Friday, August 9, 2013

Ending Street Harassment at HOLLA::Revolution

On July 25, I had the honor to attend HOLLA::Revolution. (You can find my notes on it here.) Sponsored by Hollaback!, a non-profit and movement to end street harassment, HOLLA::Revolution was four hours filled with speakers dedicated to making public spaces safe for women. Defined by the organization Stop Street Harassment as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation,” street harassment is clearly an unacceptable societal phenomenon that must be stopped.

After attending HOLLA::Revolution, I have no doubt that street harassment’s days are numbered. The speakers were so fiercely dedicated to making streets safe that it blew me away. “All those creeps can smell the culture change coming,” Jamia Wilson, the event’s moderator and feminist media activist, said.

I was happy to see that this was not a women-only space. Considering that street harassment is most commonly perpetrated by men, it’s absolutely crucial for the movement to have male allies. Men made up a sizable chunk of the audience, and the two male-identifying speakers brought up excellent points about men and street harassment. I found Jimmie Briggs, the founder of the Man Up Campaign, particularly compelling; the story he shared about witnessing intimate partner violence on the subway with his daughter was really powerful.

Although I’ve always lived in New York, I don’t often take the subway. Maybe that’s why I’ve never witnessed or experienced harassment on public transportation? Even though I can’t relate to it, hearing Nicola Briggs discuss how she defended herself from a harasser on the subway was really transformative. It’s so heartening to know that someone like Briggs, who is not much taller than my 4’11”, could protect herself. “I used the power of my voice to stop an attack,” the tai chi instructor said. I was really struck by how brave Briggs is to share her experience (even on CBS news!) without shame. I don’t think I would ever have the courage to put myself out there like she did, so I really respect it.

As a history nerd, I was fascinated by Rochelle Keyhan, the founder of Hollaback! Philadelphia, who spoke about the history of street harassment. I have previously researched what street harassment was like in the days of olde, but Keyhan’s research was much more comprehensive than mine. She discussed things that I had never heard of, like how women in the early 1900s would hold their hat pins as they walked on the street to defend themselves from a harasser. “Street harassment has been part of our culture since women entered public space….We have to end this chapter of our cultural history,” Keyhan ended with.

I’m no communications expert, but I still enjoyed hearing media critic and lecturer Jennifer Pozner discuss street harassment’s portrayal by the media. It was really interesting to watch the various videos and images she showed to illustrate how the media has led men to believe that women enjoy being catcalled and otherwise harassed. Pozner focused on how songs and music videos are particularly bad culprits, and played several to prove her point. Although I was familiar with several of the songs, I had never really processed what they were about, so I appreciated being forced to think about their real meaning.

It was also really interesting to hear Beth Livingston, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Studies at Cornell University, enumerate the desperate need that community organizations have for resources on how to cope with street harassment. She conducted research among New York City service agencies, and the vast majority wanted to know how to help constituents deal with street harassment. I had always thought street harassment was largely an issue that only feminists really knew or cared about, so it was nice to hear that community organizations care about it and want to end it, too. It’s also good to know that we activists won’t have to struggle to implement anti-street harassment initiatives on the local level.

This was a street harassment-specific event, but several speakers spoke more generally about women’s issues. For example, director of Hollaback! Ottawa Julie Lalonde discussed the pitfalls of being a feminist, and how we can be more supportive of each other. She was a really fantastic speaker, and I loved listening to her.

Pamela Shifman, Director of Initiatives for Girls and Women at the NoVo Foundation, was an excellent speaker, but her presentation about the lack of funding for women’s organizations really disturbed me. Before she discussed it, I had no idea how little (less than 7.5% over the past 15 years) was allotted to women’s organizations. Now I know that I’ll just have to divert all of my charitable donations to women’s organizations, since they need it most.

Although Jill Dimond, worker-owner of Sassafras Tech Collective, did discuss her tech development work in relation to street harassment, I was just happy to listen to a woman in computer science speak. As someone who is interested in both comp sci and activism, it was so refreshing to hear a woman who is in the field (not a common occurrence) and using her knowledge for feminist activism.

All in all, I really enjoyed being at HOLLA::Revolution. I feel really fortunate to be part of the “global community of badasses,” as Emily May, Hollaback!’s founder, said about anti-street harassment advocates. I have full confidence that all of us badasses will band together, shift the social paradigm, and make streets safe for women, once and for all.


  1. When it comes to database problems, problems working with other computer files, and other more-general computer problems, one of the most popular "go-to" people in my office is a woman with a masters in computer science. She's pulled my feet, not to mention my boss's, out of more fires than I can even remember, and has taught me all sorts of formatting tricks in Word. She's chassidic, by the way.

  2. Really? Wow. It's so uncommon to find women in comp sci, it's one of the worst fields for women. Interestingly, the teacher who was in charge of all things (and I mean ALL things) technological at my right-wing high school was a woman who was raised Hasidic (she's still Orthodox, just not Hasidic anymore).