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First-ever Hollaback! conference in NYC / by Kate Ziegler + Britni de la Cretaz

Street harassment – catcalls, wolf whistles, degrading comments, touching on the T – is one of the most common forms of gender-based violence in the world. It’s not limited to certain cities, countries or continents; it’s got nothing to do with wardrobe, whereabouts or what time it is. In research conducted by Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback!, over 90% of women have experienced street harassment, more than 50% by the age of 14. 84% of LGBTQ students experience harassment, and 90% of gay or bisexual men report being harassed or made to feel unwelcome in public spaces because of their sexual orientation.

Street harassment is intersectional; it covers all the bases. Hollaback! Founder Emily May points out, “it’s disproportionately impacting young people and women. Within those two subgroups it’s also disproportionately affecting low-income people because they spend more time traveling in public space and using public transportation. A lot of times there are just more ways for people of color to be harassed — they can be harassed for being a person of color and for being a woman at the same time, and also LGBTQ folks, because again, they can be harassed for being those things and a woman, and a person of color all at the same time."

Boston is not immune to this phenomenon (if you think otherwise, take a peek at some shared stories at Hollaback! Boston), and though the Transit Police are currently working to make the T safer for its more vulnerable passengers, there is still plenty of work to be done.

As Site Directors of Hollaback! Boston, we had a chance to attend the inaugural HOLLA::Revolution conference on ending street harassment in New York City late last month – and it was revolutionary.

More than a dozen speakers addressed a sold-out crowd for almost five hours, covering a wide range of topics and research on street harassment, its roots, intersections and history, victim response, bystander intervention, and the power of shared stories in coping and sparking change.

Everyone in the room seemed excited to be there, as if they knew they were part of not only something big, but something that mattered to them on a personal level as well. When the opening speaker asked how many people had been harassed on the way to the event itself, over half the individuals in the room raised their hands. The personal is political, after all. The placement of street harassment on the spectrum of gender-based violence was a common theme throughout the afternoon, but also recurring was the concept of a revolution.

The energy and passion of all attendees was palpable; the speakers ran over time, but the bulk of the crowd sat tight till the very end. There were heavy hitters and relatively new voices; there were survivors and there were allies. HOLLA::Revolution attendees seemed oblivious to the experiences that make it so hard to make change happen; the optimism was contagious, and the enthusiasm remained in spite of the statistics and experiences and strategies that assured us that street harassment is a very real problem.

Revolutions are optimistic things. Jessica Valenti once said, "The truth is—despite stereotypes that paint feminists as forever negative—doing feminist work requires boundless optimism. It means believing that people have the ability to be better, that culture can change, and maybe even that people who hate can learn to love." The idea of a revolution implies a tipping point that can be reached, a recognition that we can collectively do better; there is a refusal to let uncomfortable conversations stand in the way of progress, an idealism and wistful naiveté in the simplicity of it all:

Jamia Wilson discussed the power of storytelling, Samhita Mukhopadhyay explored the role of new media and technologies in the birth of social movements, and Nicola Briggs emphasized the strength of the individual voice as a force to retake power. Each of these points is at work in Hollaback!, an organization predicated on offering a forum – a voice – for victims to share their mundane and mortifying stories of street harassment at a local level, and to encourage the use of new media to share those stories widely to shift public opinion and societal norms. These voices, and the media used to amplify them, are new, even though street harassment is not; these tools are changing the ways that individuals can take action. A new revolution is armed.

The messaging throughout HOLLA::Revolution was clear, and highlights the words that so many victims of harassment - especially youth - need to hear: it’s not your fault, and every step toward change matters.

For our part, Hollaback! Boston left HOLLA::Revolution feeling invigorated, inspired and in possession of a new way forward in the fight against street harassment locally. We’re kicking off Take Back The Bar on August 16, offering new workshops coming this fall, and partnering with local businesses to create safe, supportive venues through our Safer Spaces campaign. We’ve launched our first ever survey of street harassment in Boston running through August 31, which we hope will spark our work with policy makers and people that can work with us to create real change in the city that we love so much. We’re taking meetups offline, mapping out a MBTA ad campaign and moving forward with plans to affect changes in policy across the Boston area. Stay tuned to the Boston site for videos of the HOLLA::Revolution talks, which we’ll post bit by bit in the coming weeks.

As Jill Dimond asked in her conference speech, “In what ways can we encourage people to reimagine their experience? This is the next American revolution.” This is our next revolution.

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