Hollaback!’s Deputy Director, Debjani Roy, wrote an amazing op-ed in the Huffington Post last week discussing criminalization and street harassment. Check it out below!
“When it comes to combating street harassment, increasing criminalization is not the answer.
I have been working as an advocate to end gender-based violence for 10 years with a focus on domestic violence, widows’ rights, forced marriage, sexual trafficking, forced prostitution, and other issues affecting women and girls globally. I currently work to end street harassment or sexual harassment in public spaces.
Street harassment is a widespread and global problem, defined as unwelcome and unwanted attention of a sexual nature, objectifying and targeting both women and men. The wide spectrum of actions ranges from leering, catcalling and whistling to public exposure and masturbation to groping, touching and grabbing. While some forms of street harassment, such as the overt physical acts, do fall under statutory penal codes, others including the ‘hey baby’s,’ the ‘can I get a smile?’, or even the reactive, ‘you’re so ugly, I wouldn’t touch you with a stick,’ do not. These commonplace comments and actions, some of which are claimed to be compliments, are belittling, offensive, intimidating and discriminatory. The 4,500-plus experiences of street harassment shared on the blogging platform of Hollaback!, the anti-street harassment organization, confirm that.
It is a commonly held myth that street harassment happens in low income communities and communities of color. Mapping incidents of street harassment shows it is prevalent in high density areas, such as Times Square in New York City or the West End in London. It makes sense — the more people present in a locale, the more likely harassment will occur, especially in a world that accepts it as a normal and everyday part of life.
When speaking about street harassment at trainings, panels and other outreach efforts, one question repeatedly asked by participants is, ‘How do you criminalize catcalling?’ Criminalizing verbal harassment and unwanted gestures is neither the final goal nor the ultimate solution to this problem and can, in fact, inadvertently work against the growth of an inclusive anti-harassment movement. The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and affects low-income communities and communities of color, as evidenced by more recent policies such as New York City’s Stop and Frisk program and other degrading forms of racial profiling. Our objective is to address and shift cultural and social dialogues and attitudes of patriarchy that purport street harassment as simply the price you pay for being a woman or being LBGTQ. It is not to re-victimize men already discriminated against by the system.
Further criminalizing street harassment can have a negative impact on families and communities within already marginalized and targeted groups. As a South Asian American immigrant woman who has been harassed by men of all backgrounds, including South Asian men, the thought of reporting men who already face institutional and systematic discrimination carries with it a personal sense of responsibility. Having been an advocate for survivors of domestic violence within the South Asian community, I understand the repercussions that families within my community face in the hands of the legal system. A family may depend on a harasser due to certain institutional and cultural barriers, including immigration status (dependent visas, lack of documentation, etc.), linguistic barriers or economic dependency. Say, for example, the harasser has a spouse who is on a dependent visa that does not allow her to work in the United States. Criminalization of the harasser, will directly affect the family that relies on him for their livelihood, potentially resulting in dependent family members losing legal status in the United States, being separated in the case of removal proceedings or economic hardships due to lost income. As advocates, our job is to consider the immediate and long-term impacts of criminalization, knowing that we are working with a flawed and discriminatory system.
This does not excuse the behavior and actions of harassers, but rather promotes the opportunity for more effective ways to let them know that street harassment is unacceptable and furthermore, prevent it from occurring in the first place.
A better approach would require devoting time, energy and effort toward creating social and cultural change. An example of these methods include going out to schools to talk to girls and boys about appropriate ways of treating one another; going out in our communities to engage members on how harassment affects their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons; training individuals on bystander intervention, showing that we all have a role to play in having each other’s backs; creating communities of people who stand up against behavior that is demeaning, discriminating, sexist and homophobic; working through community-based organizations to discuss how masculinity is shaped and actively redefining what it means to be a man across cultures.
Change will not happen overnight, but we intend to continue with this work of changing minds amongst individuals, communities and institutions about the acceptability of street harassment, while simultaneously empowering and strengthening the community of those of us who are targeted. Together we must focus our energies into laying the groundwork so that street harassment is no longer a part of any of our lives.”
