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BY SAMUEL CARTER AND EMILY MAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment in our Women’s History Month series of posts highlighing our living history. As our history is still in progress, we hope you’ll give us feedback so we can strengthen our work! The next five posts will be released over the next week and will highlight five more lessons we’ve learned. Stay tuned.
After we launched, the stories of street harassment didn’t stop coming. There they were: scary, infuriating, isolating stories, sent by people from all corners of the globe. We had started Hollaback! for personal reasons, but at a certain point it wasn’t about us anymore. It was about the stories and the opportunity that we’d inadvertently created to end street harassment.
It took a life changing aha-moment and some badass feminist mentors for us to realize what was happening. In spring 2009, Emily was accepted into the Women’s Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices Program with nine of the most impressive women she’d ever met. At the front of the room was Katy Oreinstein, founder of the Op-ed project, a project designed to increase the amount of women writers on the editorial pages.
Katy urged us to identify ourselves as “experts” on street harassment. Media people love “experts” but women tend to shy away from it. We fear the “so what makes you an expert?” question like the plague, and, to be fair, we’re much more likely to get these questions than men. The more Katy pushed us to identify, the more we wriggled in our seats. “If every one’s voice matters, what was so special about ours?” we asked.
What Katy did next changed the trajectory of Hollaback! forever. She told the group to imagine that everyone in the room had cancer and that we thought we might have a cure. “Do we speak up?” she asked.
We responded in unison: of course.
So, she said, “what’s the difference? The world has problems, and you all have answers. If you’re not speaking up you’re silently complicit in other’s pain.”
Those words hit Emily hard. It made her realize the power of what we had created. We had a huge international platform from which to end street harassment, but Emily was uncertain about leading. She had heard from colleagues that when women lead they are often told they are “in it for themselves” or that they are “fat and ugly anyway.” And when you wake up on a Sunday morning to find messages like these in your inbox before you’ve even had your coffee, your inner middle school ego is gets a bruising. I don’t care how badass you are.
But here’s the trick, by listening to the people that tell you “just want to be famous,” or “are trying to get rich” (Emily’s personal favorite, because you know, the revolution is soooo lucrative), you’re ironically making it about yourself. Your fears become selfish. Emily realized that in not speaking up to the extent she could, she would become silently complicit in other’s pain. She had a choice: lead this thing or sit back and wait for things to happen on their own, and ultimately fail. It was then that it stopped being a personal decision for her, and started being a calling she had to pursue.
BY EMILY MAY AND SAM CARTER
March is Women’s history month, and as we celebrate the incredible strides that women have made throughout history, we also wanted to take a moment to document our own history. Some of it you may know, some of it you may not. In any case, we wanted to take a moment to write it in our own words. This is the first of seven posts that we’ll release over the next week. The following six profile posts will profile different lesson that we’ve learned along the way. We hope you’ll give us your feedback on our journey, and tell us what we’ve done right and wrong along the way. Our history is in progress, and with your help and support, we can make a better future for people impacted by street harassment.
We were a group of seven friends, helping each other get through this tough city-workaday world in daily free-wheeling conversations. Gender was a particularly rich theme. We were three men and four women, all a bit queer, and as we talked about our lives, neighborhoods, commutes to work, the parks and cafes we frequented, something emerged; the women of our group had a vastly different set of experiences in public space from the men, the women enduring a constant barrage of foul comments, violations of personal space, and groping from strangers on the subway and the streets of the city.
For the men, hearing these stories from was eye-opening as they suddenly understood our city of New York as actually being two cities—one as experienced by women, the other by men. And this kind of commonplace inequality was shaking..
On August 23, 2005, a young woman named Thao Nguyen was riding the R train. She looked up to find a man sitting across from her staring. The man started to masturbate. At this point, Thao did not avert her eyes or bury herself in a book. She did not get up and leave the train car. Instead, she took out her cell phone, and took a photo of the man. And when she got off the train, she tried to report the incident. In her words:
Thao took a bold step. After trying to report the incident, she shared her story on flickr, where it quickly went viral. Gothamist picked it up first, then the New York Daily News, which ran the photo on the front page of their tabloid.
