Jackie Hayes

Year of Graduation: 
Jackie Hayes

"I want people to feel included, feel welcome and have the sense of community that I had.”

When Jackie Hayes ’85 thinks back on her time at Exeter, she considers herself fortunate. Like so many students, she arrived looking for a space within the Academy that felt comfortable, somewhere to fit in and make connections that would stretch across campus. She quickly realized that place was in the theater.

“One of the reasons I was attracted to the theater is whether it’s at Exeter or in New York, London or wherever around the world, it’s such a welcoming and inclusive community.”

In the theater, Hayes and her classmates freely explored an array of characters and themes, collectively “reflecting and celebrating humanity in all of its various different forms,” she says. But even as her own friendships blossomed and her social network expanded, Hayes saw that some other students of color were struggling to find their foothold. She recalls hearing from friends who, when stepping outside of their affinity groups, felt less than accepted by the community at large.

“If students don’t find a place within Exeter, a real community for themselves, it’s a really hard place to be, particularly when there are not a lot of people who look like you, or if you don’t feel seen or understood,” she says. “I didn’t personally experience as much of that kind of isolation, but I have many friends, particularly Black friends, who really did. We didn’t see ourselves, our culture, our history, reflected in life at Exeter.”

In the summer of 2020, Hayes was tapped to lead a task force of trustees focused on charting a path forward in Exeter’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. Hayes uses her own time at the Academy, and the experience of others, as motivation in her work. “I want people to feel included, feel welcome and have the sense of community that I had,” she says. “I know not everybody has that. And I just want to do everything I can to help everyone have that.” We sat down with Hayes to discuss the DEI Task Force and her vision for making Exeter an inclusive place for each member of the community.

Prior to the formation of the task force, what kind of work was being done at an institutional level to improve equity and inclusion at Exeter?

Even before the events of last summer, there have been conversations going on in the community — from student leaders, faculty and alumni — about why DEI efforts are so important. In 2018, the Academy hired Dr. Stephanie Bramlett [as director of equity and inclusion], and the trustees wrote and published a DEI vision statement. We have been more focused since then on trying to integrate anti-racist and DEI principles into everything at the Academy, whether it’s the curriculum, extracurricular life, sports, everything, across just the culture in general.

When thinking about improving diversity, oftentimes the first thing that comes to mind is fostering racial equity. How do you see DEI?

It’s interesting because when we first started talking about the DEI vision statement, race obviously was a component, but it’s not just about race. It’s not just about gender, religion, orientation. It really is meant to be a more inclusive definition of diversity. So, diversity of perspective, diversity of ability. All the various different aspects of diversity. The increasing occurrences of racial injustice, violence and hate crimes in the country, as well as the concerns about equity and inclusion that have been raised by students and adults of color on campus, have certainly led us to concentrate our efforts on racial equity as an initial and continuing focus, but our overall mission is broader than that. 

What have been some of the early priorities of the task force?

In June of 2020, we sent out a letter to the community in which we identified 12 initial action items that we really wanted to prioritize. It was by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, but it was the initial 12 that we really want to prioritize in terms of making sure we were laser focused on critical race issues. One item we’re focusing on is being a community that supports “youth from every quarter,” which comes directly from the Academy’s mission statement. We feel that points to the importance of hiring and retaining diverse faculty and leadership on campus, which in turn supports a diverse student population. More broadly, we’ve done some thinking on how organizational systems and traditions can be reimagined to be more inclusive.

How do you plan to set goals and track your progress?

Like many organizations that are focusing on DEI, we’re wrestling with how we measure success. And not only how do we track the progress of our work, but how do we adapt or pivot if we’re not seeing the results that we want as we go along. We know where we are in terms of the numbers of diverse faculty and students, and where we would like to be, but how do you measure equity and inclusion? We have input from sources like the [online communities] Black @Exeter, Asian @Exeter, LGBTQ @Exeter and various other forums where people had spoken out about what they saw as inequities and exclusion at Exeter. We wanted to address those concerns most urgently. And so, things like increasing, supporting and retaining the number of diverse faculty on campus and providing training and discussion forums around race and social justice issues, initiatives that are measurable, are certainly a focal point.

In a year with so many historically difficult challenges, how were you able to keep the momentum going on DEI initiatives

Well, it was the community that generated that momentum: Principal Rawson and his leadership team, the faculty, staff and students, everyone who leaned into this critical work — that’s how it happened. Given the challenges of keeping the Academy open, getting students on campus and keeping everyone safe, I think they have made considerable strides. We could have said, “You know what, it’s just too hard to do this now, so we have to shelve this until next year,” but in this crazy year, with everything that’s been happening to Black Americans and Asian American and Pacific Islander folks, that would have been untenable for those members of our community. Don’t get me wrong, there is still so much work to be done, but I’m really inspired by the commitments and progress made this year.

What role does the task force play in shaping the future of Exeter?

I think Exeter is widely seen as a leader in lots of different ways in academia, and certainly in terms of a place where students go to prepare for college and life in general. I would like Exeter to be seen as a leader in this area as well. I know that might sound very idealistic, but I really do have that “city on a hill” kind of vision of it. The trustees have stated for the record that Exeter defines excellence as more than just good grades and getting into top colleges; excellence requires developing the empathy, understanding and respect for those who are different from us in order to be of service to something larger than ourselves. That’s not something that just happens because we want it to; we all have to work at it.

 —Adam Loyd

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

More to Explore

DEI Vision Statement

Exeter is committed to assembling a diverse community, and teaching skills, modeling behaviors, providing resources and cultivating the environment that unlocks the richness of that diversity.

Go to the page titled DEI Vision Statement

The Exeter Bulletin

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