A few months back, Aaron Jackson, a 31-year-old Florida resident and the co-founder of the nonprofit group Planting Peace, hopped online, picked himself out a two-bedroom home in Topeka and purchased it for around $80,000, sight unseen.
There were two aspects of the deal that made it significant: 1. This particular house was located directly across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church, the anti-gay outfit that regularly pickets everything from Lady Gaga concerts to the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers. 2. Upon his arrival, Jackson paid to have his new house painted in the rainbow stripes of the gay pride flag.
“Everybody started calling,” Jackson says. “And when I say everybody, I mean everybody .”
By all accounts, it was a public relations coup for Planting Peace, a group that lists rain forest conservation, tree planting, orphanages and distribution of deworming medication among its initiatives. It transformed a run-of-the-mill residential home into a 1,100-square-foot protest to the Westboro clan’s boisterous anti-gay stance.
In its first few days on display, the list of media outlets that picked up the story reads like a who’s who. The Equality House, so named by the group’s members, showed up in the Washington Post and Time Magazine and on “Good Morning America.”
Transforming that buzz into something more tangible, however, has proven a bit trickier.
Jackson, Davis Hammet, 22, and Robert Gisser, 21 — the three Planting Peace members inhabiting the Equality House — are not unlike a lot of your usual hipsters.
Their wardrobes seem to consist largely of skinny jeans, old T-shirts and plaid. They’re vegetarians. And, perhaps most notably, they are brimming with big, idealistic ideas — even if they’re not always initially sure how to bring them to fruition.
They are also relatively impulsive, and when they moved to Topeka in January on what was essentially a whim, they did so with the goal of bringing awareness to a cause: Jumping into the LGBT anti-bullying ring.
And what better way to kick off an anti-bullying initiative, they figured, than by taking on what they consider the biggest bully of all: the Westboro Baptist Church.
“When we first started taking the project seriously, we were like, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this,’” Hammet says. “There (was) no other way that we could get this message across. So it wasn’t really a choice; it was something that we had to do.”
Today, nearly a month since the paint went on, the nature of their work on the project has changed considerably.
The group is going through the daunting task of ferreting through all its options. The ultimate goal, Hammet says, is to initiate a comprehensive anti-bullying plan for kids in grades K-12. Different grade levels would focus on different things. They’ve spoken, formally and informally, with representatives from other anti-bullying efforts. They’ve had discussions about teaming with the author of multiple books on bullying, a prospect that looks promising.
It’s a matter of figuring out how to use group members’ energy (and money) as effectively as possible. Of finding the right groups to partner with. Of doing enough research to ensure that the funds they’ve raised get put into the best hands possible.
The easy part, in other words, is over. Now comes the real work.
“Keeping a project sustained is not easy,” says Jackson, who is tall and thin and has served as the project’s de facto spokesman. “It’s not easy at all. And then beyond sustained, growing. It’s a fight, regardless of how much publicity you’re getting.”
They’re learning as they go.
Admittedly, they’re far from experts in the realm of bullying. As with many things the group has tackled over the years, it has little experience with the issue.
“That’s kind of how Planting Peace works,” Jackson says. “We usually don’t have experience in anything we do. Somehow, it just works out in the end.”
Of course, they have a couple of things going for them.
For one thing, they’ve done it before. Founded in 2004 by Jackson and John Dieubon, Planting Peace is a registered nonprofit with its hand in a number of philanthropic ventures. In addition to the Equality House, the group, which relies solely on donations, has helped establish four orphanages in Haiti and another two in India and has spearheaded an international effort to administer deworming medication. To date, the group has provided medication to more than 13 million people suffering from intestinal worms.
For another, the publicity that came with the Equality House brought with it a furious torrent of support. In addition to the groceries, thank-you cards and warm emails that have poured in in recent weeks, fans of the house have opened their pocketbooks. By late March, the group had already amassed more than $50,000 in donations, according to Jackson, while other groups in Topeka have been quick to lend their support.
“Frickin’ awesome,” says Sonya Wilder of Take Back Topeka, a group that stages occasional counter protests to Westboro. “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
The group has also drawn the ire of the folks over at Westboro.
“The people who live next door (to the Equality House) would be better off if they had a meth lab in the house next door,” Steve Drain, a Westboro spokesperson, told Ink last week. “Because at the meth lab, those people are just committing some sin. But when you have that outward display of that paint on that house, you’re encouraging other people to sin and to mock the standards of God.”
Still, the bullying cause differs significantly from other projects the group has had success with, and perhaps no difference is more prominent than the complexity of the cause.
Orphanages and medication distribution, for instance, are tangible. They are easily tracked. The results can be tallied and analyzed. On paper, you can clearly see how many deworming pills were provided or how many children are being housed in an orphanage.
Bullying, on the other hand, is a far less cut-and-dried issue, which means determining how best to proceed has been a process.
This, then, is the unglamorous stage of activism, the stuff that remains long after the cameras and microphones have dispersed.
The Equality House, members of Planting Peace insist, is here to stay.
Though far from settled — aside from a computer desk in the living room, a couple of mattresses thrown on the floor and a few pieces of art hung on the wall, the home is mostly void of furniture — it possesses a certain simple charm.
The group has a few ideas about how the house might be used in the short-term. They’d like to make it into a place volunteers can stay. They’d like to have a community garden in the yard. Invite people to personalize bricks that will then be used to build a new driveway. Do some things to make the property more aesthetically pleasing.
“We’ll kind of be everywhere,” Hammet adds. “There will always be people, some kind of volunteers, staffed in the house. If it’s us, or if it’s some other people working with us.”
In the weeks since the paint went on, the novelty of the Equality House has begun to wear off. Interview requests have died down. Cars still trickle by from time to time, and some passers-by hop out to snap the occasional picture. Kerin Schiesser, in town from California, stopped by on a morning not long ago and expressed relief that the Equality House had shined a positive light on Topeka.
“I’m just glad there’s something else Topeka can be known for now,” she said.
But the estimated 1,000 people a day that were showing up the first few days after the house went viral has ceased.
Reached by phone last week, Jackson called sustaining an effort like this a fight. He chuckled wearily when asked about the amount of work that goes into a project like this and admitted that much of the group’s efforts were still up in the air.
But he also sounded excited.
“If it was easy,” he said, by way of explanation, “we’d all be doing it.”
— Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com and 816.234.4039. You can also follow him on Twitter at @duganarnett.