– Debjani Roy
Help young people around the world lead the way for the next generation to live without fear of harassment in public spaces.
Why we care: Street harassment–ranging from comments like “You’d look good on me” to groping, flashing and assault–is a daily, global reality for many girls and women and fuels a cultural environment that condones gender-based violence.
How we’re solving this: Uniting a network of leaders from 25 countries in New York City to establish a global strategy to end street harassment.
Hollaback! will host HOLLA::Revolution, an international conference to establish a global strategy to disrupt the normalization of street harassment, in New York City this July. The conference will bring together 250 leaders, who have been trained by Hollaback! to fight street harassment in their local communities.
Hollaback! has trained young leaders—who come from 62 cities and 25 countries—to build skills in on-the-ground activism and digital storytelling to create powerful change. Collectively, they have performed more than 25 research projects, met with 150 legislators, collected 4,000 stories, trained more than 2,500 people, held 50 rallies and walks, spoken with more than 750 media outlets, and brought the issue of street harassment into the limelight in their communities and on-line. But the power of the Internet only extends so far.
HOLLA::Revolution will have two parts:
We aim to create the next generation of feminist leaders, to develop a global agenda to end street harassment and to build the community support necessary for the movement’s long-term success. From California to Mumbai and London to South Africa, help us put an end, once and for all, to street harassment.
I was at diavolos the other night and this guy came up and talked to a friend and I at the table we were at. He was super cool until my friends walked to the bar to get a drink. Then he started leaning in, asking me if I hook up. I said no. He tried to block me from leaving the area. I eventually pushed him out of the way and found my friends. What an asshole.
I was in rush
I was late for school
I was wearing my beautiful new red heels
I was in a hurry ,but I felt good
I needed to catch that bus
I crossed the street
slowed down by the high school
there were one or two guys hanging out in the yard
but my neighborhood is safe in the morning
half a block past, I saw someone behind me
walking quickly to catch up
a young man in leather jacket,
he moved in behind me
I looked ahead walking faster
the corners of my eyes were wide open
I was walking faster
but he was catching up
easily and effortlessly
he slid right up to me,
breathing down my neck
i felt trapped, helpless
I wasn’t going to lose control
I had heels on , I wasn’t going to run
there was no one on the street
even in the distance
the morning birds were singing
my neighborhood was supposed to be safe in the morning
I kept walking fast
I kept scanning for a person, a policeman, anybody
where were the people heading for work?
I am strong
I grew up in the country, climbing trees
I grew up romping with three brothers
I taught my brother how to throw a baseball
finally two blocks down
there is a policeman
he is getting into his vehicle
he is shutting the door
I run as fast as I can
why don’t I scream?
my voice has evaporated
I am too far away
the police car pulls out
I am getting angry and desperate
I decide to turn around
I will punch him
I turn around into his flat hard face
I grabbed his collar
but something in me was paralyzed
I am a gentle person
I am just hanging on
he yells “you fuckin’ white bitch!”
and punches me right in the face
then walks away casually, triumphant
not hurrying at all
my head was spiked with razor blade stars
I reeled, I numbly continued walking to the bus stop,
only a half a block away
I was ashamed
I couldn’t defend myself
why was no one there ?
why did not one see?
what happened to my neighborhood safe in the morning?
the pressure inside suspended my tears
I had to keep going
I was late for class.
BY SAMUEL CARTER AND EMILY MAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last 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. These posts are also cross-posted on Feministing.com.
Any advocacy nonprofit can tell you that you must continually work to maintain energy and accrue wins to stay in business. But movements must also continually modify strategies and change courses. The Hollaback! that exists today will more than likely look dramatically different than the Hollaback! of two, five, or even ten years from now. And the leadership of the organization will have to adapt quickly to keep up.
Movements start by people sharing their stories. This part is usually the easiest. It brings people who typically felt isolated in their experience and helps to build collective dissent to social problems that are normalized.
