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.
After we launched, the stories of street harassment didn’t stop coming. There they were: scary, infuriating, isolating stories, sent by people from all corners of the globe. We had started Hollaback! for personal reasons, but at a certain point it wasn’t about us anymore. It was about the stories and the opportunity that we’d inadvertently created to end street harassment.
It took a life changing aha-moment and some badass feminist mentors for us to realize what was happening. In spring 2009, Emily was accepted into the Women’s Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices Program with nine of the most impressive women she’d ever met. At the front of the room was Katy Oreinstein, founder of the Op-ed project, a project designed to increase the amount of women writers on the editorial pages.
Katy urged us to identify ourselves as “experts” on street harassment. Media people love “experts” but women tend to shy away from it. We fear the “so what makes you an expert?” question like the plague, and, to be fair, we’re much more likely to get these questions than men. The more Katy pushed us to identify, the more we wriggled in our seats. “If every one’s voice matters, what was so special about ours?” we asked.
What Katy did next changed the trajectory of Hollaback! forever. She told the group to imagine that everyone in the room had cancer and that we thought we might have a cure. “Do we speak up?” she asked.
We responded in unison: of course.
So, she said, “what’s the difference? The world has problems, and you all have answers. If you’re not speaking up you’re silently complicit in other’s pain.”
Those words hit Emily hard. It made her realize the power of what we had created. We had a huge international platform from which to end street harassment, but Emily was uncertain about leading. She had heard from colleagues that when women lead they are often told they are “in it for themselves” or that they are “fat and ugly anyway.” And when you wake up on a Sunday morning to find messages like these in your inbox before you’ve even had your coffee, your inner middle school ego is gets a bruising. I don’t care how badass you are.
But here’s the trick, by listening to the people that tell you “just want to be famous,” or “are trying to get rich” (Emily’s personal favorite, because you know, the revolution is soooo lucrative), you’re ironically making it about yourself. Your fears become selfish. Emily realized that in not speaking up to the extent she could, she would become silently complicit in other’s pain. She had a choice: lead this thing or sit back and wait for things to happen on their own, and ultimately fail. It was then that it stopped being a personal decision for her, and started being a calling she had to pursue.