Encounter sparks grassroots stance against discrimination

Upper Arlington resident Darrion House was taken aback recently after a brush with a jogger while walking his Newfoundland and Rottweiler puppies on Redding Road, just blocks from his house.

"I'm walking my two puppies by myself on a Sunday morning and I see this jogger, probably a good four or five driveways down," he said.

House, who is African-American, said he stepped aside and moved his dogs to the grass to ensure the jogger, who was white, had plenty of room to pass on the sidewalk, but that's when things took an unexpected turn.

"He looks at me and says, 'I don't trust black people with dogs,' " House said. "I said, 'What?' and he said, 'I don't trust you with those dogs.' "

House, a sixth-grade intervention specialist and seventh- and eighth-grade track coach at Jones Middle School, was upset, particularly because he had tried to extend a kind gesture by making way.

"I mean, I gave this guy the whole sidewalk," he said.

House returned home and relayed the incident to his girlfriend, Brooke Beasy, who was incensed.

Although House "just wanted to be left alone," Beasy decided to post a message about it on the Upper Arlington Ohio Discussion Forum page on Facebook.

Both were surprised to see a multitude of responses denouncing what they perceived as an incident of racism, and two Upper Arlington women decided to take it a step further.

Mandy Markoff and Michelle Montgomery were so disturbed they decided to print signs with the message: "EQUAL: Together We Are Better."

The duo convinced several local businesses to serve as pickup spots for the signs, which are being sold for $8 apiece.

In the roughly three weeks since House's brush with the jogger, the women have sold about 600 signs. Roughly 100 vehicle magnets they had made up with the same message were sold within two hours of becoming available at Huffman's Market.

Now, the movement is gaining even more momentum.

Markoff and Montgomery are talking to local school officials about how they can partner to integrate messages about race and social equality into classrooms.

Longtime Upper Arlington High School orchestra and symphony strings director Ed Zunic proudly announced on Twitter he had hung an EQUAL sign in his classroom. Caffe DaVinci agreed to host a Dec. 12 EQUAL gathering.

"It's been kind of a crazy month," Montgomery said.

She said she and Markoff felt compelled to do something in response to House's story because they're longtime residents who love Upper Arlington and want it to be the best community it can be.

But, she added, quality of life means more than household income, police and parks services and economic development.

"We don't stand for this in our neighborhood," Montgomery said. "The spark was Darrion House, a teacher at Jones, and this incident, but we think it's a much bigger issue than one incident.

"We want a community where everybody feels welcome and can participate. When you see that kind of injustice, you need to say something because we just don't want to see that in our neighborhood."

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Upper Arlington's population is approximately 91 percent Caucasian; African-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the city's residents.

Montgomery emphasized that EQUAL is not a political movement.

Rather, she said, she wants it to be an umbrella group for diversity issues -- be it race, sexual orientation or other -- that opens conversation between residents and that works with local schools, the library system, local clubs and professional groups to break down walls between people who are different from one another.

"It's been really positive so far," Montgomery said. "It's brought a lot of neighbors together who didn't know each other.

"It's a nonpolitical movement. It's just a discussion about how to be welcoming neighbors in our community. It's how to have a sense of inclusion and that everybody should be treated equally and with respect."

She said EQUAL isn't selling its signs and magnets to make money.

"We haven't turned a profit yet," she said. "If we do, we're going to turn over that money to the schools for diversity programming."

More information about the movement can be found on the group's EQUAL UA Facebook page. Signs or vehicle magnets are available by emailing EqUAlUpperArlington@gmail.com.

As for House, he's not bitter over his encounter with the jogger.

He said he moved to Upper Arlington more than two years ago because he loves the school district and the community. He hopes the EQUAL movement will serve to further improve local life.

"I think it's amazing," he said. "People are saying that enough is enough of treating people differently because of how they look or their sexual preferences or other differences.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's all about progression, learning and getting better. We need to evolve and grow.

"Education is the key," House said. "I feel this group will help with that."