The sexual violence movement has done a great job with using story-telling for social change. “Take back the Night” marches—which started in the 1970s as a way for people to publicly share their stories of sexual violence in a supportive environment—have spread like wildfire to campuses across the United States, bringing tremendous energy to the movement. And like Hollaback!, the workplace harassment movement also was inspired by a powerful narrative.
In 1975 in Ithaca, New York, Carmita Woods, a 44 year-old administrative assistant at Cornell, quit her job after becoming physically sick from the long-term stress of fighting off sexual advances. The perpetrator was a famous Nobel prize winner. So famous in fact, that his name is omitted from all accounts of incidents. After being turned down for unemployment, Carmita was outraged and found her way to a community-oriented women’s project on campus. They decided to hold a public speak out in her honor.
Carmita and the organizers, Karen Sauvigne and Susan Meyer, expected maybe a handful of women to show up. You can imagine their surprise when 275 women came to the speak-out. Through their tears and anger, attendees described work place stories of being teased, grabbed, propositioned and fired. Organizers Karen Sauvigne and Susan Meyer went on to found the Working Women’s Institute, which has been credited by many in the movement to end gender-based violence for coining the term sexual harassment.
Like with street harassment, the problem was widespread enough to garner attention from policymakers pretty quickly out of the starting gate. In 1975, Eleanor Holmes Norton, then the chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights was holding hearings on women and work. Working Women’s Institute staff scheduled to testify about sexual harassment with great trepidation fearing they would be greeted with skepticism and ridicule. However, Chairperson Norton treated the issue with dignity and great seriousness.
But hearings alone didn’t do the trick. According to KC Wagner, the former counseling director of the Working Women’s Institute, research was the tipping point for the workplace harassment movement. “It shifted the conversation from sexual harassment as experience of the ‘hypersensitive female’ to sexual harassment as part of ‘what it meant to be a women in the workplace.’” Research changed the conversation by putting hard data behind individual stories.
This is key—because efforts to consistently minimize the importance sexual harassment have dominated the conversation with shocking power. Off-handed comments like, “oh, he just thought you were pretty,” “calm down,” or “relax, he didn’t touch you,” silence victims by making them think that their emotions are irrational. On the nonprofit side of the equation we hear, “I understand that street harassment isn’t OK, but is it really the biggest problem that we face?”
We aren’t the first ones to hear this. During the women’s suffrage movement, people said, “Well if you don’t like the way your husband votes you shouldn’t have married him!” Not so long ago, segregation was “just they way things are.”
Once the stories are being told and the decentralized leadership base is underway—the next steps are more tactical. Oftentimes, although not always, research and thought leadership start to come into play, and pave the way for policy initiatives. Then after many years of work—there is an Anita Hill or Rosa Parks moment that penetrates the mainstream so deeply as to forever change culture.
BY SAMUEL CARTER AND EMILY MAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth 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 post will be released tomorrow, stay tuned. These posts are also cross-posted on Feministing.com.
From the beginning, Hollaback! set forth a bold vision:
“Whether you’re commuting, lunching, partying, dancing, walking, chilling, drinking, or sunning, Hollaback! believes you have the right to feel safe, confident, and sexy, without being the object of some turd’s fantasy.”
And then when we transitioned from a blog to a nonprofit, the negative feedback came dribbling in. “The right to be sexy? I mean, is that really a right?” or “Turd? Your call to action includes the word turd?” Interestingly “turd” was chosen after a long debate over was the most gender-neutral but still empowering way to describe a harasser. “Jerk” implied a man, “crazy person” implied mental illness, but “turd” didn’t imply a thing. Except, well, turds.
And so we thought about it – long and hard. And although we agreed our tagline needed to be shorter, we didn’t agree with the attacks on our vision. Because for everyone who hesitated because we were doing it unconventionally—there many, many more with whom this fresh approach resonated.
