Photos Cameron Flaisch
V3: When did you decide to start the Ginger Pride Parade and what sparked the idea?
JS: I was teaching at Model High School and I had a student say something pretty rude to me about having red hair. I’d had that happen before. It’s one of those things that is not that bad, but it still made me pretty upset and I went to the principal. They didn’t do anything about it and I realized that maybe this wasn’t the right path to take. I see kids getting picked on all the time. Negative reactions, whether it’s hateful speech in response to a bully, self-harm or violence against a pet or something like that, only makes the problem worse. So, I figured out a way to be brave and show peo-ple the right way to deal with bullying. To be honest, it was supposed to be just me banging pots and walking down the Broad Street. I put something on Facebook about my plans and this really cute girl comes up and says, “I’m going to your Ginger Parade.” Thinking that I was on to something, I tried making it as big as possible. Only 15 people came the first year but it was awesome. We had a great first parade except for a lot of sunburn in August.
V3: What year was that?
JS: That was in 2011 and it was really hot. Everyone got really sunburned but the next year, that following March, I decided to try it again because people had heard about it they thought it was really cool. We had maybe 75 people come out and it’s grown each year. Now, we are expecting around 500 people to attend this year’s Ginger Pride Parade.
V3: So, what’s been the feedback from your community about the Ginger Pride Parade and how it’s been accepted, especially since you’re in the school system where ending bullying is a focus?
JS: First, people don’t really get it. They’re like, “What, a Ginger Parade?” It just doesn’t make sense to them unless they have red hair and they get it. It seems weird but once you explain that we are finding creative ways to combat bullying, people really love it. And I’ve heard some positive feedback. Our Facebook page got 5,000 likes today!
V3: How can we find more information about your parade?
JS: Unfortunately, I couldn’t really change the name [on Facebook]. I initially named the page Ginger Pride Walk, and I can’t change it again, so it remained Ginger Pride Walk. We’ve been in a magazine from Spain, a few publications in England, and we’ve been on Buzzfeed twice. There have been some really great conversations started, especially with anti-bullying and creative ways to approach something that is very serious. Some people think that anti-bullying events need to be a candlelight vigil with lots of crying. When thinking about ways to draw more attention to the cause I thought, “Rome doesn’t have anything on St. Patty’s Day.” Savannah does, and other places have tons of St. Patrick’s Day stuff, but we have only a few events. We’ve got the pet parade and we’ve got the Leprechaun-a-thon. So, we got together and said let’s make it happen. Let’s have three events going on; let’s make it bigger and bigger.
V3: The Ginger Pride Parade’s purpose is to help others deal with bullies. What are some of the philosophies behind your approach to coping with bullying, and how are you are using the parade to show kids how to handle bullying?
JS: I think for a lot of people, especially boys, there’s been the question: how do you deal with anger? Most fight anger with anger. You go play football or you hit someone. You get that anger out and, unfortunately, I think this only masks a lot those feelings. So, what we try to do is teach kids non-violent humor. An example of this is self-deprecation. It’s taking something like someone bullying you for having bright-red hair and rather than lash out at them and be a bully just the same, or internalize and take it home, you use non-violence and you poke fun their life. You might be saving their day. Every little laugh helps.
V3: Tell us about some of the efforts you have used over the years to help grow the parade. It has gone from a couple of people to well over 500-600 people, right?
JS: Yes it has and it’s crazy cool! One of the things, I think, helped most was an online contest. It’s been both good and bad. We have an online Ginger Contest for Mr. and Mrs. Ginger, Junior Mr. and Miss Ginger, Little Mr. and Miss Ginger, and Ginger Family. Ginger Pet and Silverfox, which is for people who don’t have red hair anymore, are additional categories. It’s just silly and fun. People from all over the world post pictures on I am also making posters. The first year we had hand-drawn posters and the next year I spray-painted them a little bit. Last year, I made 150 and this year I am trying to go for 300. I’m at 238 right now. The visual response of people carrying these signs powerful. I am making them and giving a lot of them away for free. It becomes a constant reminder, especially at yourself. In doing that, you deflect the bully; you empower yourself and people laugh at what you say about yourself. They’re not laughing at you; they’re laughing at something funny you did. So, you win people over and it’s a great way to deal with that situation.
