The previous post was about a woman who took her activism off the Internet and straight to the streets. This next piece also concerns activism in the digital age and is about a woman who is using the Internet and mobile technology to address a centuries-long problem that happens to millions of women everyday: Street Harassment. I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily May back in 2005 when she and a group of friends began HollabackNYC.com, which has evolved from a feminist blog to a global feminist revolution.
“I think the Internet is our new campfire. We can take a story that’s completely isolating, and make it sharable,” says Emily May, co-founder and Executive Director of iHollaback.org, which since 2005, has given women and members of the LGBT community who’ve experienced street harassment a place to air their grievances, and in hip-hop parlance, put those fools on blast if they wish, with an accompanying photo. On iHollaback, one can read thousands of personal accounts with men that can run the gamut from annoying to terrorizing.
“Feminism had addressed harassment in the workplace in the 80s and 90s, but hasn’t addressed harassment on the street, because they haven’t had a way to address it. With harassment in the home, one can file a legal charge, in the workplace, sue the pants off companies, ” says Emily. But what to do on the street, where a frustrated woman’s decision to fight back with her own words could end in her being assaulted or even murdered?
“I really think our generation can address this daily form of discrimination and harassment in a way others couldn’t because of the Internet. It really comes down to education and awareness. Street Harassment is already illegal in New York City, but it’s not enforced.”
HollaBackNYC.com was inspired in part by the actions of Thao Nguyen, who Emily calls “the Rosa Parks of street harassment.” During the summer of ’05, Ngyuen used her cameraphone to take what turned out to be a crucial snapshot of restaurateur Dan Hoyt, who masturbated in front of her while they were in a subway car. After learning that the authorities weren’t interested in her piece of evidence while filing a report, she posted Hoyt’s photo on the website flickr.com, where it was seen by nearly 45,000 people. It was also featured on the front page of the Daily News, which led to more women identifying Hoyt. He was eventually arraigned on four counts of public lewdness the following fall.
“She was young, a woman of color, she was a girl, and this guy was middle class, lover of extreme sports, white guy. She was really able to turn the lens off of her and back onto him. She also created a citywide conversation about public masturbation. She just did it because she thought it was the right thing. [We thought] let’s take this model and let’s use it, to not discuss just masturbation, but groping, and other things that happen on the street.”
A year after the launching the blog, HollabackNYC was contacted by women who wished to start Hollaback chapters in their own cities. “We really felt strongly about what local activists could do, instead of just having a warehouse of street harassment stories. We wrote a startup packet, and whenever someone contacted us, we gave them a startup packet.”
According to Emily, in 2009, twenty Hollabacks had been formed and by 2010, only three remained active. “ …the model of giving startup packets didn’t really work. What we wanted to do was something that really maintained this idea of giving local control to different Hollabacks. We wanted people to really own it…we wanted people to be part of a larger movement.”
One of the ways iHollaback has done that is by continuing to embrace new mobile technologies that have emerged during the past five years. Their applications for both the iPhone and the Droid have been launched in the United States this past Friday, and Emily also partnered with RightRides on a mapping project that lets people map their encounters with street harassment experiences in real time. There are currently chapters of Hollaback that have been started in France, England, and even in Israel.
iHollaback are themselves part of a renewed reaction to the problem of street harassment. This past September, after writer Elizabeth Mendez Berry’s op-ed piece Street Harassment: The Long Walk Home appeared in the newspaper El Diario, Queens Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, whose district was already receiving complaints from school administrators about students being harassed on their way to school,called a two-day hearing on the topic. It was the first of its kind held in an American city.
“It was really incredible, there was an all women crowd. Fourteen people ended up testifying, it was so beautiful. So many people came forward,” says Emily.
Some of the possible solutions iHollaback proposed in their testimony were a study that would examine which communities were directly affected by street harassment and its resulting consequences, and also a “harassment free” zone near schools.
“It was a positive response, the City Council latched on to the first two ideas, they were hesitant about the [harassment free zone] idea, because of free speech. We got ridiculous press on it, because the AP wire was there. The story got picked up by 200 outlets, we’ve been watching the story on the news, there’s been really positive feedback. It was totally historic.”
The Astronomical Kid’s “Stop Lookin’ At My Moms” Video, which was screened at the hearing.
Emily earned her Bachelor’s Degree from NYU and her Master’s from the London School of Economics, and in 2008, she won the Stonewall Women’s Award. Last year she was a 2009 Progressive Women’s Voices Fellow and the Women’s Media Center also recently selected her as one of thirty “Women Making History”. Before beginning her work with iHollaback, she helped teenagers obtain their GEDs and find jobs, and also worked with mentally ill adults. “It’s a pretty dramatic shift in gears for me. From doing that work to this work, there are very different cultures surrounding it. I think these issues interest me, front and center. I think that moving forward, I will have more space for it.”
Her advice for younger activists is “to be a badass.” “I still feel like I’m learning so much. I think being in a leadership role is terrifying but being a lady on top of it, we’re socialized to be mediators, socialized to think before we speak; if all you do is trying to do all the things you’ve been socialized to do, you won’t be able to kind of break out and inspire people. I think that the number one lesson I’ve learned, is if you want to be change the world, you have to be a badass. Believe in yourself, know you are coming from a good place and a right place. One voice can’t change the world, but one more voice in the conversation is the only voice that does change things. ”