Last May, the Huffington Post published a photo of a 9-year-old named Josef Miles counter-protesting the Westboro Baptist Church -- a small but infamous group known for protesting soldiers' funerals with signs that declare "God Hates Fags." Miles held a small pencil-drawn sign that said, "God Hates No One."
Seeing Miles stand up to hate, Aaron Jackson got inspired. Jackson is a Florida activist who founded a charity called Planting Peace and who, after being featured in New Times for his work helping children in Haiti when he was just 23, went on to win a CNN Heroes award.
Sitting at a computer at his family home in Destin, Florida, Jackson loaded Google Earth and started poking around the hate group's neighborhood. He located the church's Kansas headquarters in a quiet residential area a few miles outside of Topeka's downtown and zoomed in and panned around.
A hundred and 80 degrees later, he saw it: a for-sale sign directly across the street from the church's entrance.
"I knew right away what I wanted to do with the house," Jackson said Monday from Planting Peace's new Topeka address, where the organization is kickstarting a new antibullying initiative.
"Paint it the colors of the pride flag."
He moved quickly, calling a real estate agent the next morning. There was only one problem: That particular house was no longer available, according to the agent.
However, two doors down, a two-bedroom, in an even better spot -- situated not only across from the church's multi-lot property but also abutting the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, making it more visible -- was for sale. Jackson had to have it.
A lengthy, four-month negotiation with the owner followed. Jackson tried to use the house's proximity to the church as a bargaining chip, despite that, for him, that closeness was the selling point.
"I couldn't tell you if it was a one-bedroom or a four-bedroom. All I knew was that this was the one I needed," Jackson says. "Had it been any other street, I would have walked away."
The owner budged a bit, dropping the price by $2,000 and installing a new roof. Planting Peace ended up purchasing the property in October for $83,000. It wasn't until late January, though, that Jackson, who had not yet visited the property, arrived in Topeka to start setting up.
There were setbacks: He left the house keys back in Destin; when he finally got in (again, late January), he and his partners froze the first night because, being from Florida, he wasn't aware that he had to call the gas company to turn on the heat.
But eventually he and a few partners settled in properly and brainstormed about what to do with the place. Gay rights museum? Nah. Gay youth shelter? Hell no. "It's right next to the poster child for hate groups," Jackson said.
They decided to use the property as a place where volunteers working on issues of equality, LGBTQ rights, and Planting Peace's new antibullying initiative could live and work. In fact, one local volunteer, Eugene Jones, already has a history with the WBC: The group picketed his high school and made him a target after he started a gay-straight alliance as a student.
So starting today, a forgettable little home will be transformed into a proud and visible protest against the hate of the Westboro Baptist Church when it gets its rainbow paint job. Jackson assures it'll be as tasteful as a rainbow-colored property can hope to be.
Instead of a harsh ROY G. BIV pattern from panel to panel, for instance, the hues will transition more gradually, incorporating 13 colors instead of seven. "We're not trying to make the home look like a sideshow; we want it to be aesthetically pleasing," said Jackson, whose mother, an artist, will be overseeing the process. "We're using blends to make it look as professional and nice as possible." The house will be called Equality House.
According to the Shawnee County code, no permit is required to paint one's property. Still, Jackson expects some ruffled feathers from the city. It's why he's kept the project so quiet for the past year, even during trying times, like the especially egregious announcements from the WBC expressing their intent to protest the funerals of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December.
Jackson had a tough time finding a painting company to do the job. "We had to go through about five local painting companies because they were scared," he relates. "We'd call them, ask, 'Does your company have the ability to do this?' They'd say yes, come by our house. But once they saw the neighborhood, they'd stop answering our phone calls. They would just vanish."
They eventually got one company from an hour away in Kansas City to agree to do it. He's also taken safety precautions, flying in long-time friend and colleague Sean Cononie of Hollywood's Voice Homeless Shelter to do a security breakdown.
"I consulted with him a bit, went over his game plan," said Cononie, who got more directly involved after Westboro Baptist Church announced the Sandy Hook protests. "Where to put security cameras, or where to go if there is gunfire shot toward the house... I'm not so worried about [the Westboro Baptist Church]. They've been pretty peaceful -- not so much with their words [but with their actions]. But you still have other hate groups that may be attracted to Aaron and his group."
In addition, Cononie is helping to raise funds for the antibullying initiative. (Cononie and the shelter were largely responsible for helping Planting Peace's during its early days and first initiatives in Haiti.) In addition to a personal donation, he, along with about 50 others, has set up a personal fundraiser profile at Planting Peace's crowdrise.com page.
Jackson hopes to raise a million dollars to kickstart the antibullying programs. "Our goal is to create a national antibullying campaign," said Jackson. "We'd like kids to approach us with ideas, and then we'll promote it. They create an equality-type club, and we'll provide resources on the back end.
"We also want to create safe spaces in schools," he continued, naming Safe Space programs as an inspiration. "We want to identify teachers that are LGBTQ-friendly, so kids will know they have someone to talk to, bring in public speakers, support some of the fabulous antibullying initiatives that are already out there.
"Children are killing themselves because they are hearing a message that they are less than," Jackson added. "We want to counter that message. Where better to start it than next door to Westboro Baptist Church?"
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