Hollaback: Lessons learned from building an idea into a movement

Editor’s note: To close out Women’s history month we are running this series of guest posts from Emily May and Samuel Carter co-founders of Hollaback as they reflect on taking an idea and moving it to action, the best practices they have learned along the way and documenting for us that feminist history is happening right now

We were a group of seven friends, helping each other get through this tough city-workaday world in daily free-wheeling conversations. Gender was a particularly rich theme. We were three men and four women, all a bit queer, and as we talked about our lives, neighborhoods, commutes to work, the parks and cafes we frequented, something emerged; the women of our group had a vastly different set of experiences in public space from the men, the women enduring a constant barrage of foul comments, violations of personal space, and groping from strangers on the subway and the streets of the city.

For the men, hearing these stories from was eye-opening as they suddenly understood our city of New York as actually being two cities—one as experienced by women, the other by men.  And this kind of commonplace inequality was shaking..

On August 23, 2005, a young woman named Thao Nguyen was riding the R train.  She looked up to find a man sitting across from her staring. The man started to masturbate.  At this point, Thao did not avert her eyes or bury herself in a book.  She did not get up and leave the train car.  Instead, she took out her cell phone, and took a photo of the man.  And when she got off the train, she tried to report the incident. In her words:

Thao took a bold step.  After trying to report the incident, she shared her story on flickr, where it quickly went viral.  Gothamist picked it up first, then the  New York Daily News, which ran the photo on the front page of their tabloid (TK).

It was one of those stories that New Yorkers were all buzzing about. Gothamist got flooded with comments. It felt like everyone either had a similar story of public masturbation, or they knew someone who did. Women came forward and recognized the man in Thao’s photo. Eventually, the subject of Thao’s snap turned himself in to the police.
Amongst ourselves, we picked apart what had happened.  Essentially, Thao had taken an action against her harasser using a digital tool that we all carry in our pockets, and then shared it with her broader community.  It had sparked public debate.  As we went through the timeline of the media story, we found ourselves revisiting familiar ground: the use of all this new personal technology, the power of the Internet and the emerging social media, the rise of blogs, and of course, gender.

And it was then that we realized that it was completely within our power to keep this conversation alive in New York City.  That we could start a new site, dedicated to sharing the kind of photos and stories that Thao Nguyen had, and make it open to everyone in New York.

We got to work.

We quickly identified the work to be done.  Some of us had set up websites and registered domains before, some were good with design, some with marketing. Others had legal expertise and could put together a basic framework for the project. We settled on the name Hollaback NYC.
On October 3, 2005, at 12:38 PM, we put up our first post:

First Post!

Here’s the skinny–next time you’re out and about and some cocky ass on a power trip whistles, hoots, or hollas–Just Holla back! Whip out your digicam, cameraphone, 35mm, (or sketchpad), and email us the photo. We’ll post their ugly face for the whole world to see. If you can’t pull out a camera, or you don’t have one on you, just send us a story and we’ll post that too.

We began to populate the site by soliciting stories from each other—and our friends.  Here’s Emily’s first Hollaback from October 11, 2005 at 3:54pm:

“Trudging home from the subway I hear the words “beautiful mommy” murmered. I look up to find a man (the one on the left) not staring into my eyes but rather sneering at my tits. I felt like poo, and it took all my willpower to grab my camera and run down the street after him to get this shot. A little scared, and very shaken, I scurried home holding my camera like radioactive material.”

We pissed people off.

The photos got a lot of attention – and a lot of controversy – to the site.   Our cell phone cameras became a cry of resistance. This was of course very scary for folks.  Changing the power structures usually is.  We got hate mail and criticism up the wazoo. The most common critique was “what if she’s lying?” This critique was about more than our project.  If you watch the news, you’ll be hard pressed to find coverage of a rape case that didn’t question victim’s integrity – either because of her short skirt, her dark skin, or failure to carry boyfriend-on-arm at all hours of the night. The media makes it sound like women are just running amok, making up stories about sexual assault for shits and giggles.

This is, of course, factually untrue. According to the FBI, only 3% of rape reports are “false.” But the fear of being dragged through the mud by the media, a courtroom, the world, makes rape victims skittish about coming forward. According to the American Medical Association, it’s the most “the most under-reported violent crime.”

Street harassment is on the spectrum of gender-based violence. It’s on the lower end of the spectrum, but it’s important to note because people bring the same shit to the party.  Victims of street harassment are seen as liars, and unsurprisingly, this has a hushing effect on victims.  Being able to tell your story anonymously — with no risk of public shaming — was revolutionary. And with each picture of a blurry sidewalk, a picture of gold cowboy boots being worn during the incident, or the harasser himself — the stories told on the site brought exposure into an otherwise unspoken part of our daily lives.

With success came failure.

Over the next five years, the stories kept coming and interest in Hollaback! grew. We wrote op-eds, spoke at universities, spray painted t-shirts, and designed tote bags. We even successfully got anti-harassment ads in the New York City subways in coordination with New Yorkers for Safe Transit, a coalition we co-founded in 2008. Our work was featured by Good Morning America, NPR, CNN, and many many others.  By our count, we’d appeared in press articles over 450 times by 2010.

With international press came international interest.  We started to receive posts from outside the United States, and some of our allies suggested that Hollaback! become the “Craigslist of street harassment” and post stories from around the world. We discussed it, but deep in our hearts, we knew that although street harassment is a global issue, the power of our project lies in local leadership.

Building the movement.

In the words of Gloria Steinum, “movements start by people telling their stories, and they succeed when power dynamics change.”  This draws a distinction with nonprofits: movements aren’t fueled by people who are paid to do the work.  They are powered by people who recognize injustice and are motivated to work for change. So we struck out on our own.  We tried to build a nonprofit that looked like a movement.

Along the way, we made a bunch of mistakes, and learned a few new things.

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