It was one of those stories that New Yorkers were all buzzing about. Gothamist got flooded with comments. It felt like everyone either had a similar story of public masturbation, or they knew someone who did. Women came forward and recognized the man in Thao’s photo. Eventually, the subject of Thao’s snap turned himself in to the police.
Amongst ourselves, we picked apart what had happened. Essentially, Thao had taken an action against her harasser using a digital tool that we all carry in our pockets, and then shared it with her broader community. It had sparked public debate. As we went through the timeline of the media story, we found ourselves revisiting familiar ground: the use of all this new personal technology, the power of the Internet and the emerging social media, the rise of blogs, and of course, gender.
And it was then that we realized that it was completely within our power to keep this conversation alive in New York City. That we could start a new site, dedicated to sharing the kind of photos and stories that Thao Nguyen had, and make it open to everyone in New York.
We got to work.
We quickly identified the work to be done. Some of us had set up websites and registered domains before, some were good with design, some with marketing. Others had legal expertise and could put together a basic framework for the project.We settled on the name Hollaback NYC.
On October 3, 2005, at 12:38 PM, we put up our first post:
Here’s the skinny–next time you’re out and about and some cocky ass on a power trip whistles, hoots, or hollas–Just Holla back! Whip out your digicam, cameraphone, 35mm, (or sketchpad), and email us the photo. We’ll post their ugly face for the whole world to see. If you can’t pull out a camera, or you don’t have one on you, just send us a story and we’ll post that too.
We began to populate the site by soliciting stories from each other—and our friends. Here’s Emily’s first Hollaback from October 11, 2005 at 3:54pm:
“Trudging home from the subway I hear the words “beautiful mommy” murmered. I look up to find a man (the one on the left) not staring into my eyes but rather sneering at my tits. I felt like poo, and it took all my willpower to grab my camera and run down the street after him to get this shot. A little scared, and very shaken, I scurried home holding my camera like radioactive material.”
We pissed people off.
The photos got a lot of attention – and a lot of controversy – to the site. Our cell phone cameras became a cry of resistance. This was of course very scary for folks. Changing the power structures usually is. We got hate mail and criticism up the wazoo. The most common critique was “what if she’s lying?” This critique was about more than our project. If you watch the news, you’ll be hard pressed to find coverage of a rape case that didn’t question victim’s integrity – either because of her short skirt, her dark skin, or failure to carry boyfriend-on-arm at all hours of the night. The media makes it sound like women are just running amok, making up stories about sexual assault for shits and giggles.
This is, of course, factually untrue. According to the FBI, only 3% of rape reports are “false.” But the fear of being dragged through the mud by the media, a courtroom, the world, makes rape victims skittish about coming forward. According to the American Medical Association, it’s the most “the most under-reported violent crime.”
Street harassment is on the spectrum of gender-based violence. It’s on the lower end of the spectrum, but it’s important to note because people bring the same shit to the party. Victims of street harassment are seen as liars, and unsurprisingly, this has a hushing effect on victims. Being able to tell your story anonymously — with no risk of public shaming — was revolutionary. And with each picture of a blurry sidewalk, a picture of gold cowboy boots being worn during the incident, or the harasser himself — the stories told on the site brought exposure into an otherwise unspoken part of our daily lives.
With success came failure.
Over the next five years, the stories kept coming and interest in Hollaback! grew. We wrote op-eds, spoke at universities, spray painted t-shirts, and designed tote bags. We even successfully got anti-harassment ads in the New York City subways in coordination with New Yorkers for Safe Transit, a coalition we co-founded in 2008. Our work was featured by Good Morning America, NPR, CNN, and many many others. By our count, we’d appeared in press articles over 450 times by 2010.
With international press came international interest. We started to receive posts from outside the United States, and some of our allies suggested that Hollaback! become the “Craigslist of street harassment” and post stories from around the world. We discussed it, but deep in our hearts, we knew that although street harassment is a global issue, the power of our project lies in local leadership.