V3: Have you witnessed a memorable impact on anyone who has been bullied and participated in the parade?
JS: Parents of kids who have been bullied and have been to the parade talk to me often about the impact of teaching their kids how to deal with bullies. It’s really cool to have those moments and to have kids talk about issues like suicide and self-harm, and just how positive this event is. We are making people laugh. As little as that may seem, if you can make someone laugh at something so hurtful, you may change our Facebook page and each like is a vote. Un-fortunately, last year we had some people cheat, which almost became a type of bullying. So, this year, we are having the online contest and then we will take the top two or three people from each group and put their face on a container at the event. Each person who comes to the parade gets a ticket and they can drop their tickets in the container to vote for their favorite ginger. We will present awards at the end of the parade.
Another way we spread the word is through social media, which has been huge. 92.9 The Game had a segment about bullying. I contact-ed them, told them that I run an anti-bullying parade and would love to talk to them. They were funny and made jokes, but it was a fun and educational experience for listeners. NPR is covering us this year nationally, and I am really excited about that. with the bullying in schools and media. Even if some of the posters are silly, all of them have a serious message. That’s why I put my mission statement and my goal on the back. It is a light-hearted approach to something that is very serious. So, there is a joke there, but there is also a serious message and I want to make sure that it’s not lost.
V3: This sounds like a ton of fun! Do you have to be a ginger to march?
JS: No, anyone can come! It’s not exclusive in any way. We made the joke a couple of years ago when Donald Trump wouldn’t allow transgender people to participate in the Miss America Pageant, so we made it a point to welcome transginger people to our parade. What’s cool about red hair is most of the time you think of pasty, freckly people with red hair who hate the sun. But on every continent, people with red hair exist. I wish there were more because it’s one of the most beautiful things. African Americans with red hair, like Malcom X, Red Fox and Blake Griffin are so cool looking. I have a friend who has a bi-racial kid and she has the brightest red hair. To me, it’s the coolest thing in the entire world, especially if you get the freckles. I cannot tell you how many people I have talked to who are embarrassed about their freckles. They hate them and call them dots. It’s amazing what people get picked on for. Whenever you see somebody with freckles in media, you see them as goofy, with glasses and called “Freckle Face.” Being different is one the most beautiful things to me.
V3: What are some the local businesses or organizations that you have partnered with for the Ginger Pride Parade?
JS: This past year, the Anti-bullying Commission in Rome and Healing Hearts – whose focus is suicide prevention – has donated money which is huge. Unfortunately, I don’t have my 501(c)3 and I don’t have the licensing to run a non-profit, so most of the funds are out of my pocket. I spend about $2,500 of my own money every year. Luckily, I have some people who have donated some money and prizes, and I can’t say how much that has helped. Last year, we had Greene’s Jewelers, some of the restaurants downtown, my dad, my aunt Louise, and Healing Hearts donate $500, which really meant the world to me. I try to get some really cool T-shirts each year. It’s not just like a grey T-shirt with some writing on it; I get T-shirts that folks can be proud to wear and promote. So, I go to this guy in Athens who I used to work with, and he makes really awesome T-shirts. But T-shirts aren’t cheap and the stickers are expensive, too. That’s another reason why I like to make the posters. I can make a poster and people bring them back the following year.
V3: So what are some of the good things that gingers and transgingers can expect for 2016’s installment of the Ginger Pride Parade?
JS: Rockmart High’s marching band is going to lead the parade, and I can’t express how excited I am about that. Kyle Brooks, an artist in Atlanta who goes by Black Cat Tips and has been in the AJC, is going to be our Grand Marshall. The Rome Knitting group, Knitterati, will be there. They are going to make some red hats with red beards. Last year, we had the Darlington Tiger lead the parade. It is great to have schools get behind the parade. We will also have an art show after the parade at the DeSoto Theater. We will have some local red-headed musicians playing tunes as well. That will be from 1 to 6 p.m.
March 1st is Self-Harm Awareness Month, and March 1 is Self-Harm Awareness Day. So, I would love to raise money for Healing Hearts or the Anti-Bullying Commission of Rome. They fight for causes that are at the heart of what I am doing with the parade. Whether I am making signs for MLK or making signs for this, it is doing what is important for North-west Georgia, and to help those in Rome learn to love Rome and love themselves as much as they should.