Photos by Jason Huynh.
Q1: So James, how did this Ginger Pride Parade and Freckle Fest get started?
JS: So in 2011, I was teaching, and I saw some kids getting kind of picked on for having red hair. As a teacher, you see kids getting bullied and want to do something. But most of the time, the kids that are doing it know what they’re doing. And usually the schools won’t punish it…And then I had a kid say something to me about [my red hair], and so I sent him to the principal’s office, but the principal just kind of laughed. And I was just like “wow…okay.” So I started the parade. And it was supposed to be just like a joke. Really it was supposed to be me going down the street, yelling a lot; “banging the pots and pans” or whatever. And 12 people showed up! And I was like “you know this is a joke, right?” But they were into it. And then…I [realized] I have something here…so we focused on the…goal…which is to try to teach children how to use humor to deflect against bullying.
If you think about it, if someone’s getting bullied, when they take it home, they either abuse animals, or they take it out on their family. So we try to teach kids that rather than lash out or to internalize, to use humor. And I know this isn’t the perfect answer….But let’s say you’re making fun of me. Well, if I lash out, then I’ve become a violent actor…But [the goal] is to take the power away from the bully and empower the person. We’re trying to teach them to take yourself a little less seriously and to love yourself.
Q2: As this is the 9th annual parade, how has the event changed over the years, including the addition of Freckle Fest?
JS: Freckle Fest is something that I’ve been trying to get going, and I’m still trying to get it going! So we meet at 11 a.m. at City Hall, the parade starts at 11:30, and then from 12 or 2 p.m. is Freckle Fest; there’s going to be music, Speakcheesy is going to be there…art vendors….And we do an award thing/contest on Facebook….And just really I would love to create a festival in March, because there really isn’t anything until May. I just want there to be something in Rome in March.
And then me and [some friends] drove to Chicago to go to Redhead Days. It started in the Netherlands, and they just do it in different cities around the United States. [So we went] just because I wanted to see what they do. And it think ours is a little bit more organized. We have more numbers! So we copied some things; music, food, shirts, stickers! So it’s just exciting. What’s really cool is that kids at our school get really into it.
Q3: Your event page says your goal is promoting anti-bullying and celebrating diversity; can you explain how a parade can achieve this?
JS: So one of the things I like to do…is I have [a mantra]: “we’re here, we’re clear!”
Ginger pride, yes, is a redhead parade; but we use that guise to talk about social issues that aren’t really talked about. So, we allow “transgingers” in our contest, which are people with dyed red hair. So yes, that’s not a gender issue, but we’re trying to be more inclusive, so we try to talk about things, rather than forcing an issue.
So I mean, we try to put a humorous spin on it, as much as you can without being offensive. One of the things I want to show is…red hair, you can’t choose that, but you also can’t choose skin color, your parents typically choose your religion. You don’t choose a lot of things when you’re a little kid. So bullies are going to try and take that and make fun of you. If we’re saying “don’t make fun of my hair,” they also are realizing “maybe I shouldn’t make fun of that kid because of the way they are.” We try to open the conversation.
Q4: So how can everyday citizens get involved with the event this year?
JS: Anyone is welcome! You can march, you can volunteer. The thing is we try to include everybody. So if you don’t have red hair, you’re not red [on your head], you’re red [in your heart]. If your sibling has red hair, then you’re a carrier, because you have that gene that you carry. It’s just little things; we even have pet contests!
There are so many kids…who don’t fit, who don’t feel right. [We want to] show them, “you’re unique! Express that uniqueness! Don’t shy away from it.” If it takes pointing out their red hair, then awesome.
Q5: What do you think the implications of this annual event are during the rest of the year? Do you find yourself and others are more sensitive to celebrating diversity and ending bullying?
JS: I think it opens your eyes more. Especially at school, I’ll see kids getting picked on, and I’ll try to step in. As a teacher, there’s so much going on, so much chaos…but little things lead to big things. So if you see a kid getting picked on for even a little thing…for example, I had an autistic [girl] in my class that someone said looked like a boy. I don’t think they meant it to be mean, but you shouldn’t pick on people for things they can’t help. If you can clearly see someone isn’t trying to look like a tomboy, then don’t say things like that. I’ll pick up on things as a teacher…it’s made me more aware. When sixth graders come in, they’re teeny-tiny, and they stick out like a sore thumb. So I’ll immediately go to that kid and take them under my wing, and make sure they always have someone. I know middle school is tough. So it makes me more aware at school.
For more information, follow the event invitation on Facebook: @GingerPrideParade
And join James and his ginger and non-ginger friends for the parade and Freckle Fest on Saturday, March 16th at 11 a.m. The group will meet at the Rome City Auditorium on Broad Street.