It all started with a yard sign.
Carmel resident Ashten Spilker took to social media in early June to express her disappointment that her Black Lives Matter sign had been vandalized twice. She committed to repairing it every day if that’s what it took to spread her message.
Her posts caught the attention of Kayla Seymour and Breanna Hargrove, close friends who ran track together at Hamilton Southeastern High School. All three graduated from HSE in 2014, but Spilker hadn’t been much more than an acquaintance to Hargrove and Seymour until they contacted Spilker to suggest working together to plan an event in Carmel to speak out against racial injustice.
They quickly organized a sit-in protest that took place June 14 at the gazebo near Carmel City Hall, expecting approximately 60 people to attend. But they were astonished when nearly 10 times that number turned out to show support for their cause.
“We weren’t expecting to get the turnout that we did, but we’re so overwhelmed and thankful that it’s not just us that feel this way in Carmel,” Seymour said. “The support we’ve gotten gives us a reason to keep pushing forward, seeing that there are so many people as passionate about it as much as we are.”
After the sit-in, Spilker, Seymour and Hargrove founded Carmel Against Racial Injustice, an organization aiming to end systemic racism and give a voice to those seeking reform in several areas.
Although CARI is in its infancy, its founders said they have felt racial tension in Hamilton County for years.
Hargrove, who is Black, said she heard the n-word frequently in high school and remembers a teacher holding a cotton-picking contest in class to demonstrate how difficult daily life was for slaves. As one of only a few Black students in her class, she found the demonstration “awkward” and “tone deaf,” she said.
She said her experience has led her to focus on reforming the education system to make it more racially inclusive.
“I didn’t go to Carmel (High School), but I see the same things happening there that did with me,” said Hargrove, a respiratory therapist and Fishers resident. “I know if I’m saying it happened at HSE and Carmel, I’m sure it’s happening at Fishers, Westfield, Noblesville and McCordsville. I’m sure it’s everywhere.”
Seymour, who is biracial, said she started experiencing racial microaggressions as early as fifth grade. She remembers walking into her mostly white school one morning during Black History Month to find “colored” and “white” signs placed on the bathroom stalls and water fountains.
“For the first time in my life, I was so embarrassed and so ashamed to be who I was,” she said. “It didn’t occur to anyone how that would come off and how that looked. I remember asking my teacher, ‘Why on earth would you try to show this type of thing?’ He said that it was to show what it was like back in the day, teaching a lesson of how it used to be.”
Now, years later, Seymour, an Indianapolis resident who works at a medical billing company and bartends in Carmel, said the most irritating microaggression she often faces is strangers touching her hair without permission.
“It’s like I’m being pet,” she said. “Random people will come up and pull my hair and touch my hair. It’s such a degrading feeling thinking you’re allowed to touch something on my body. If I were to do that to you or express how I feel, it gets turned around, like, ‘She shouldn’t have reacted this way.’”
Spilker, a behavioral therapist who is white, said she began paying attention to racial injustice in high school when she took classes from a history teacher who was passionate about the issue. She also noticed that many of her Black neighbors were treated differently than her family.
“People would refer to my neighborhood, which is full of $250,000 homes, as the ‘Ghetto of Geist,’” said Spilker, who also lived in Carmel during her high school years. “The only difference between my neighborhood and other neighborhoods is it had a large population of people of color.”
‘Making everybody feel welcome’
Only weeks after its formation, CARI received its biggest platform yet after the Rev. Ted Rothrock of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Carmel wrote an article calling leaders of the Black Lives Matters and Antifa movements “maggots” and “parasites.” The suspension of Rothrock, and CARI’s organized protest of his views, made national headlines.
Yet, CARI’s founders want to grow the organization bigger still. They said CARI has received support and encouragement from residents across Hamilton County and around the globe, including England and South Korea.
CARI is not affiliated with the official Black Lives Matter organization, although Spilker said it supports many — but not all — of the same goals. CARI does not support defunding the local police department, for example.
“We have different ideals and different things we’re pushing for than the (Black Lives Matter) organization,” she said. “We have a different mission statement.”
CARI is considering changing “Carmel” to “Community” in its name to reflect its expanded presence, Seymour said. And she’d like to see it grow beyond that.
“I want us to be countrywide, across the board. If it’s worldwide, that would be awesome,” she said. “That’s thinking big-picture, but I definitely want to be in a space where we’re wanting to spread love and allow people to have a platform to bring their voices up front.”
For now, CARI — which is committed to accomplishing its goals peacefully — is continuing to meet with officials in Carmel, sharing their vision for reform in the police department, school district and city government. CARI’s founders said most people they’ve met have been willing to listen to the organization’s concerns and goals for the community.
“We’re wanting to make sure everybody in Carmel and everybody passing through Carmel, no matter their color, feels accepted and feels welcome. That’s not currently the case,” Spilker said. “People of color don’t want to live in Carmel and they don’t want to work in Carmel because of the perception that we’ve built as a community. It’s time to start rewriting that and making everybody feel welcome here.”
Carmel Against Racial Injustice is seeking reforms in three key areas: Education, police and city government. The following are some of its demands.
Hire a chief equity and inclusion officer
Revise/supplement curriculum to include the study of the history and contributions of people of color
Racial equity orientation for high school students
Ensure people of color have access to cultural opportunities at school
Prohibition of chokeholds or methods of restraint that can cut off supply of oxygen to the brain except in instances where deadly force is authorized
Prohibition of the use of force against individuals who simply verbally confront an officer, are handcuffed, or otherwise restrained
Officers should not holster, draw, point or show their firearms unless they have a reasonable, nondiscriminatory basis to believe there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others
Establishment of an anonymous external reporting system for officers wishing to report department abuses
Develop a diverse panel of Carmel residents who meet quarterly to focus on making the city more inclusive
Launch an initiative to make Carmel more welcoming to people of color, including representing people of color in the statues on Main Street