Ashoka Fellow Emily May co-founded Hollaback! in 2005 to end gender-based street harassment, making it as culturally unacceptable as sexual harassment in the workplace. She has since expanded her work to tackle all forms of harassment. Zeynep Meydanoglu who leads Ashoka’s gender justice work spoke with her to learn more about this shift. 

Zeynep Meydanoglu: What are you working on these days?

Emily May: When the pandemic hit, we saw a rise in anti-Asian, and anti-Asian-American harassment. So, we took our approach with bystander intervention trainings, and we launched a collaboration with Asian -Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). And that took off like wildfire. We’ve trained 13,000 people and it spawned for us a new approach around providing free trainings. Since then, we’ve trained around 10,000 people in bystander intervention to address anti-Black harassment and police brutality. We also launched an implicit bias training series, a resilience training series. These trainings are open to all and anyone can sign up!

We have a new partnership with L’Oréal Paris called “Stand Up Against Street Harassment” to take the work that we’ve been doing forever on gender-based street harassment, and really bring it to scale. L’Oréal Paris and Ipsos surveyed women all around the world in their 10 biggest markets and they found that the number one issue impacting women was harassment, followed by equal pay. They decided to take on street harassment specifically. Together, we are working to spread our training methodology and this training on street harassment specifically through local non-profits all around the world.

Meydanoglu: So it looks like you’re finding allies in other movements, beyond feminist groups? Can you tell us a bit how that works? 

May: Yes. When we started in 2005, we were laser focused on gender-based street harassment. Over time we realized that there’s a lot that we learned that can be applied to identities across the board. 

Post-2016 election we saw a rise in the U.S. of anti-Muslim harassment, we saw the #metoo movement, we saw Black Lives Matter. We want to build the movement infrastructure, build a tsunami that’s inclusive of all of these identities, that’s thoughtful and intersectional. That’s why the vision since 2016 is to look at harassment in all of its forms. We were slow and deliberate, moving into that in partnership with people as it was needed. Obviously, we continue to look at the component of gender inside all forms of harassment, but we recognize that people aren’t holding a singular identity. We still see harassment disproportionately experienced by women. And inside of that it’s disproportionately experienced by, you know, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, young people, folks with disabilities, immigrants, and the list goes on….

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There is such an important emphasis on intersectionality within the feminist movement. To be able to be intersectional with authenticity requires not always making gender first. Sometimes, for some people or women, gender is second. We want to be able to really be responsive to the whole human. We want to help people to not just seek to protect the rights of their own identities, but also recognize that their fate is tied up in the fate of others, with other identities as well.

Meydanoglu: You are also broadening your base by training bystanders of street harassment, as with the L’Oréal Paris partnership. Did you always focus on mobilizing bystanders?

May: We started bystander intervention work in 2012 because we had this map of all of these pink dots of harassment all over the world. And it was really depressing. We thought: Can we map something happy, please? The only happy thing related to harassment in all of our data was when bystanders did something about it. At the time, there were no bystander intervention curriculums adapted to street harassment. So we worked with Green Dot to adapt their curriculum, which was looking at sexual assault on college campuses, to the issue of street harassment, with a strong racial justice analysis as part of that. And in the past year we have also adapted it to include online harassment and voter intimidation. 

In the environmental movement, everyone got these reusable water bottles, and it was like, ‘This is my thing. This is my contribution.’ Now, is that reusable water bottle as impactful as I don’t know, getting corporations to stop dumping crap into our oceans? No, but it’s the thing that all of us can do. It’s the one thing that we have control over. And so bystander intervention is the same from a movement building perspective.

Meydanoglu: And why the focus on trainings, as opposed to say advocacy and policy change?

May: When I had the honor of shadowing Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, I asked her, ‘What would be your advice to me?’ She said: ‘Look, if you want to address harassment, you can’t just be an advocacy organization, you also have to provide something directly to the community.’ So I thought: What is the pap smear of harassment? And I think that it is trainings. 

We diagnose the problem of harassment as a problem of a culture that allows harassment. The culture is sexist and racist and homophobic. We have a cultural virus that’s global. We are focusing on the people level to change that culture. Personal shifts in mass is an important piece of it.

That being said, on an institutional, front, we got the world’s largest makeup brand, L’Oréal Paris, to take harassment on as their cause for the next 15 to 20 years. We were pitching makeup companies, five, six years ago, to take on street harassment as a cause, but they weren’t ready. So the fact that we’ve been able to make that amount of progress in so little time, certainly accelerated by the global #metoo movement, is an indicator that we’re successful. We have also engaged the New York City government, in training all of their institutional employees in street harassment. Keep in mind 15 years ago, people didn’t even consider this to be an issue. Institutions move when they feel like the people are there.

Meydanoglu: What’s the biggest opportunity you see for gender justice right now?

May: I think we have a tremendous opportunity at this moment in history. As scary as it has been with Covid, I think that the world saw things they could have never imagined being possible, like the world stopped, right? The world stopped. We, the people, realize that the path that we are on is not a path that serves us. And I think there is an opening there to imagine a path that does serve us. Harassment across the board is up, but the idea that we’ve got to take care of each other is up across the world too.

I think the challenge of this moment is to build the movement infrastructure fast enough to meaningfully retain and leverage the imagination of this moment and sustain people. It’s about plugging people into movement homes, where they feel safe and they feel cared for and they feel seen. 

An opportunity that I think a lot about is how do we not just widen this movement by training 25,000 people? How do we actually go deep with those individuals? Because I think they’re incredibly hungry for that depth.

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Emily May is the co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, an Ashoka Fellow, and a Prime Movers Fellow. In 2005, at the age of 24, she co-founded Hollaback! in New York City, and in 2010 she became its first full-time executive director. Under her leadership, the organization has scaled to over 50 cities in 25 countries, and launched HeartMob, Hollaback!’s platform designed to support people being harassed online, and The People’s Supper, a collaboration to designed to bring people together to repair the fissures in our relationships, heal, and bridge difference.

Zeynep Meydanoglu is the Country Co-Director of Ashoka Turkey, and the field leader of Next Now/Gender. Prior to Ashoka, Zeynep led civil society strengthening initiatives and contributed to Turkey’s women’s movement in organizations like TUSEV, KAMER and Purple Roof Foundation. 

Next Now: Ashoka is mobilizing the strength of its community around gender justice. Next Now/Gender connects unlikely allies around shared visions of the future that address gender bias and embrace gender justice. This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field. Read Part 1 of the series.

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