Emily May, Co-founder of Hollaback: "Followers are the New Leaders"

Emily May was honored as a ChangemakeHER for her work to shape global social change. View the other voices of ChangemakeHERS.

by Emily May, co-founder and executive director, Hollaback

Turning your idea into reality requires guts: you have to be ready to face down some pretty big obstacles. But, if you’re ready – and I mean really ready – those obstacles look like nothing compared to the feeling that, if you don’t act, you’ll be standing in the way of progress.

And when people look at you like you have two heads; when you tell them what you’re doing—you smile. Because you’re too busy thinking about what the world could look like without poverty, climate change – or in my case – street harassment.

Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence. From lewd comments to groping, flashing, or assault, it is a daily reality for women and LGBTQ individuals around the world. And it's generally accepted as “the price you pay” for being a woman, or being gay.

My co-founders and I started Hollaback because we didn’t buy it – and we didn’t think we were alone. When I left my career in the anti-poverty world to become executive director for Hollaback, we had a growing movement, but we had also been turned down for eight grants and two fellowships. We didn’t have a dime in the bank, and bills for our still-in-development iPhone app were mounting.

For the first six months, I shot up out of bed at 6 a.m. and worked straight until midnight. To save money, I ate mostly dried beans. I gained ten pounds. I barely saw my friends – or the light of day. At my worst moments, it was an obsession. At my best, it was a calling.

All I knew was that I had to make this happen. And I did. In those first six months, we launched iPhone and Droids apps to give people a real-time response to street harassment, and a new website to house local sites; and began working with the New York City Council on ways to address street harassment (stay tuned on ihollaback.org for details).

At the same time, local leaders came out of the woodwork: soon we were receiving two or three emails per week from people around the world wanting to start a Hollaback.

Most of these leaders are young, people of color, LGBTQ and/or women; and collectively, they speak at least six languages. Many of them had never had a chance to lead before, but given the opportunity to flex their leadership muscles, they have all excelled.

Leadership is tricky, because you have to be willing to do it alone. But if you’re doing it alone for long, you’re doing it all wrong. Building a movement requires creating real opportunities for people to lead.

If you expect someone to be a traditional “follower,” you’re missing the point. Followers are the new leaders: there are a ton of people out there who are just waiting to take a good idea and run with it - and they will inspire more leaders. And soon, your voice will be part of a chorus of voices. And that’s when you know you’ve succeeded.


Emily May is a social entrepreneur and international expert on street harassment. She has a Master's Degree from the London School of Economics.


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