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Don’t tell sad girls to smile

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Lesson #6: “A movement must keep moving.” -Gloria Feldt


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.

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Lesson #5: Martin Luther King said “I have a dream.” He did not say, “I have a list of compelling facts and figures.”


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.”

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Lesson #4: The revolution will only be funded by the people who want revolution. These people won’t have much money.


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.

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Lesson #3: Strong-ties and warm-fuzzy feelings are essential.


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.

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Week In Our Shoes: Full Frontal Feministing

Hello Amazing Hollas!

We are now at the tail end of Womens History Month 2013. Many, many of you hosted and attended incredible events around the world, speaking on our site and all over the media about harassment, doing our part in this international conversation about everyday violence by holla-ing back! Well done.

  • POLICY! I met with staffers from Councilmembers’ Arroyo, Rose, Quinn, Comrie, Chin, and Ferreras’ offices this week to talk about getting anti-harassment education implemented in New York City middle schools.
  • PRESS! We’re closing out women’s history month with a series of posts about our own history on Feministing! Check them out on our main site as well. Hollaback! was also featured in the Huffington Post and PoicyMic in an article called “Street Harassment Isn’t That Different from Rape.”
  • SPEAKING OUT! Deputy Director Debjani Roy sat on the “Building Social Movements” panel discussion at the 2013 Project Pericles Debating for Democracy National Conference last week! The conference focused on civic engagement and social action, aiming to inspire student leaders and provide them with ideas and tools to work on issues they care about. Meanwhile, I headed out to Atlanta, GA to speak at the Panhellenic Southeastern Conference.
  • PARTNERS! I met with Rookie Magazine (swoon!), Futures without Violence, and did a webinar with Nancy Schwartzman from the Line Campaign for the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault this week!

Eileen Fisher 2 Eileen Fisher

Hollaback! NYC had their Eileen Fisher event last weekend! Hollas bravely took on an afternoon of NYC saturday shoppers, tabling at Eileen Fisher locations all over the New York area. They talked to customers and passers by about Hollaback!, street-harassment awareness, and our hollawesome fight. The New York hollas are also revving their engines for their Anti-Street Harassment Rally and Chalk Walk on April 13! Check out their site for details.

Hollaback! Berlin got some fancy press this week speaking about Hollaback! and breaking the silence against sexual harassment. The site also attended the International Activism Conference in Berlin.

Hollaback! Ottawa was featured in both CBC News AND Ottawa’s Metro Newspaper talking about the serious issue sexual harassment on public transportation and how to address it. Particularly of note here is Ottawa Hollas potent stance on whether or not the city should put cameras on public transportation vehicles: “If the City is going to spend upwards of a million dollars on cameras, then they surely have some money to spare for public education regarding harassment and assault. And it’s those kinds of preventative measures we’d like to see.” Way to RULE, Hollas!

Hollaback! Brussels, the on-fire group responsible for the beautiful We Chalk Walk Tumblr, is now organizing a #ShareTheStreets Walk. Hollas and fellow walkers will walk around Brussels, leaving small “gifts” with small messages around the city. Their purpose is to start a very necessary street dialogue of gifts to each other, in a gesture of caring, giving, and rising up together as bystanders.

Hollaback! Montreal is planning for Anti-Street Harassment Week by organizing a bilingual bystander intervention workshop!

Hollaback! Dresden posted an very powerful article on their sight this week highlighting the issue of violence against women and how the problem is so terribly embedded in society.

Hollaback! Baltimore blogger Rebecca Evans posted a blog piece on how advertising dictates our social conversation in public and on the street.

Hollaback! Boston site leader Angela bids her fellow hollas farewell as she moves on to many new and exciting opportunities in her new home in Detroit. Angela has been important part of the Hollaback! movement and she will always be a part of our family. A big Holla THANK YOU to Angela!

Hollaback! Philly’s comic book campaign is going swimmingly! The comic book is fully funded, and they even raised enough money to fund their trip to COMICON 2014 in San Diego to represent the women and LGBTQIA conversation in a forum where these issues are rarely brought up. I’m so proud.

Hollaback! Buenos Aires participated in a discussion group on street harassment this week at the Tierra Violeta Cultural Centre. Hollas screened A Walk Home and talked about street harassment, art, race, intersexuality, and harassment as experienced by LGBTQIA men and women. Fantastic!

HOLLA and out —


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Lesson #2: Develop systems that elevate the voices of others, and then get out of their way.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third 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 four 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.

The first step in establishing Hollaback! was figuring this leadership bit out. While we knew it was important, we were deeply uncomfortable with it. Help came with a book called No Excuses by Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood. Feldt argued that people with out traditional access to power (women, people of color, and others) have an uneasy relationship with power because it’s traditionally wielded over them. She argued for a “power to” instead of “power over” model.

“Power to” made sense within our context. Prior to running Hollaback! We had always played supporting roles to bosses in leadership positions. And we were good at it, making leaders better versions of themselves—filling in their gaps, listening to them, coaching them, and convincing others that they were pretty much the awesomest people on the planet.

We started to launch sites. We set the goal of launching five in the first year. Instead, we launched 45. Activists from around the world from radically different backgrounds were coming together to end street harassment. They were 44% LGBTQ, 33% people of color, and 75% under the age of 30.

Hollaback! was never about rules, but instead about elevating people’s voices that had historically been ignored in the conversation. And our job was to be a catalyst for action, to inspire and train these new leaders, but not to make them dependant on us. The sites localized, customized, and innovated our model without oversight.

By the fall of 2010, we were overwhelmed with requests to launch sites. Our all-volunteer team decided it was best to streamline the process and launch them in classes. Each class was responsible for developing their launch plan, establishing their team, putting together a press list, and getting at least one member of their team to attend our four webinars. Our team was responsible for getting their website, their localized logos, and, of course, the training and technical assistance. We brought the global community and the brand, they brought the action.

Our site leaders had full control over how they chose to run their site. They could speak with media, do presentations, hold events, meet with legislators, do mud-stenciling, host film screenings, all without our approval and most of the time without our help. We worked with them to help them have the same “ah-ha” moments that we’d had. To help them realize that their voice matters, and that the ultimate antidote to street harassment was to speak up. The stakes were as high for them as for us. If we didn’t speak up and lead, we were unnecessarily subjecting future generations to street harassment. Running a Hollaback! wasn’t just an opportunity, it was an urgent necessity. And poised with the opportunity to make real change on this issue—our site leaders took public conversation on street harassment to the next level.

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Lesson #1: You must have confidence—a belief in your gut—that you can really change culture.


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.

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Women’s History Month: telling our own.


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:

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!


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