When we first turned Hollaback! into a nonprofit, we thought we could get away with our marketing plan consisting of a logo and a press release or two. We turned to our friend Clara Flikstein, a marketing strategist, for help on the logo front. Apparently, a logo isn’t just a logo. A logo needs a target audience. A logo needs a brand. A logo needs a vision.
We had watched leaders like Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinum enough to know the power of a vision. Simon Snek describes this vision as the “WHY?” in his TED talk. Snek argues that there are three ways to describe a brand: the what, the how, and the why. He uses Apple as an example. The “what” is computers, iPhones, and other electronics and software. The “how” is beautiful, intelligent, design. And they “why” is Apple’s tagline, “think different.” Snek argues that when we buy Apple, we always rationalize it with “I needed a new computer” or, “it was pretty,” but that’s not why we actually bought it. We bought it because we wanted to be part of a growing creative class—because we wanted to “think different.”
Hollaback! was about the right to be who you are, no matter who you are. It’s about the right to be a girl or to be gay. It’s about the right to be a hipster or a soccer mom. It’s about the right to be happy or to be sad. Hollaback! is about the right to be exactly who you are in public space, and to never have to apologize for it or made to feel unsafe.
With our why statement out of the way we moved onto target audience. This should be easy, right? Emily quickly responded “everybody.” Clara said no. That “everybody wasn’t a target audience. Fine: “women and LGBTQ individuals.” “Nope, try again,” Clara said. “Ummm… women and LGBTQ individuals?” I responded. Clara said I couldn’t pick a target population that was over half the world’s population. We didn’t have the budget for it, and, “besides,” she said, “if you try and speak to everyone you will speak to no one.” We set the target to women and LGBTQ individuals between the ages of 16-30.
We figured if we were going to piss people off, we might as well do it with intent. So “a culture of badass” became one of our core organizational values: “We believe that everyone has a right to be their most badass self, and that the movement to end street harassment will be led like all the other movements that have come before it: by badasses who redefine the status quo ‘rules’ and create revolution. We embrace bold ideas and encourage risk-taking. We aren’t afraid of our own individual strengths and we aren’t afraid to use our collective power to make the world a better place.”
A core question lingered for me: what would a world look like without street harassment? Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” certainly answered this question for the civil rights area – and his answer was so compelling that it still gives us chills today. But what was our answer for the movement to end street harassment? It’s so hard to talk about what a world without street harassment would look like without talking about street harassment. The only answers that we could come up with would start with “there would be no…” groping, flashing, comments, gestures, fill-in-the blank. That stuff is fine, but what would a world without street harassment make possible?
On Emily’s way to work every morning, two men would say “good morning.” At first, she was afraid that even something as simple as “good morning” would escalate, as it had many times for her in the past. So she ignored them. They persisted, and after a couple weeks, she started to hesitantly nod, secretly wishing they would just stop. Another week goes by and Emily quietly responded, “good morning” back to one of the men. He smiled. And then the most amazing thing happened: nothing.
So the next morning, Emily respond with “good morning” a little more confidently. Still, she’s safe. She tries it with the other guy. Still safe. Emily now says good morning to them every morning, and they are the nicest guys. They make her feel safe in her neighborhood, but it’s sad that she was trained by past experiences to ignore them. And she’s not the only one. Hollaback! shows there are thousands of women who thought “good morning” was just too much in the context of these violent streets.
And as sad as this story is, it is also an opportunity for vision. Those men reminded us that in a world without street harassment, good morning will never mean anything other than good morning. And that this simple phrase would re-unite communities driven apart by fear. Under the safe umbrella of “good morning,” children will be able to play freely in the streets, and the nice guys will come out of the woodwork. Silenced by a fear of being “one of those guys,” they will be able to say things like “you look nice today,” and their compliments will be just that: compliments.
If you don’t give people hope, a promise of a better world, they will stop working for change. And we’re not talking about something that easy to fix here. In fact, street harassment has existed since the advent of streets and its long been deemed hopeless. It’s our job to turn that conversation around, and to make people believe that the social issues formally known as “impossible” are in fact very possible. After all, culture changes every day. In the past 60 years the United States has gone from a country where people of color drink from different water foundations to a country were we’ve got our first black president.
