Lesson #2: Develop systems that elevate the voices of others, and then get out of their way

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

The first step in establishing Hollaback! was figuring this leadership bit out.  While we knew it was important, we were deeply uncomfortable with it.  Help came with a book called No Excuses by Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood.  Feldt argued that people with out traditional access to power (women, people of color, and others) have an uneasy relationship with power because it’s traditionally wielded over them.  She argued for a “power to” instead of “power over” model.  

“Power to” made sense within our context.  Prior to running Hollaback! we had always played supporting roles to bosses in leadership positions.   And we were good at it, making leaders better versions of themselves—filling in their gaps, listening to them, coaching them, and convincing others that they were pretty much the awesomest people on the planet.

We started to launch sites.  We set the goal of launching five in the first year.  Instead, we launched 45.  Activists from around the world from radically different backgrounds were coming together to end street harassment.  They were 44% LGBTQ, 33% people of color, and 75% under the age of 30.

Hollaback! was never about rules, but instead about elevating people’s voices that had historically been ignored in the conversation.  And our job was to be a catalyst for action, to inspire and train these new leaders, but not to make them dependant on us.  The sites localized, customized, and innovated our model without oversight.

By the fall of 2010, we were overwhelmed with requests to launch sites. Our all-volunteer team decided it was best to streamline the process and launch them in classes.  Each class was responsible for developing their launch plan, establishing their team, putting together a press list, and getting at least one member of their team to attend our four webinars.  Our team was responsible for getting their website, their localized logos, and, of course, the training and technical assistance. We brought the global community and the brand, they brought the action.

Our site leaders had full control over how they chose to run their site.  They could speak with media, do presentations, hold events, meet with legislators, do mud-stenciling, host film screenings, all without our approval and most of the time without our help.  We worked with them to help them have the same “ah-ha” moments that we’d had.  To help them realize that their voice matters, and that the ultimate antidote to street harassment was to speak up.  The stakes were as high for them as for us.  If we didn’t speak up and lead, we were unnecessarily subjecting future generations to street harassment.  Running a Hollaback! wasn’t just an opportunity, it was an urgent necessity. And poised with the opportunity to make real change on this issue—our site leaders took public conversation on street harassment to the next level.

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