New Haven women’s ‘flags of persistence’ send messages of hope, unity

NEW HAVEN — They flutter in the wind, waving to passers-by their words of positivity, unity and hope.

They’re small banners carrying weighty ideas, created by a loose-knit group of friends, mostly women from Westville, who use their artistic talents and their liberal sensibilities to express their frustrations and hopes that better days lie ahead.

“I think when you’re out in the world and you see a message that resonates and is beautiful, it both lifts up your convictions in a positive way, makes you know you’re not alone in your convictions … and can sometimes sway people who may not have thought about how they feel or have thought differently,” said Tina Santoni, whom Janet Brodie called the “keeper” of the flags but who calls herself the “prodder.”

“I think the only way we can keep our sanity is by making things that express our distress” with the direction the country is going, said Meg Birmingham. “Rather than focus on that negative message ... we want honesty and truth.”

There are nine women from what Birmingham called “overlapping circles of friends,” who decided to join their artistic talents toward the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, when, during a debate, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.”

“A lot of us have been doing art together for many years, all different kinds of art,” Santoni said. “But this all started when Trump was campaigning.”

“Several of us were talking and said we need an art statement, kind of like the AIDS quilt,” said Brodie. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, begun in 1987, now consists of more than 48,000 panels, most in memory of someone who has died of AIDS.

The small flags, with messages such as “Empathy,” “No More B.S.” “Hope” and “Try Radical Kindness,” as well as images of hearts, doves and Lady Liberty’s torch, have been hung outside Manjares bistro on West Rock Avenue, outside Santoni’s house on Maplewood Road, and have been sent to friends far and wide.

Birmingham sent flags to the Center for Peace and Justice in Charlottesville, Va., after the “Unite the Right” rally in August, when a counterprotester was struck and killed by a speeding car. They were hung at a peace and justice gathering in October. “That was our big send,” Santoni said. “We’ve sent a lot of them there.”

“It’s something concrete that I can do and it puts good out into the world,” said Barbara Shiller.

They call the banners “flags of persistence,” “because we struggled with how to include as many people as possible and how to have a clear political message, and sometimes those two things can be at odds,” Brodie said. “If you want to do them at a school, for example, you can’t have a clear political message because that wouldn’t be appropriate.”

But the group isn’t overtly political. “We haven’t engaged in lengthy political dialogue together. We make things,” Brodie said.

Still, Santoni said, “I like the messaging as much as the creative part, and putting them out in the world is very important to me.”

“These times are so frustrating and I feel so powerless to do anything about the big political picture in this country,” said Shiller.

“I think we all feel this bad news is coming at us fast and furious,” said Birmingham. She said the Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas, in which 58 people were shot dead and more than 800 injured “was a moment for me where I felt almost a crushing feeling of sadness. I kind of made this decision that, if I’m feeling that, I’m going to make a flag.”

While she doesn’t blame Trump for tragedies such as the mass shootings at schools and colleges, Shiller does give him responsibility for an increase in overt bigotry nationwide. “Personally, I think that a lot of people have gotten a new sense of confidence to speak out their hateful thoughts because Trump does it so readily,” she said

Gilda Outremont, who lives in Bethany, but who has lived in Westville and plans to move back this summer, said, “For me, it’s a lot about anti-immigration and racism and anti-Muslim.” She and Shiller have been volunteering at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services “and now I don’t know if they’re going to get more people,” she said.

While the flag-makers are all women with artistic talents, men have joined in the past in a postcard campaign, Santoni said.

The rise of Trump has definitely served as motivation for the group. “For me, the last couple of years have been overshadowed by this overwhelming sense of disbelief, anger, despair,” Shiller said. “How can this man be leading our country with his lying and cheating? … In so many ways, from health care to not paying workers on his building — I can’t do anything to change that big picture, so this is something I can do on a small level.”

Shiller also mentioned “the sense of community that’s created here, knowing that a small group can create something powerful. … Knowing that other people feel the way you do.”

“There are many of us out there who feel this way,” said Santoni. “That’s our hope — to recognize values that are not represented currently by our government that we feel strongly about and value and feel are critical values for our country to represent. All is not lost.”

The women use block printing, rubber stamping, sewing, embroidery, fabric painting, applique and recently began silk screening, with each member taking home a set of silk screened flags. “Tina got us to learn how to silk screen, which I don’t think we’ve ever done before,” said Brodie.

“We’ve shared our talents with one another,” Santoni said.

She said they haven’t encountered anyone who has opposed the flags. “When I first put flags up, I’m surprised how many people stopped … took pictures of them,” she said. “It’s like an invitation. The more you put out the more appears.”

Santoni said the flags have been hung outside churches offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants and have been brought to the Women’s Marches, marches supporting immigrants and refugees and the March for Our Lives, held after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting. She’s also sent some to “persistent resisters” in her hometown of Granville, Ohio.

They approached the Mitchell Branch Library on Harrison Street, but branch librarian Sharon Lovett-Graff said the women were turned down because “the library building is really just reserved for city-related signs.”

Santoni has hung flags on city property outside of Manjares and recently put them back up. Owner Ana De Los Angeles said she hasn’t noticed them but said “I’m happy that she does it. I think it’s good for people reading and I don’t see any problem.” She called the flags positive and “a beautiful thing.”

Dustin Condren, a customer of Manjares and a Westville resident, said he thought they “establish the neighborhood as a safe place” and as a way to “remember the difficulties that other people are in.

He called them a practical way to express a positive message. “It’s about behaviors that people can take and not about housing refugees, which is much more complicated.”

Sally Fazzone of New Haven, also a customer, said she thought the string of flags “also represents this establishment. It’s welcoming and subconsciously says this is a safe place to be.”

Her friend, Chris Melchinger, a Westville resident for 40 years, said she thought the banners were a positive symbol “because this is the kind of spirit, the kind of giving and loving nature” of the neighborhood.