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Bucks County Changemakers Interview with Carol Cooke and Lori Wallace Kesilman

They are creating a community of LGBTQ+ solidarity in Central Bucks School District – one Progress Pride flag at a time.
(L-R) Carol Cooke and Lori Wallace Kesilman.

When people are in need, there are community members who take it upon themselves to remedy the pain, stand with those who are disenfranchised, and amplify the voices of those who would otherwise go unheard.

Lori Wallace Kesilman and Carol Cooke are two such people who have taken seriously the assault on the rights of students and teachers in the Central Bucks School District. They created a Facebook page called ROYGBIV <3 Flags (remember the rainbow color spectrum you learned in school: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).

Edie Weinstein: What was the prompt for the ROYGBIV <3 Flags Facebook page?

Lori Wallace Kesilman: We formed our group in response to the school board approval of Policy 321 and the impending removal of Pride flags from school buildings. At our first meeting we threw multiple ideas around, but we quickly settled on our main goal of increasing the visual and support in the community.

Edie: Please describe the campaign/movement.

Lori: We wanted to be sure the students and teachers in Central Bucks felt supported as they deal with the implementation of Policy 321. Our main goal is to have 321 businesses display the positive, colorful flyer to show support, along with a Progress Pride flag. Generous community members purchased Progress flags which are available to local businesses at no cost. 

Our small group of concerned parents started walking to businesses and personally asking if they would show support by way of displaying a flag and/or flyer. The response was great! Very few businesses declined, and we received many, many thanks. It was remarkable how every single young person we ran into was overly thankful and appreciative of the gesture. There were quite a few times that the teenage employees of the businesses excitedly thanked us for doing this. Those heartfelt thanks were all we needed to reassure us that this quiet, peaceful display really is appreciated. We know it is important for us to continue to spread flags around the community.  

READ: Central Bucks School District Embarrassed Itself With Show Trial Of ACLU LGBTQ Discrimination Complaint

If you are a local business, or you know of a business that would love a flag, please reach out. It seems like such a small thing, yet this silent, visual display says so much. To an LGBTQ+ student it says, “We see you.  We support you. We love everyone.” To a student who is not LGBTQ+ it says we are a kind community and support all people. There is no threat to a flag, there is only acceptance and humanity. Even though it is a sign of the LGBTQ+ community, it is more than that. It shows a commitment to accepting all people despite race, religion, or sexuality. 

It means: 

“We support women…We support men…We support people of all races…We support people of all religions. It means we support people lucky enough to be born into a body that matches their gender… We support people who are born into a body that does not match their gender…We support people with handicaps…We support people with disabilities…We support gay and straight people.”  

The beautiful progress flag is a show of full inclusion of all people. How is it possible to argue? 

Love one another. Accept and value people who are different from you. It would be pretty boring if we were all the same! This is something we want every child in the community to know. Currently the LGBTQ+ students are being targeted through recent policy changes. We believe that these non-inclusive ideas come from a small vocal minority. Unfortunately, some of them have found their way onto the school board. It is important for the community to kindly, calmly, quietly, visually show support for the kids. It is easy. Ask a business owner if they would like a flag and reach out through the Facebook page. We are happy to drop one off! 

Edie: Why is it important to spread the word about LGBTQ+ rights in our community?

Carol Cooke: There is currently a nationwide, politically driven, backlash against LGBTQ+ rights in the USA. This hatred is towards a minority group, already at increased risk of mental health issues and suicide due to being stigmatized and mistreated. The fact that it has spread to our school administration, who currently stand accused of discrimination towards LGBTQ+ kids, is disturbing to me. As a Doylestown resident for 12 years, I know that the majority of our community have love and support for all kids. It was a shock to discover such harmful policies, supported by an extreme minority,  being put in place in our school community. 

Edie: What has the response been when reaching out to businesses asking them to display a rainbow flag and the beautifully designed flyers?

Carol: On the whole, very positive, and quite moving to have people thank us for what we are doing. Borough stores are often staffed by teens from our high schools and our kids spend time and money there so it’s especially important to see our flyers and flags displayed. One store manager told me that he hears high school kids talk about what is happening in the district while in his store, he was so happy to be able to display his support in a visual way. Many have friends or family in the LGBTQ+ community and are enthusiastic in their support,  some don’t want to participate at all and that’s totally fine. We currently have numerous businesses supporting us with flyers and/or flags, and we hope to spread our message and mission further.

READ: Today, Tomorrow, And Yesterday As A Transgender Youth – In Bucks County And Across The Country

Edie: For each of you, what was the catalyst to get involved with social justice?

Lori: I don’t really see it as “involvement in social justice.” I just think it is doing the decent thing and calling out people who put others down. If they are not called out it will continue. To me there are clear “rights” and “wrongs” in life. I see no situation where taking down flags was the “right” thing to do for students. We should all try to live by the “do no harm” mentality when we are dealing with students. It does nothing to benefit students, only to harm them. I am embarrassed that our school board would target a group in this way. That is just wrong.

Carol: Many of us have at least one friend or family member in the LGBTQ+ community. I have attended board meetings and emailed the board with my thoughts and concerns. I wouldn’t describe myself as an activist, I would say I’m socially aware and have participated in marches for women’s rights, reproductive rights etc. I have friends actively engaged in defending rights within our community.  For me policy 321 was the final straw, the current board majority are not representing my family, or the majority of families in this district.

Edie: Do you get discouraged at times and, if so, how do you muster the energy to keep on going with this essential work?

Carol: Life is busy and sometimes I have to put my energy elsewhere, but I wouldn’t say I get discouraged. I think if you feel strongly about a cause then it’s always in your mind and a priority. The more involved I get the more motivated I am to keep going. I’m inspired by so many old and new friends who are raising awareness and making positive change.

Edie: How do you feel about the Doylestown Council vote for the rainbow crosswalk in town?

Carol: It was an important endorsement for LGBTQ+ rights in our community,  the Borough is where many of our students spend their time,  to see the visual support of Doylestown Borough is so important. It also made a refreshing change, we both attended the meeting and spoke in support, as did the majority of people in the room. To then hear the council approve it unanimously was wonderful. It was a great night!

Edie: Why is it important for voters to participate in school board elections?

Carol: School boards are at the heart of our community. Even if you don’t have kids in school, it’s important to be aware of the changes in our District’s policies. Elections are coming up and this is a crucial moment to turn the tide on the extreme discriminatory policies supported by a well-funded vocal minority. I hope that the future ahead of us will be calmer, less extreme, and more focused on the issues our district is facing, but only if people vote. Our schools should be places of inclusive education, with supportive educators and policies. We have gone from a district others emulate to an example of what can go wrong.

Edie: What would you like to say to those who hurl accusations of “grooming” when the group attempts to educate?

Carol: I don’t pay attention to insults or accusations; people are too quick to comment without thinking what harm they might be causing. Spreading a message of inclusion, support, and acceptance is all we are doing. That is not grooming. If you don’t already identify as LGBTQ+, seeing a rainbow flag won’t make any difference to your life, it is however an important message to others.

Edie: Is there anything else you want to share?Carol: I’d love if everyone could approach just one business they know and ask if they would display our flyer and a flag. Also, if you see our flyer displayed in a store, please thank them for sharing rainbow colors and support!

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Edie Weinstein

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, journalist, interfaith minister, speaker and author. She is the co-founder of Bucks County Kind.

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