Like countless teenagers, Cheshire High School junior Juliette Markman recalls going through a hard time last spring. Along with not being able to see her friends due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, she was blown away by the images she saw on television and the Internet.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd at the feet of a Minnesota police officer on May 25, as well as other shootings involving African Americans, several protests broke out in cities around the nation. While not advocating for violence, Markman felt that there was a desperation from people to have their voices heard.
“It was scary watching mass destruction on TV and people getting arrested for wanting a free society,” recalled Markman. “It was definitely hard to watch it play out. I spent a long time thinking of how I could have an impact.”
After seeking the help of classmate Jenna Tiso and 2020 CHS graduate Abby Dziura, Markman was happy to find a way to safely join the fight against racial injustice. In late May/early June of last year, the girls formed Unity, an online store where people can purchase activist items for charity.
In creating stickers and car decals around Black Lives Matter and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) themes, the students have split their proceeds between the Innocence Project and the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective (BTFA).
“As a society, we didn’t see a reason for us to be divided and wanted to lift people up in a time like this,” explained Markman. “We thought that this (project) was a way to stay safe and give back to these organizations.”
After Markman approached Tiso with the idea, the friends felt that they needed a graphic designer and spoke with Dziura about teaming with them.
Before graduating from CHS last year, Dziura was active in laying out the school newspaper, The Rampage. As a sophomore, she worked as the Student Life Editor and then served as the Editor in Chief during her last two years.
“Designing is something that I enjoy doing in my free time. For a while, I did some college graphics for my friends when they committed to schools,” said Dziura. “For this (Unity) project, I was happy that I could use my experience to help people.”
To make designs for stickers and car decals last year, she mostly used Adobe Illustrator on her computer.
“It took me a couple of days. I would send my drafts to the girls and then go back to work on them,” Dziura recalled. “I had tons of free time because the school (CHS) was totally remote at that point.”
“I didn’t know Abby that well when we got started, but we had participated together in the production of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” recalled Tiso. “It was nice to get to know her and work on this project."
Markman, Tiso, and Dziura also talked about which organizations they wanted to help.
“We looked at groups who were in need at the time,” reflected Tiso. “We wanted to give back to the Black community.”
For the Innocence Project, the girls wanted to recognize efforts to bail out people who were wrongly imprisoned for protests and other things. Tiso said that it was hard to witness the backlash that BLM received during protests last year.
“There was a good mix of people who were just fighting for their rights and getting hurt for what they were doing,” recalled Tiso.
Since Markman, Dziura, and Tiso also know people in the LGBT community, they chose to also donate to BTFA, an organization that creates spaces for the production and preservation of Black trans art.
“We are involved in the arts and feel that area is underrepresented, as well,” stated Markman.
The girls estimated that it took about two weeks to set up the Unity store. On their web page, www.shopunity.store, stickers and car decals range in price from $2 to $5.
“We tried to get it out as fast we could to start raising money,” reflected Markman.
To spread the word, the friends used social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, as well as word of mouth.
“Parents and other people were very supportive,” said Markman. “We actually got orders from multiple states. It was cool to see interest coming in from different places.”
As of press time, Unity has raised $140 each for the Innocence Project and BTFA.
“I feel that sometimes you can feel powerless on world issues,” said Dziura. “To be able to raise money and have even a small impact, it means a lot. It is good to help the world as much as you can.”
For their efforts, the Unity team has been recognized by the Cheshire community. This year, Cheshire Youth Services has put together a calendar where they shine a spotlight on projects created in 2020 by students.
With February being Black History Month, Markman, Tiso, and Dziura were chosen as the first honorees. In using the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Framework, Cheshire Youth Services put the girls into the Positive Values-Equality and Social Justice category.
“We didn’t go into Unity with the mindset of being recognized, but it is nice to see people take notice of what we are trying to do,” explained Tiso. “It is also good to have other people spotlighted for what they’ve done.”
Dziura said that Unity will be starting to work on helping charities that focus on COVID-19 relief in underrepresented areas. While currently attending Fordham University in New York, she is still able to create designs away from home.
Dziura added that she is appreciative of Cheshire Youth Services for spreading the word about Unity to the town.
“Even if people don’t want to spend money on stickers, perhaps they will give to these charities and share it with others,” stated Dziura.
While all of the girls have been busy with school, they look forward to getting together to talk about the future of Unity. Among other things, Markman hopes to tackle some environmental issues with designs.
“The website is still open right now, but we haven’t had the time to promote it like we did last summer. It has been a crazy time for all of us,” stated Tiso.