Thursday, May 29, 2014

HOLLA::Revolution: Changing the World, One Street at a Time

On Tuesday, May 27, I was honored to attend the second annual HOLLA::Revolution speaker series against street harassment. Although not many people outside of the feminist community are familiar with the term, street harassment refers to sexual harassment that occurs in public spaces, from non-physical intimidation like catcalling and whistling to physical actions like groping and assault. HOLLA::Revolution brought together activists from across the globe, united in their mission to make the streets a safer place. Organized by Hollaback!, an international movement working to end street harassment, HOLLA::Revolution was – as I found it last year – an inspirational experience.

I appreciated how the conference showcased untraditional, artistic methods of activism being used against street harassment. I was already familiar with the work of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a Brooklyn-based artist whose series Stop Telling Women to Smile (pictured below) has graced public spaces for the past two years, but her discussion of how she came to create the series, what the artistic process was like, and how the project has been received brought a new perspective on the artwork for me. I have always found this series powerful, but my appreciation for it was only deepened upon learning how grassroots and personal it is, to both the artist and women whose images are featured.

Many other forms of art were featured as well. As someone who really enjoys spoken word poetry, I was excited when I saw that spoken word was scheduled to start off the day. The poem did not disappoint. Although it took the performer, Hollaback! Halifax site leader Rebecca Faria, a second to get into her swing, her performance was extremely powerful once she got comfortable on stage. HOLLA::Revolution also featured a dance performance from the Sydnie L. Mosley Dance Company, as well as a highly amusing comedy routine from social activist and comedian W. Kamau Bell. These activists’ performances really impacted me. It was truly inspiring to see people using their talents to take part in activism for a cause important to them.

As a history nerd, I was really excited to hear Professor Karla Jay discuss her activism against street harassment during the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve written about the history of street harassment before, but had never really heard of actions done in the mid-20th century by feminists. It was a privilege to simply be in the same room as Professor Jay, let alone to hear her speak. She was articulate, speaking from the heart about her experiences working in the radical feminist movement and organizing what she called an “ogle-in,” where she and some fellow feminists stood at the Wall Street subway station and turned the tables on harassers. Although I don’t know if such tactics would be effective or recommendable in today’s world, from a historical perspective, it was interesting to hear.

When she delivered her opening remarks, emcee Sally Kohn warned the audience that “we’re gonna hear some other awful stories [today].” Indeed, speakers and performers shared several stories about harassment and violence that were difficult to stomach. However, HOLLA::Revolution was not characterized by negativity. On the contrary, I came away from the conference inspired. Although there were a lot of very raw discussions of really awful stuff going on in the streets and on the Internet directed against women, especially those who speak up against sexism, there was much more of an emphasis on all the amazing activism that regular, everyday people are doing to change the world.

I really do think that the anti-street harassment movement is representative of the future of equal rights activism, since it is a movement that focuses on cultural change, community by community, in a way that has never been done before. Hollaback! site leaders and anti-street harassment activists are average Jo/es who are out to change the word. And by gosh, if HOLLA::Revolution is any indicator, they’re going to do it.

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