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.
From the beginning, Hollaback! set forth a bold vision:
“Whether you’re commuting, lunching, partying, dancing, walking, chilling, drinking, or sunning, Hollaback! believes you have the right to feel safe, confident, and sexy, without being the object of some turd’s fantasy.”
And then when we transitioned from a blog to a nonprofit, the negative feedback came dribbling in. “The right to be sexy? I mean, is that really a right?” or “Turd? Your call to action includes the word turd?” Interestingly “turd” was chosen after a long debate over was the most gender-neutral but still empowering way to describe a harasser. “Jerk” implied a man, “crazy person” implied mental illness, but “turd” didn’t imply a thing. Except, well, turds.
And so we thought about it – long and hard. And although we agreed our tagline needed to be shorter, we didn’t agree with the attacks on our vision. Because for everyone who hesitated because we were doing it unconventionally—there many, many more with whom this fresh approach resonated.
When we first turned Hollaback! into a nonprofit, we thought we could get away with our marketing plan consisting of a logo and a press release or two. We turned to our friend Clara Flikstein, a marketing strategist, for help on the logo front. Apparently, a logo isn’t just a logo. A logo needs a target audience. A logo needs a brand. A logo needs a vision.
We had watched leaders like Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinum enough to know the power of a vision. Simon Snek descibes this vision as the “WHY?” in his TED talk. Snek argues that there are three ways to describe a brand: the what, the how, and the why. He uses Apple as an example. The “what” is computers, iPhones, and other electronics and software. The “how” is beautiful, intelligent, design. And they “why” is Apple’s tagline, “think different.” Snek argues that when we buy Apple, we always rationalize it with “I needed a new computer” or, “it was pretty,” but that’s not why we actually bought it. We bought it because we wanted to be part of a growing creative class—because we wanted to “think different.”
Hollaback! was about the right to be who you are, no matter who you are. It’s about the right to be a girl or to be gay. It’s about the right to be a hipster or a soccer mom. It’s about the right to be happy or to be sad. Hollaback! is about the right to be exactly who you are in public space, and to never have to apologize for it or made to feel unsafe.
With our why statement out of the way we moved onto target audience. This should be easy, right? Emily quickly responded “everybody.” Clara said no. That “everybody wasn’t a target audience. Fine: “women and LGBTQ individuals.” “Nope, try again,” Clara said. “Ummm… women and LGBTQ individuals?” I responded. Clara said I couldn’t pick a target population that was over half the world’s population. We didn’t have the budget for it, and, “besides,” she said, “if you try and speak to everyone you will speak to no one.” We set the target to women and LGBTQ individuals between the ages of 16-30.
We figured if we were going to piss people off, we might as well do it with intent. So “a culture of badass” became one of our core organizational values: “We believe that everyone has a right to be their most badass self, and that the movement to end street harassment will be led like all the other movements that have come before it: by badasses who redefine the status quo ‘rules’ and create revolution. We embrace bold ideas and encourage risk-taking. We aren’t afraid of our own individual strengths and we aren’t afraid to use our collective power to make the world a better place.”
A core question lingered for me: what would a world look like without street harassment? Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” certainly answered this question for the civil rights area – and his answer was so compelling that it still gives us chills today. But what was our answer for the movement to end street harassment? It’s so hard to talk about what a world without street harassment would look like without talking about street harassment. The only answers that we could come up with would start with “there would be no…” groping, flashing, comments, gestures, fill-in-the blank. That stuff is fine, but what would a world without street harassment make possible?
On Emily’s way to work every morning, two men would say “good morning.” At first, she was afraid that even something as simple as “good morning” would escalate, as it had many times for her in the past. So she ignored them. They persisted, and after a couple weeks, she started to hesitantly nod, secretly wishing they would just stop. Another week goes by and Emily quietly responded, “good morning” back to one of the men. He smiled. And then the most amazing thing happened: nothing.
So the next morning, Emily respond with “good morning” a little more confidently. Still, she’s safe. She tries it with the other guy. Still safe. Emily now says good morning to them every morning, and they are the nicest guys. They make her feel safe in her neighborhood, but it’s sad that she was trained by past experiences to ignore them. And she’s not the only one. Hollaback! shows there are thousands of women who thought “good morning” was just too much in the context of these violent streets.
And as sad as this story is, it is also an opportunity for vision. Those men reminded us that in a world without street harassment, good morning will never mean anything other than good morning. And that this simple phrase would re-unite communities driven apart by fear. Under the safe umbrella of “good morning,” children will be able to play freely in the streets, and the nice guys will come out of the woodwork. Silenced by a fear of being “one of those guys,” they will be able to say things like “you look nice today,” and their compliments will be just that: compliments.
If you don’t give people hope, a promise of a better world, they will stop working for change. And we’re not talking about something that easy to fix here. In fact, street harassment has existed since the advent of streets and its long been deemed hopeless. It’s our job to turn that conversation around, and to make people believe that the social issues formally known as “impossible” are in fact very possible. After all, culture changes every day. In the past 60 years the United States has gone from a country where people of color drink from different water foundations to a country were we’ve got our first black president.
Now that path wasn’t easy. What stood in during those 60 years was the hard work of committed activists and visionaries working day in and day out to make that dream a reality. But the point is: they did it. And we too can tackle stubborn old social issues. But we first have to give people hope.
That’s why we made one of our values: Making the impossible possible. In the words of Clara, “When I walk down the street and some guy is trying to get me to sign a petition – I think to myself ‘I’ve got ten things wrong with my life, do you really need to tell me about number eleven?’ With a cloud of messages in the world, I don’t want to hear what’s wrong. I know what’s wrong. I want to hear what’s possible.”