Now that path wasn’t easy. What stood in during those 60 years was the hard work of committed activists and visionaries working day in and day out to make that dream a reality. But the point is: they did it. And we too can tackle stubborn old social issues. But we first have to give people hope.
That’s why we made one of our values: Making the impossible possible. In the words of Clara, “When I walk down the street and some guy is trying to get me to sign a petition – I think to myself ‘I’ve got ten things wrong with my life, do you really need to tell me about number eleven?’ With a cloud of messages in the world, I don’t want to hear what’s wrong. I know what’s wrong. I want to hear what’s possible.”
BY SAMUEL CARTER AND EMILY MAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth 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 two posts will be released over the next two days, stay tuned. These posts are also cross-posted on Feministing.com.
One of the magic aspects of Hollaback! is that for the first five years, we needed almost no money. The blog was free and we paid about $10 a year for the domain name. Every year or so we’d raise maybe $100 or $200, and we’d have enough to silkscreen Hollaback! tshirts, press buttons, or print stickers.
The founders of Hollaback! knew a thing or two about running organizations and we knew instinctively that it organization-ing Hollaback! just wasn’t the right trajectory. Fundraising, payroll taxes, insurance—these are all code words for revolution retardants. We knew that we, the people running Hollaback!, were our most valuable resource. The best stimulus package we could give our little project was to stay in the streets and out of red tape.
Those blissful days came to end when our little project got too big to be run by a volunteer collective anymore. We’d taken out a $5,000 loan to build our first iPhone app because we were so convinced that foundations would jump at the opportunity. They didn’t. In addition to our loan, we had another $10,000 in bills mounting just to complete the app.
It was a moment of desperation. Not knowing what else to do we put the project on Kickstarter (at that point a brand new platform for funding) for $12,500. If we didn’t raise all of the money we didn’t get any of it. At that point, we had no board, no individual donors to date, no email list, no facebook group, no twitter followers, and we didn’t know a soul who could donate over $100.
But it worked. In only one month we exceeded our goal and raised $13,500. About 75% of the donations were $10 or less, and it was truly a community effort. Everyone who knew anyone was sending emails to their friends and slamming their social media pages to bring Hollaback! to life.
The power of the campaign caught the attention of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and a few months later they gave us our first grant. When Emily got the call it was late on a Friday. The woman on the other end of the line said “we’re awarding you a grant for fifteen dollars.” “Fifteen dollars?” Emily asked, trying to sound grateful. After all, that was fifteen more dollars than we had last week. “Fifteen dollars,” the caller repeated, paused, and then quickly said “no, no I mean $15,000!”
This was really going to happen. But we’ve had to keep fighting tooth and nail for every moment of it. We quickly discovered there are two worlds of foundations that would consider donating to something like Hollaback!, and neither of them knew what to do with us. No one had a “street harassment” portfolio, but foundations that focus on women’s, LGBTQ issues, or gender-based violence kind of got it for the most part. Street harassment wasn’t new to them, in fact, the first anti-harassment group called the “Anti-Flirt Club” had popped up as early as the 1920s. But our model of online organizing was completely new, and we got rejected left and right.
On the other side of the coin, there was a new field of funding for social innovation and entrepreneurship. They loved our model, but in off-line conversations with two of their staff people we were told that although they, personally, loved what we are doing—they feared that street harassment just wasn’t as pressing of an issue as world hunger or global health. In the written feedback form from one fellowship application were the words, “street harassment is not a problem in the United States.”
There is no need to sugar coat it. We started a nonprofit in a recession working on an issue that was “new” to many funders using a model that was “new” to almost all of them. It seemed that where foundations (except for an awesome few) failed us, individuals totally “got it.” We reworked our fundraising strategy to focus on the individuals. After all, there are a lot more individuals in the world than foundations—and it’s individuals—not foundations who get street harassed everyday, and are willing to blog, tweet, and Facebook themselves into changing the world.
