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The yard sign that traveled the world

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Twenty-six words. Six phrases. One yard sign. 

The black sign with bright, multicolored text became a nationwide phenomenon in the months after Donald Trump was elected. Its simple but memorable message reads, “In this house, we believe: Black Lives Matter. Women’s rights are human rights. No human is illegal. Science is real. Love is love. Kindness is everything." 

The sign dots lawns, windows and front porches from coast to coast and beyond — and it all started right here in Madison. 

It was Wed., Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Trump's election. Kristin Garvey, a youth services librarian at the Fitchburg Public Library and mother of two, had just watched her state fall to Trump by a narrow margin of 0.77%. Distraught, Garvey felt the need to make a statement. So she went to the store for a piece of white foam board and some Sharpies and got to work. 

“I was in a fog … I was feeling everything and feeling nothing,” Garvey said. “I had a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, and I was just trying to get through the day, but all the wind had been taken out of me.”

She pulled together several quotes from activists and social justice movements, copied them onto her board and displayed it in her yard. “Black Lives Matter” was taken from the social movement dedicated to fighting racism, "Women's rights are human rights," was made famous by Hillary Clinton, “No human is illegal” is borrowed from immigration activists and “Love is love” from the LGBTQ+ community. “Science is real,” a They Might Be Giants song, had long been a slogan for climate change activists.

This single act of resistance may have seemed small to the librarian, but within hours, the community took notice. 

A passerby took a picture of Garvey’s sign and posted it to Facebook. She mentioned to local activist and writer Jennifer Rosen Heinz that it was something she thought she would like. She was right; Heinz immediately saw the yard sign’s potential to be a unifying symbol for progressives.

“There's a moment where you're excited because you feel the resonance there. Like you're about to throw something out into the world, you're doing it with goodwill and it's amazing, and it's also quite honestly a little bit terrifying,” Rosen Heinz said. “That was my reaction.”

Rosen Heinz called upon artist Kristin Joiner to turn the homemade sign into the black and rainbow-colored design we all know and recognize today. Joiner, who had worked with Rosen Heinz at BRAVA Magazine, knew from the start she wanted to be involved with the project. She had no idea how big it would get.

“I was on board right away. At the time, after the election, a lot of us were flabbergasted, disappointed, confused,” Joiner said. “This was a tiny little thing I could do to make a tiny little difference. It turned out to make a big difference.”

She used a black background to set the sign apart from the Wisconsin snow, and bold fonts in bright, familiar colors to catch the eyes. The “Crayola 8-box” colors, Joiner referred to them as. 

The sign took her roughly 20 minutes to complete. 

Joiner and Rosen Heinz reached out to Garvey for permission to sell their design, and then the three women teamed up to distribute the yard signs. The first batch was sold in Madison out of Rosen Heinz’s house and at the Willy Street Co-op, with proceeds going to the ACLU. The design was also available for download online on Etsy in exchange for a $5 donation. 

Joiner had the design copyrighted. The group quickly realized the significance of the yard sign after she received nearly 500 emails over the Thanksgiving weekend. Individuals who had seen the signs googled Joiner's name, asking to buy their own. 

Within two months, the Etsy shop raised over $7,000.

“I never would have thought, in my life, that putting out a sign would result in donating thousands of dollars. It blows my mind,” Garvey said. 

The signs went viral again and again, raking up thousands of shares on Facebook. Politicians and celebrities took selfies with it, HOAs battled over its display and some schools proudly hung banners with the design.

It occurred to Rosen Heinz that their three-women team wouldn’t be able to keep up with the craze for long. Between their day jobs and personal lives, continuing to sell more and more signs wasn’t feasible. They made the mutual decision to give the design to an organization that could use it for fundraising, and after shopping around, Joiner donated the license to the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health.

“Reproductive health is really important to me, so when we started to think of a place to give the sign to, WAWH was one of my first choices,” Joiner said.

WAWH was thrilled with the decision.

Sara Finger, the founder and executive director, had been a fan of the sign from the get-go. She previously purchased a digital copy to print and hang at her home.

When Rosen Heinz called Finger, the WAWH director was at a conference for reforming women’s health care in Washington, D.C. At the time, she was worried about the future of women’s health and the Affordable Care Act under the Trump administration. Finger was “bummed to the extreme,” she said.

“Then Jennifer called me and she said, ‘You know the sign? We can’t keep up with it. We want to give it to you,’” Finger recalled. “She could have called anyone, and she called us. It’s an incredible gift.”

With the help of the sign, WAWH no longer has to scramble and rely on grants to do its advocacy work. Finger now manages copyright infringements from internet sellers, and in return, sales from the sign have allowed WAWH to keep its doors open. 

While the design can now be purchased from the WAWH on Cafe Press or Zazzle as a flag, t-shirt, magnet, Sherpa blanket and even a mask, Joiner never gets tired of seeing her design in use. 

“I lived abroad during 2016, 2017, but whenever I came home it was really exciting to see it in peoples' yards. I was taking pictures of bumper stickers!” Joiner exclaimed. “It brought back my faith in America. (It) made me think, ‘It’s not as bad as I thought.’”

Since the sign’s inception, thousands upon thousands of signs have been sold and distributed. WAWH estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 signs have been sold since they acquired the design, not including other products. The Willy Street Co-op alone helped sell 1,480 yard signs, and "sign ambassadors,” such as Anthology on State Street, have sold countless more. 

Garvey’s original Sharpie-drawn sign now hangs in the National Women's Party Museum in Washington, D.C. For the mass-produced version, demand has gone down, but Rosen Heinz doesn’t mind. 

If anything, she hopes for a day where a sign like theirs isn’t needed. 

“It would be great if someday the sign itself goes away, that the outcome would be that the sign (is) no longer necessary or important. We don't want to make more signs. We want a better world.”

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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