, side-by-side with his friend, Azeem Wilkerson. The men — Willis is white and Wilkerson is black — started and finished the race together, symbolizing the importance and urgency of teaming up to defeat racism.
Friends, family and local supporters from Staten Island lined up along the route cheering and showing support. About 200 people watched the “Race to End Racism” on Facebook and Instagram live-streams. And to top it off, the men raised $2,000 to support anti-racism causes in their Staten Island communities.
“We weren’t racing against each other,” said Willis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from St. Joe’s in 2018. “We were racing against racism.”
Ending Racism in His Community
Willis came up with the idea to race against racism while taking a leisurely run through his Staten Island neighborhood in early June. During his run, he reflected on racial tensions, the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent national news about George Floyd — an African-American man killed by a white police officer during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
He said his “white privilege” occurred to him in that moment.
“I was going for a run like I normally do and reflecting about what’s going on and how people are reacting on Facebook, social media,” Willis said. “I was thinking to myself, as I ran through a couple of towns on Staten Island, that I’m pretty privileged in the sense that I get to run through various different neighborhoods without turning any heads, or raising suspicions, or people assuming that I’m possibly up to no good.
“It kind of hit me that I don’t know if my friends of a different race could say the same,” he continued.
Willis wasn’t sure initially what he could do to speak out and help the situation.
“I said, ‘I don’t know how much I can speak on these matters because I’m a white American,'” Willis explained. “I didn’t know if my voice would hold much weight in situations like this. So I thought, ‘maybe my legs will.’ That’s when I came to the idea.”
Later, he asked Wilkerson to join him — sparking the beginning of their partnership to run the race and fight racism in their community together.
— ElizabethBonina (@ElizabethBonina) September 1, 2020
Preparing for the Race
It may come as a surprise that Willis is not inherently a runner.
He was on the men’s basketball team at SJC Brooklyn, though he had a short-stint on the cross country and volleyball teams during his senior year. He was also the president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) as a senior.
Willis said he was going to attempt to do the run on July 4, but decided to push the date back to Aug. 30 so he’d have some time to train. He also opted to start the race at 5 p.m., to avoid running in the hot sun.
“The word I keep using to describe it is surreal,” Willis said. “I know that’s cliché, but that’s really how it felt.”
Now that the race is over, Willis and Wilkerson are looking to continue spreading their message by creating a charity that focuses on creating racial equality in Staten Island. They hope to create initiatives to blend communities, improve transportation throughout the borough, and commission murals that promote equality.
“We are going to keep promoting our message: one that is positive and that is about spreading love and support,” Willis said. “I genuinely think that is the only way you can combat this issue.”