Building the movement.
In the words of Gloria Steinum, “movements start by people telling their stories, and they succeed when power dynamics change.” This draws a distinction with nonprofits: movements aren’t fueled by people who are paid to do the work. They are powered by people who recognize injustice and are motivated to work for change. So we struck out on our own. We tried to build a nonprofit that looked like a movement.
Along the way, we made a bunch of mistakes, and learned a few new things.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on what we learned!
My chemistry teacher told me my entire bra was showing. Who is he to be looking at my chest?
I was on a run when a group of men I passed started shouting at me. One began to run along with me saying things like “we running back to your place? Where you going baby? I’m gonna run with you.” I sped up and he kept with me. I finally said “you can’t keep up” and he finally stopped.
Meet Rubina Singh, site leader in Chandigarh, India.
Interview conducted by Rita Beth.
When did you start your holla?
Why did you start a HOLLA and what does Hollaback! mean to you?
Street harassment had become a daily reality for me. I was tired and had no idea what to do about it. One incident in particular, triggered me to find a more long-term solution. I was followed home by some men in a car and it scared me to death. I wasn’t sure what would happen and I just froze. I didn’t do anything then but it really got to me and I knew I had to do something. That was when I found out about Hollaback!. I wrote about it once here.
HOLLAfact about your city:
It’s the greenest city in India.
Say you’re Queen for the day. What would you do to end street harassment?
Engage men and women in conversation about gender roles and gender based violence including street harassment.
What was your first experience with street harassment?
My first experience was when I was 16 years old. I was walking from home to a market and a group of boys started following me and making lewd comments. I entered a shop where I knew the owner and stayed there until I saw them leave.
What’s your signature Hollaback?
I usually keep Hollaback! Pamphlets with me and just hand them over to people harassing me or someone else around me. It’s a great way to start talking about the issue.
Define your style:
My superheroine power is positivity. I try to look at the brighter side of things and make the best out of what is available.
What is your proudest holla moment so far?
We recently conducted a campaign, The Pledge Project, where we encouraged people in the city to pledge that they would speak up against street harassment in their city. We collected over 500 pledges and hopefully made a contribution in ending street harassment in the city.
What do you do when you’re not holla’ng?
Sleeping! Other than that, I work full time with the Commonwealth Youth Programme, Asia Centre based in Chandigarh. We work primarily in the field of youth development.
If you could leave the world one piece of advice, what would it be?
Keep calm and Hollaback!
What are you excited about in 2013?
Queer Pride! Chandigarh is about to see its first ever pride march on the 15th of March. It’s being led by an HIV/AIDS awareness organization, Saksham Trust CBO and Hollaback! Chandigarh is supporting it.
We’re also hoping to collaborate with the city police (they’ve been hugely supportive) to conduct safety audits in the city.
What inspires you?
Learning from the awesome Hollaback! Family. Everyone is amazing beyond amazing and it’s a daily inspiration to see the great work they’re doing and how fantastic they are as people.
We are less than a month away from Anti-Street Harassment Week, April 7-13. Mark your calendars!
Here’s what we’ve been up to this week:
Now, without further ado, let’s talk about how y’all rocked this week:
HOLLA and out —
Thanks to Erin Jill for another great video!
I was walking down a street and a group of painters/workers keep going up and down the street honking and yelling things at me. It made me nervous because I was alone and they went up and down the street more than 3 times. I thought they were going to follow me all the way to the coffee shop.
גבר הבחין בי מרחוק והסתתר. שמתי לב אליו וחשדתי אז עברתי לצידו השני של הכביש,כשחלפי על פניו ראיתי שהוא מתסכל עלי ומאונן. זה היה בשתיים בלילה.
This type of event is always very triggering for me. Today I was out with some friends when a man grabbed me from behind and kissed my face then kept walking. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to react physically, but I yelled “Fuck you” as he walked away. He and his friend heard me and laughed.