When I was 15 years old, I was volunteering in a soup kitchen, and got in a conversation with a particularly kind older man. He was eating a piece of slightly burnt garlic bread and drinking lukewarm water out of a used yogurt cup, and as I sat there, he told me that he believed in my potential and that he saw hope for a bright future ahead of me. Tragically, this same man also told me that he did not have any hope left for himself.
After an hour of speaking with him, I excused myself to go to the bathroom. And I started to cry. Angry, uncontrollable tears. This world, his fate, seemed so unfair to me. Here he was in a soup kitchen and there I was, never having to worry about where my next meal was coming from. And while I got in my car to drive home. He would come back tomorrow. Still hungry, still with this sense of hopelessness.
It was the first time I had to reconcile our country’s great creed, with our country’s harsh realities. Right here in the land of the free, right here in the home of the brave, this man had fallen so far that he couldn’t see his way out. And yet when I looked around in this face of this tragedy– the world kept driving, kept eating, kept laughing like it wasn’t happening. Like it was his pain, not all of our pain. And that really ticked me off.
My mom – the ever resourceful librarian – picked up on my developing sense of justice and directed me towards books about the turbulent sixties. I read them eagerly. The marches, the protests, Woodstock, Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinum, Rosa Parks, Vietnam. I started to see a world full of problems, a world full of injustice – from sexual violence, to war, and poverty and racism.
And I couldn’t help but to think: WHERE ARE MY GENERATION’S GREAT LEADERS?
I am here today to tell you I was looking in the wrong place.
My generations great leaders are re-wired, re-configured, and de-centralized. You see — technology fundamentally changed the way we work. Fads move faster. Information moves faster. Culture moves faster.
Today if you make the mistake of looking for leadership that resembles these great women and men of the past, you might think Lady Gaga or Ashton Kutcher is the best my generation can muster.
But Don’t let the news fool you. There is a lot more to my generation. You see, in the days before the internet, there was only one mic, one podium, one speaker. But now, thanks to the proliferation of blogging and social media everyone has a mic, we can all speak. It’s no longer about who speaks the loudest, or who rules the airwaves. We can all have voices. And I honestly believe that this is changing the way that movements happen.
I want to talk with you today about one movement – the movement to end street harassment – and more specifically my organization – Hollaback.
For those of you that have never heard of the term, street harassment is sexual harassment in public space. It includes verbal and nonverbal harassment, stalking, groping, and public masturbation. Street harassment unfairly targets young people, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) folks, and people of color. It is the most persistent and pervasive form of gender-based violence.
On our site, at ihollaback.org, we document stories of street harassment.
Just this week, we got a story from a girl named Kate. Kate and her friend Mia were grabbed from behind by a jogger. Kate was grabbed by the breast and choked as she began to fight back. “Get the fuck away from me!” she screamed. After the assailant let her go, he began sauntering as if he had done nothing wrong.
We also got a story from Kristin in San Francisco. Kristen was on a crowded bus when she felt a perpetrator’s genitals moving up and down on her thigh. As she moved away the larger man followed her, forcing her to get off at the nearest stop. Kristin now suffers from anxiety attacks.
And when a 16 year-old back in New York saw a man exposing himself to her she said, “I’ve been thinking about it, trying to forget about it because Idon’t want this to ruin my life. I keep saying to myself, ‘it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen’; however, as I type this I’m beginning to realize, ‘yes, it really did.’”
In the words of Chitra Nagarajan, the Director at Gender Action for Peace and Security, “you are either at the table, or you are on the menu.”
But historically an invitation to the table has only been handed to an elite few. A quick look at our presidents show mostly white, all male. A scan of Fortune 500 CEO’s shows that 5 are African American, four are Latino, and there are only 14 women. Out of 500 CEOs.
My parents generation broke glass ceilings and my generation has been left to climb through glass chards. What we thought was a world of opportunity turned out to be a bloody mess so, – a few of us gave up on waiting to be invited to sit at the table. And we started to build our own damn table.
The story of Hollaback begins in 2005, around the same time that cell phone cameras and blogs hit the mainstream. We were a group of friends – both men and women – and we were fed up with street harassment. We were specifically fed up with not having a response. When we walked on, we felt weak. When we yelled at guys the situation escalated. The police didn’t care.
So, using our cell phone camera and the free blogger platform, we started snapping photos and blogging our experiences to bring awareness to what was happening to us.
Low and behold, what was happening us, was happening to people around the world. In the US it’s called “cat-calls,” “in India it’s called ‘eve-teasing’” and in most Spanish speaking countries it’s called piropos. But no matter where you are the world, street harassment leaves you feeling degraded and scared to walk freely in your own community.
Hollaback is a hyper-local, hyper-personal response to a global issue – so, to address it we build a global community. We moved everyone onto the same wordpress platform, gave everyone complete control over their blogs, their projects, their media, their social media – and we connected through a listserve, and started provided trainings and running campaigns together. In short, we built a big, fat, table. And everyone is invited.
And what we’ve seen is that the people who don’t have traditional access to leadership – i.e. the people who aren’t usually invited to the table, are the people who are leading the movement to end street harassment. Our site leaders are 44% LGBTQ, 26% people of color, and 75% under the age of 30. These aren’t just the leaders of the movement to end street harassment. If we’ve built this table as well as we think we have– these will be the next leaders of the world.
Now, I know what we’re doing right now looks a lot like leadership of the past I’m one girl up here with a mic. But I want to be dead clear on this: it is our site leaders, not me, who are making this a movement.
Because let’s face it: I’m an English speaking, 30 year old, white girl. And I can’t represent anything other than my experiences – and you may or may not relate to them. There are some people in this room right now who thinking I’m rocking it now. Some of you thought the guy before me was way better. And some of you are just waiting for happy hour. I’m not going to hit the soul-chords of all of you, it’s just not possible.
But, with 100 site leaders in 38 cities in 14 countries speaking 8 languages — I’d be willing to bet you that one of them will totally knock your socks off. One of them will inspire you to actually sit at our table, to rethink your assumptions, and to hope for a world without street-harassment. As our website will tell you, that’s not the world we’re living in now.
But the beauty of movement building on the web is that everyone has a voice, an audience, for their triumphs as well as their tragedies. And sure, you still have to pick who you sit next to at this big fat table, just like you have to pick who you want to follow on twitter. But don’t worry, you can change your mind and move seats. The important thing is that you’re here. And you’re speaking.
AND THIS change in the way we lead – is changing the way we change the world.
So come. Sit with us. Hostess gifts are tax deductible and welcome, but not required. Just know that at our table you’ll have some the best conversations of your life, you won’t have to scream or shout, and you’ll always have a mic, and you’ll be sitting right next to some of our generation’s greatest leaders.
Join us. And thank you.