BY SAMUEL CARTER AND EMILY MAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth 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 three posts will be released over the next week and will highlight more lessons we’ve learned. Stay tuned. These posts are also cross-posted on Feministing.com.
When Malcolm Gladwell wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” in The New Yorker, he argued that the revolution would not happen through social media because the revolution requires “strong ties” and the Internet only facilitated “weak ties.” There are lots of abstract ways to measure “strong” vs. “weak” ties, but the founders of Hollaback! felt that Gladwell was missing the mark. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s research shows that social media causes the release of oxytocin, which is the hormone that is responsible for feelings of trust, generosity, and connectivity. It is released by mothers holding their babies, people falling in love, and according to Zak, it is the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, societies — and dare we say, movements. This suggests that individuals can form strong, emotional connections over digital networks.
Gladwell didn’t get everything wrong though—movements do require strong-ties. Our “hand them a start up packet and be done with it” model didn’t just fail because it didn’t provide people with enough training, it failed also because it didn’t provide them with community.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you were part of a great team? When everyone was on the same page, working seamlessly to the same incredible goal? Those moments are rare, but when they happen they are the best. We wanted to build Hollaback! with that design in mind—an incredible team that loved each other and were all in it together, fighting for something bigger than ourselves. Releasing oxytocin at every turn.
In March 2011, a prominent journalist and professor in Buenos Aires named Juan Terranova wrote an article on our Buenos Aires Hollaback! site. He wasn’t a fan; and instead of critiquing it from any reasonable academic or journalistic perspective, he went after our site leader, Inti Maria writing, “I want to break her asshole with my cock.”
His words reverberated across our network. A collective shock, rage, and concern about Inti Maria’s safety lit our listserve on fire. Inti Maria left the country to gather her thoughts and ensure her safety, and we started a petition on change.org to get him fired. Within a few weeks we’d collected 3,500 signatures from 75 countries around the world. And still, the publication that he wrote for didn’t budge. So we targeted their advertisers, Fiat and Lacoste, and within two days we’d gathered over 1,500 signatures and both Fiat and Lacoste ended their advertising contracts. At that point, the main shareholder made the call. Terranova was fired, and both Terranova and the editor of the magazine wrote a front page apology to Inti Maria.
In his apology, Terranova referred to Hollaback! as a “powerful, well-organized international organization.” At this point, Emily had been on salary as Executive Director for just two months, and we had no additional staff or an office. But as a badass collective of feminist activists with computers, Terranova was right: we were both powerful and well-organized.
Following the ordeal, Inti Maria wrote to the Hollaback! listserve:
The other day I made a comparison to a friend between Hollaback! and a bee hive. I said I felt like a bee because we are organized, strong, active and when we get mad — we act together. He said, “you are a strong bee,” haha. But the point is I feel strong because we are all strong together. Right now it feels like we’re taking down the bear of institutionalized misogynism in the media!
What happened with Terranova reminded us that we were up against some pretty terrifying enemies. Before Terronova we had all suffered through a range of hater comments calling us “fat,” “ugly,” or “just needing to get laid.” They stung. But this was a whole new ballgame. The ordeal inspired the establishment of Hollaback’s culture of support as well as one of our core values: “I’ve Got Your Back.” It’s reads:
“Making revolution isn’t always easy. It’s scary to tell your story, and it’s scary to lead a movement that challenges the status quo. When times get tough, we stand as a united front against the forces that try to pull us apart. We embrace others’ perspectives, see debate as a learning opportunity, and we never, ever get holier-than-thou.”
Today, we maintain our community’s solidarity through several outlets, including a listserve and facebook group where we share announcements. The goal of our online communications isn’t just to share resources or best practices. It’s to inspire that warm-fuzzy feeling. The feeling of being on an incredible team, the feeling of being understood. Because it is that feeling above all else that makes things happen.