A 21st Century Social Movement: Using Cell Phones to End Street Harassment
Emily May, the Executive Director of Hollaback! believes that we all have the right to feel safe, confident and sexy, without being subjected to street harassment. Using mobile technology, Hollaback! allows girls and women to report harassment and assault safely with their phones, publicly sharing stories of street harassment and photos of their harassers on the HollabackNYC.com website. May predicts that instant online reporting will become a new model of activism in the 21st century, creating movements to address a wide variety of social challenges.
A 2007 study of New York City subways reported that 63% of the system’s daily five million riders are harassed and 10% are assaulted. Yet 97% of these crimes go unreported.
“Hollaback started as a conversation with seven of my men and women friends about subway and street harassment,” said May. “The women were frustrated and felt victimized, and felt that the police didn’t care. The men were shocked and horrified to find out how often we were being harassed.
“We felt we needed a response to street harassment that mattered, and wanted to have a conversation as a society about the issue to begin to raise awareness. We decided to combine blog and cell phone technology, allowing women to take a picture of their harasser if they felt comfortable or simply to share their story.”
What began as an organic movement in 2005 proceeded to grow exponentially beyond May’s expectations. “We had no idea of the nerve it would hit. Women across the world breathed a sigh of relief that someone else was talking about it. Within six months, we were on Good Morning America and the Today Show talking about street harassment not only because we were using funky new technology, but also because we were the first to be talking about street harassment in such a public way.”
Hollaback!’s approach encourages women to adapt a non-violent, non-aggressive response, that on one level appears to be silent, but in reality is a far more public and “loud” action. HollabackNYC.com allows women to transform a lonely experience on a street into a story that can be shared with thousands of people around the world.
“Part of the power of Hollaback! is that it crosses personal and political lines,” said May. “Sharing a story is absolutely therapeutic because when something bad happens, we all want to be able to respond to it. Street harassers prey on powerlessness. The Hollarback! strategy gives women power in the response, taking power away from the harasser. This creates an incredible personal impact.”
Hollaback! unites three key strategies for ending street harassment under one roof: direct service, reporting, and advocacy. To date, it has inspired an anti-street-harassment movement and launched twenty affiliate Hollaback! sites worldwide, documenting over 2,000 stories that are read by over 20,000 monthly visitors. In conjunction with New Yorkers for Safe Transit, Hollaback! also successfully lobbied New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to introduce anti-harassment ads on all subway lines.
New mapping and smart phone technology have allowed Hollaback! to conceptualize a new approach that gives a real time response to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals who are harassed. In November 2010, Hollaback! released a new iPhone application that allows a user to sign in, take a picture of the harasser, identify type of harassment, and automatically map the location (a Droid application will be released soon). Users will get an email asking them to tell the rest of their story - when they are safely back at their computers. The technology wlll allow Hollaback! to collect statistical data on street harassment.
Before they knew they were a finalist in the Revelation to Action competition, Hollaback! had applied for a grant from the Ms. Foundation. “Anytime anything good happens, we reach out to potential funders and let them know about it,” said May. “Ashoka has such an incredible name, and Green Mountain Coffee gave us a great degree of recognition with their corporate support. But the two brands combined gave our project validity and traction, and demonstrated that this isn’t just a crazy idea. In addition to the grant the Ms. Foundation has announced for us, we have two other pending grant proposals from foundations that both were really excited about our finalist status and the recognition from Ashoka and Green Mountain.”
May’s hope for Hollaback is that it proves to be successful model that seriously reduces street harassment in the communities in which it works. She also believes that instant online reporting can be a new model of activism in the 21st century for other issues, whether they are minorities being passed over for cab rides, or individuals improperly parking in handicapped spots. “We are doing things in a way that have never been done before. Traditional funders don’t think of street harassment as violence against women or our approach as community organizing. But at its core, our approach is so radical that it will take bold visionary funders to make us sustainable.
“My generation has not seen the same place-space issues such as the civil rights or women's rights, where people banded together to ignite a movement. Hollaback! provides an incredible opportunity to see if we can recreate these types of movements on the internet. Can we get people to respond to and map how a ‘march’ takes place in a visual, online manner?
“Consider the idea that perhaps 'what a movement looks like' has shifted. I don’t believe that we’re apathetic -- I just think that the model that worked in the sixties and seventies doesn’t work anymore. We need to look to new models of effective activism. I hope that babies that I see in my neighborhood never have to experience street harassment, because I was able to help to redefine activism and movements in the 21st century.”
Hollaback! has over 13,500 Facebook fans and is growing its base every day. It is launching a affiliate in Israel shortly, where iPhones are not commonly used, and will instead work with a more culturally appropriate blogging format. “Evidence shows us that street harassment is a universal experience,” said May. “People will want to respond, but what that looks like and plays out may be different in other cultures. Stories matter everywhere, and if we band together to build the case for ending street harassment, then it will happen.”