These were the words spoken by a middle-aged man to an angry crowd on a New York City subway after he groped a young girl, and then claimed she asked for it by wearing tight jeans. The girl’s friend, Marka, was infuriated by the man’s flippant excuse, and posted the story in the New York City section of iHollaBack!, a website dedicated to tracking and reporting street harassment.
If Emily May has anything to say about it, the “real world” won’t tolerate these types of incidents much longer. In 2005, May founded HollaBack! to fight street harassment, including sexual gestures and innuendos, cat-calling and gender-based harassment on the streets.
This spunky 31-year-old New Yorker with a background in social policy has created a strong voice for victims of street harassment, a gender-based crime that has traditionally been under-reported and largely ignored.
“These are the types of behaviors that aren’t talked about,” explains May, “they’re the price you pay for walking down the street and encountering people. This isn’t free speech – this is hate speech.”
Bringing street harassment to the forefront
In the seven years since the founding of HollaBack!, street harassment has become a common term, making its way into discussions on bullying and gender-based discrimination in schools, colleges and communities across the globe.
May devotes a good portion of her day providing support for site leaders, the volunteer representatives from cities around the world who are taking the lead in trying to build awareness and lessen the incidents of street harassment in their own neighborhoods. She also meets with legislators and community leaders, speaks to students at various schools, and shares the stories of victims of street harassment to give them a voice.
With just one other full-time staff member, May manages a movement that has taken root and flourished around the globe. The group's annual operating budget of $150,000 is provided largely by small donations from young people – the population most affected by street harassment – and about $500,000 worth of in-kind donations.
In the last year alone, Hollaback!! trained more than 150 leaders in 44 cities, 16 countries and nine languages. The organization provides three months of training, webinars, press lists, and lists of supporting community organizations for site leaders, as well as ongoing technical support.
“This generation is full of people born to lead,” says May, “We give them the resources they need to end harassment in their communities.”
Providing a voice for victims
On localized iHollaBack websites, victims of street harassment can share their story and post a picture or a video of the offending character. And while they don’t pursue criminal charges, they are working to change public opinion and lower the tolerance level for street harassment.
“The point is not to tar and feather individuals, but to bring awareness to something that is so common in our culture,” May says. “When a picture is posted, it helps people to believe the story, to imagine themselves in the victim’s shoes, and to create empathy.”
May and her associates are aware of potential libel issues, so they vet the incoming stories and photos of alleged harassers (they occasionally receive pictures of movie characters – Bart Simpson was one favorite). But, she says the organization has never received a call from an alleged harasser claiming a story wasn’t true.
Once a story is posted, readers can show their support by clicking on the "I’ve got your back" button, which helps victims to see that they are not alone.
Affecting change for the future
Mapping victims' locations has also helped May demonstrate to legislators and other politicians how prevalent street harassment is in their jurisdictions. “We’d like to see an increase in research and more of an investment in education,” she says. “Street harassment should be a part of sex-ed class, and the lessons on bullying that are taught at a young age.”
May plans to continue working on leadership development, encouraging site leaders to take the storytelling platform and apply old-school activist strategies to bring about real change in their communities. She also hopes to see more awareness campaigns, public service announcements and billboards that address the issue of street harassment and teach the public that these types of behaviors are not okay.
Judging from the headlines the organization has received, HollaBack! appears to have brought lots of attention to the issue of street harassment. The Huffington Post included Emily May in its list of 20 powerhouse women, alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama, TV host Rachel Maddow and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She was also one of the Manhattan Young Democrat honorees, earning an award for “Engendering Progress.” And the Daily Muse named her one of 12 women to watch in 2012.
But May’s greatest pride is that street harassment has become a term that people talk about. As a student of social policy, she understands that conversations lead to solutions – and that is the goal of HollaBack!
Get inspired: Learn about others who are making a difference with MNN's Innovation Generation project.