The Feministing Five: Jessica Ladd

Boss Lady Jessica Ladd is the creator of Callisto, an innovative tool that will assist college sexual assault survivors in recording and reporting their assaults. Jessica, a survivor herself, has built this tool in collaboration with other survivors, and their impact is readily evident in the product itself. (For example: survivors will have the ultimate say on whether or when to report to their chosen authority.) Her exciting work demonstrates the exponential benefits for all when technologists place the voices and opinions of their social justice community at the center of product development.

Jessica LaddAlong with founding Callisto, Jessica has also created Sexual Health Innovations, a non-profit that creates technology that advances sexual health and well-being in the United States.

Now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Jessica Ladd!

Suzanna Bobadilla: What is Callisto and how will it work?

Jessica Ladd: Callisto is a college sexual assault recording and reporting system. College sexual assault survivors will be able to go to their school-specific Callisto website, fill out a form online documenting their assault, and securely store their time-stamped record. They will be able to access their record again at any time. Survivors interested in reporting their assault can then receive a clear explanation of their reporting options and, if they wish, directly send their report to their chosen authority. Survivors can also elect to just store their record for now, but automatically report their assault to their chosen authority if someone else reports the same assailant.

SB: How will incorporating the experience and suggestions of survivors make Callisto a more effective tool?

JL: Callisto is built by survivors, for survivors. I myself am a college sexual assault survivor, and we have involved survivors throughout the ideation, design, and development process. We have conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups with hundreds of survivors and advocates. Survivors help us decide on the branding for Callisto, the feature set, the graphic design, and the user flow. They help us to create a product that truly meets their needs and help them feel in control of the process.

SB: Along with Project Callisto, you are a founder of Sexual Health Innovations. What inspired you to start your own organization?

JL: After my sexual assault, I had a variety of needs. I needed emergency contraception. I needed to know what STDs to get tested for, where to go, and how to get my results. I needed emotional support and someone to talk to. I needed to figure out how to label what happened to me, know what my reporting options were, and have an empowering way to report. It was incredibly and unnecessarily challenging to get each of these needs met — the information and tools I needed online to make this difficult process easier simply didn’t exist. And the reasons why they didn’t exist have a lot to do with our culture’s stigma around sex and the fact that those who have the power to create these technologies usually do not come from the demographics most impacted by sexual health and violence issues.

My assault was in many ways a catalyst for me, but it is hardly the only reason I started my own organization. I feel like my entire life has pointed me in this direction — growing up in San Francisco on Castro Street during the HIV epidemic, seeing my friends face sexual health challenges and sexual violence with no one to help them, facing other sexual health challenges myself. I first tried more traditional routes to create change in this area — as a sex educator, a policy advocate, a White House intern, and an academic. But none of these traditional methods seemed like they would create the change I wanted to see in the world fast enough — not in time to really make a difference for this generation of teenagers.

I realized at some point that everything that exists in the world was created by someone who at one point had no idea what they were doing. I realized that there was no reason why I couldn’t found my own company. I realized that the most efficient way to solve the problems I cared about was through technology — a medium that people already turn to for everything, particularly when it has to do with sex, and that can be accessed by the people most likely to face sexual health challenges. I realized I could be the one to build the technologies that I wish had been there for my generation, and that all that was stopping me was myself.

SB: What would you say to other folks who are looking to use technology as activism? What are some things you wish you had learned earlier?

JL: 1) Learn to code. It’s easier than you think it is, and even if you don’t end up being the person building the technology it will make it lots easier to communicate with and be respected by those that that will.

2) Be careful about what you put online. It will live forever (probably), and you have to be OK with that possibility. So don’t be mean or crass or reactive if you don’t have to be — it might get you attention in the short term, but in the long term it can hurt you and your cause.

3) Get a thick skin and a good friend. Activism means putting yourself out there and changing up the status quo. Trolls will come after you, and that is something that you can prepare for. Have someone you can laugh about it with, be OK with blocking the social media that doesn’t contribute to your life, take care of yourself, and try not to take it all personally.

SB: Let’s imagine you are stranded on a desert island. You can take with you a food, a drink, and a feminist. What do you pick?

JL: Soylent, a gallon of water/SmartWater (or the max I can bring), and my college roommate/amazing astrophysicist Erica Nelson (because she’s so smart she’d get us out of there and we’d have a ton of fun along the way.)

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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