Signs of the times in Montco meant to combat hate

Kate Thomson's sign in her front yard in Glenside, Pa. reads "Hate Has No Home Here" in several languages.

Kate Thomson had only planned to order 20 signs.

But now there were several hundred on her front porch.

It had all started a few weeks after the presidential election, when a neighbor on her Glenside block mentioned this sign she knew about.

"Hate Has No Home Here," it read, in several languages - a response to a number of incidents of harassment and intimidation reported across the country after Election Day.

Thomson had been alarmed by the stories - some of which happened close to home: Swastikas scrawled in bathrooms at Council Rock High School North. Racist text messages sent to University of Pennsylvania students. A teacher at nearby Cheltenham High School who allegedly told students to "stop bitching about being black" during a discussion about the election.

After the election, Thomson and her family had stepped up donations to progressive causes and collected clothes for refugees. But she said she felt "a personal need" to denounce hateful incidents in "a more public way."

The lawn sign alone wouldn't fix much, she thought. But it might be a good start. She placed an order with her neighbor for 20, then left a post on a community Facebook page, asking if anyone else wanted one.

Within days, people had requested 700 signs. Then 400 more. And the orders kept pouring in. In the last month, she's purchased 1,800 yard signs that have begun to dot the roads in clusters in Glenside and Cheltenham and Mount Airy. Her living room is filled with boxes and boxes of signs.

"It just blew up so fast," Thomson said.

People drive in from West Chester and New Jersey to pick them up at Thomson's white-washed brick home. Sometimes, they stay for coffee.

"A lot of people are worried and sickened by the prevalence of hate crimes," Thomson said, "and they need to say something while figuring out what to do."

The signs were first created by people in Chicago's North Park neighborhood who were alarmed by bullying after the election, mostly targeting Latinos and Muslims, said Steven Luce, the North Park graphic designer who designed the signs.

Two siblings in the neighborhood - a kindergartner and a third-grader - came up with the slogan. The neighbors translated it into the languages most commonly spoken in immigrant-rich North Park. They launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to produce them, hoping to net about $600. They took in more than $10,000.

Since then, the signs have appeared in 29 states, Luce said, and the group considers Thomson's efforts to spread them in the Philadelphia region a major partnership.

The signs cost $7 apiece, but are cheaper if bought in bulk. The group encourages neighborhood distributors like Thomson to donate any extra profits to charity or toward more signs. (Thomson sent her extra proceeds, more than $800, to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes.

"We wanted to let folks know - our African American and Hispanic American and Muslim American friends in our communities - that we appreciate them," Luce said. "That there's a place in our neighborhood for them."

Thomson, a mother of two, is a marketing consultant by day, and knows how exposing people to a simple, memorable message can help it stick in their minds.

"That's the whole logic behind saturating Glenside," she said, laughing. "But I don't think anyone is under the false assumption that buying a sign means they've done their part."

The signs are purposely nonpartisan, Luce said, though the group has received some criticism. "We've been accused of being an anti-Trump campaign," he said. Others have questioned whether mere lawn signs can change minds.

"We've had that same question in our group from the get-go," he said. "We don't want to just be empty words."

His group is planning community "dialogue events" as their next step. Thomson, too, hopes the signs will lead to "in-person meetings" in Glenside - an extension of some of the conversations she's had at her kitchen table while distributing the signs.

"Having conversations about what constitutes hate is progress," she said. "Feeling empowered to do more is progress."

In Glenside, neighbors say the signs have given them a boost in what is, for many, uncertain times.

"I'm Jewish, I'm a lesbian and I'm a woman," said Elayne Aion, who is distributing signs out of her Dovetail Artisans gallery in Glenside. "Those three reasons make this political climate so terrifying to me. And the signs cheer me. It feels like there's a community out there when this has been so isolating."

awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961

@aubreyjwhelan