Building a Powerful Voice against Street Harassment with Emily May of Hollaback!

Sumeet Sandhu

Emily May was one of seven individuals involved in launching Hollaback! way back in 2005. She was just 24 at the time, with an MSc in Social Policy from London School of Economics.  The founding of Hollaback! was inspired by the experience and response to street harassment suffered by a woman called Thao Nguyen on the subway. She took a photo of her harasser and reported him to the police, but to her surprise they ignored it. So she decided to post it on her Flikr account, where it caught wind and eventually made the front page of the New York Daily News, sparking a widespread conversation about street harassment. Hollaback! documents the experiences of individuals to all forms of harassment on a public blog.

Starting out as a project to capture stories of street harassment towards women and those who identify as being LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & intersex). It began as a simple idea – a blog to collect stories in order to give a voice and raise awareness, and thereby eliminate malaise. Hollaback! is now a global movement that aims to end harassment using the networking power of grassroots activists:

We’re a global, people-powered movement to end harassment. We work together to understand the problem, ignite public conversations, and develop innovative strategies that ensure equal access to public spaces. We leverage the very spaces where harassment happens – from online to the streets – to have each other’s backs, create communities of resistance, and build a world where we can all be who we are, wherever we are.

In 2010, after actively avoiding it for the bureaucracy that it brings, Hollaback! finally became a nonprofit, with Emily May as its first Executive Director. She faced a number of major challenges. First up: funding. That year, Emily applied for a total of eight foundations and two fellowships, and was rejected from all of them. One even told her that street harassment did not exist in the US. Although she admits that each rejection reduced her to tears, she became increasingly resolved to launch the organization. So they decided to try crowdfunding. When they raised $13,000, foundations began to take notice. Within six months they had raised a further $55,000.

Sensitivity towards street harassment was very low among the general public, and as pioneers of the anti-street harassment movement, Emily knew the weight of importance that was placed on Hollaback! She had to educate herself quickly as a leader and come up with ideas to raise awareness. Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against.

I literally sought advice from every single last person I could get my hands on. And when I couldn’t find someone to answer my questions, I watched TED talks. I read books. And eventually, I started to trust myself.

Emily has used her own vulnerability as an asset. She learned that trust has to be earned and boundaries need to be set, otherwise you risk being taken advantage of.

Hollaback! believes that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual and gender-based harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment, giving the perception of gender-based violence as one that is unremarkable and even acceptable.

It is strange that while our homes and workplaces have legal anti-harassment protection, our streets are bereft of it. Now mobile technology is lending a voice to check this menace—and with it, the opportunity to take on one of the final new frontiers for women’s and LGBTQI rights around the world.

The Hollaback! app provides a safe and easy way of collecting and sharing the pictures and stories of harassment sufferers, reflecting the movement’s assertion that all gender-based violence is unacceptable. Hollaback! has ultimately created an opportunity for harassment sufferers to take a stand and to respond.

Emily explains how Hollaback! achieves its desired impact in four ways:

  1. Breaking the silence: by working with individuals to document in words and pictures, and to indicate on a map where they have experienced harassment in public spaces. This provides an experience sharing forum to street-harassed individuals and raising the public’s attention of these experiences.
  2. Inspire international leadership: much of Hollaback!’s power lies in its scalability. To scale effectively, they train young women and LGBTQI leaders to use their skills to build a grassroots movement focused on ending street harassment. Training in the application of technology ensures that their actions are strategic and high-impact.
  3. Shift public opinion: broad-based campaign is designed to reach the public at large by inspiring individuals to take action. Hollaback! provides educational workshops to schools, universities, and community groups and engages citizens through traditional and social media.
  4. Engage elected officials: Hollaback! presents data to appointed officials and policymakers in areas experiencing high incidences of street harassment. They engage legislators to work with trained leaders to address street harassment in their communities.

Looking to the future, Emily’s ultimate reality is one where Hollaback! is no longer required, and ceases to exist. She envisages a world where street harassment is a thing of the past. In the meantime, she accepts that large scale cultural changes take time.

We want individuals to know it’s not their fault, and that they have support. We want bystanders to be able to identify when street harassment is happening and know how to safely intervene. We want individuals to feel safe and confident in public spaces.

Emily recognizies that although street harassment is in the media’s eye  – it is too often a narrative suggesting that the victims and the perpetrators reflect particular backgrounds and characteristics. While their data shows that this simply isn’t the case, it is being re-iterated over and over. Hollaback! is actively working to undo these harmful assumptions about what street harassment is — and who it impacts.

One thing we can say now, is that Hollaback! has made a recognizable impact. When feminist icon Gloria Steinem was asked “What women today inspire you and make you feel that the movement continues?” Her response was, “Emily May of Hollaback! who has empowered women in the street, literally.”

Three Key Lessons from Emily’s Story:

  1. Have a strong core message that people can identify with: Emily’s is the belief that everyone has the right to feel safe and confident without being objectified.
  2. Continue to learn by seeking information: from every source possible to see all the overt and covert aspects of the mission you are engaged with.
  3. When it comes to funding, there are many options: and when seeking funding, highlight how your organization is different.


Check out the Hollaback website and connect with Emily on LinkedIn. 

For a detailed discussion of race and street harassment, check out Hollaback!’s #harassmentis guide.

Also, check out Emily’s article Replacing Sexism with Racism is not a proper Hollaback! in the Huffington Post.

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Sumeet Written by:

Sumeet has a knack for intelligent design and communication. After completing law school, he transcended his own expectations when he reassessed where his passions lay and committed himself to a career in marketing. Sumeet noticed that the digital space occupied by non-profits is full of questionable design and communication choices, and to this end decided to lead by example with Founding Stories.

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