The Quest for Social Change in Digital Storytelling: An Evaluation of Hollaback!

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Emily May
Hollaback! encourages victims of street harassment to share their stories, joining a community geared towards empowering individuals.

Since the dawn of the Internet, digital storytelling and new media have been integral parts of the feminist movement. From the creation of feministing.org to Crunk Feminist Collective to large-scale Twitter protests, third-wave feminism is based as much in online communities as it is in on-the-ground activist work. Nowhere has this been more poignant than with the sharing of experiences of sexual assault and harassment, exposing stories such as Emma Sulkowicz’s ‘Carry That Weight’ and Angie Epifano’s ‘An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College,’ as well as a variety of stories from universities and students across the nation.1,2

With the emergence of the smartphone globally, many in the contemporary feminist movement have flocked to the new medium, setting up a preponderance of new story sharing and safety apps, the most high profile of which is Hollaback!. When Gloria Steinem, a trailblazing feminist leader in the 1960’s and 1970’s, was asked which current feminist leaders she admired and felt were bringing the movement forward, she responded, “Emily May of Hollaback!, who has empowered women in the street, literally.”3 Hollaback! is a movement-building social enterprise working in 92 cities, 32 countries, and 18 different languages, which seeks, through its app and online blog, to create a space in which women and the LGBTQ community can share and address their experiences with sexual assault, creating accountability and fostering support.4,5

Sexual harassment creates fear and insecurity in public spaces, as well as self-blame and victim shaming from society at large. According to a US national survey, 65 percent of women reported experiencing at least one type of street harassment in their lifetimes.6 While the most pervasive form was a verbal assault, the survey states, “41% of all women [surveyed] had experienced physically aggressive forms, including sexual touching (23%), following (20%), flashing (14%), and being forced to do something sexual (9%).”7 Hollaback! believes that we can create a world where no one feels targeted on the street due to their gender or sexual expression. They work to change the framework from victim shaming to exposing a pervasive societal problem, striving to create accountability and grassroots advocacy to change public opinion.8 Hollaback! is a global nonprofit that uses an innovative franchising and fundraising model to create localized solutions across the world, which can then be expanded to create on-the-ground impact and cultural changes in communities globally.

Deciding to Hollaback! at Harassers

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Emily May
A university chapter of Hollaback! empowers college students to fight street harassment.

The founder of Hollaback!, Emily May, moved to New York City to study at New York University, where she was confronted with a sea of street harassment.9 Sometimes harassed two to three times a day on the street, she moved through the city with fear, and berated herself about what she was doing wrong, trying not to dwell on the harassers’ words in order to avoid giving them power.10 She began to question how we could make women feel safe and create accountability, when a woman named Thao Nguyen took a picture of a man who was pleasuring himself across from her on a subway. After being told by the police that they could do nothing, Nguyen posted the photo on Flickr, a popular social media platform, and shared her story. Nguyen’s action led many other women to come forward with similar experiences.11 The man was eventually arrested based on their collective claims.12 This was the spark that Emily needed to create Hollaback!. Here was a way women could hold harassers accountable: through online narratives. In 2005, with a group of six friends, she started a blog to collect stories of different types of harassment experienced by women and members of LGBTQ communities.13 As Hollaback! grew into an online movement, a 2010 Kickstarter campaign provided the funds needed to create a mobile phone app.14 The new nonprofit organization immediately began to spread their model to other cities across the United States and around the world.

How Hollaback! Works

Hollaback! is now a registered nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York with a globally functional app and a franchise model that spans the world. IHollaback.org aggregates data submitted online, as well as on the app. Through the app, any person around the world can post an experience or observation. Harassment is then broken down into different types, including verbal, stalking, homophobic, transphobic, assault, groping, and racist.15 Users select the applicable type and then submit their story and photos. Others can then click ‘I got your back’ in support, or comment on the experience.16 Through the power of posting, Hollaback! emphasizes that the storyteller will feel less alone, bringing awareness, validation, healing, and courage.17 Women feel more confident on the street and in discussing their experiences with others in their lives, with the end goal of creating research, awareness, and empowerment.

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Emily May
Hollaback! volunteers raise awareness around street harassment, while the app generates data with the goal of compiling meaningful data.

While the app aggregates data from around the world, the site is broken down into regional components based on local chapters of the organization. The organization consists of only three full-time staff members, but has volunteer chapters in each of its 92 cities.18 Each chapter is run by a diverse set of young people hoping to combat what, for them, is a very personal issue. Hollaback! covers the USD $2,500 dollar cost to create a website for each new location. After its foundation, each chapter is in charge of its own website, local programming, and fundraising, and also attends training webinars, engages in a Facebook group, and meets with the global team monthly to discuss goals and values.19 This allows for culturally relevant programming around the world. At Hollaback! London, volunteers are working to create safer spaces for women in pubs through a campaign called Good Night Out.20 For Hollaback! Delhi, progress means protests against local rape cases. In Hollaback! Egypt, groups of women track harassment and go into crowded spaces to help women who are surrounded and harassed by men.21

Hollaback! is engaging local people to solve local problems and allowing individuals to provide their own service by posting their stories. It is a soapbox for women around the world, but also keeps costs low in creating strong research data, accountability systems, and culturally specific solutions. To date, Hollaback! has collected over 5,000 stories, created training materials, and instituted grassroots programming around the world, all with an annual budget that reached USD $380,000 just this year.22

Taking Hollaback! One Step Further

Hollaback! provides an innovative way of empowering women against street harassment, but it could increase its impact by engaging more with bystanders and harassers, as well as establishing clear impact metrics. There is no easy solution to street harassment, as, even in a public space, it drives a culture of fear, victim blaming, and isolation. Hollaback! creates a community among those victimized, creating a space for empowerment instead of fear. This innovation, coupled with local advocacy programs, begins to strike out the stigma surrounding street harassment, but has minimal on-the-ground accountability. At best, those who share their story are able to snap a photo. Otherwise, when they write about their harasser, they generally have no identifying information. The situation is not addressed on the spot.

Further action could be taken. Similar to its existing work in Hollaback! Egypt, the organization could work to make its reporters global advocates for other women in their community, further shaming the harasser and empowering the victim on the spot. The organization has begun to engage with these ideas in their video blog entitled ‘With Love and Revolution,’ but more work could be done to promote bystander intervention.

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Joelle Hatem
Protesters in Beirut march against harassment in Beirut, Lebanon in 2012. Hollaback! uses local chapters to address site specific concerns and issues globally.

While Hollaback! currently provides a great research tool on the rate of sexual assault in communities, the next step is measuring the positive impact that the organization has had. Measuring how many women are harassed, while also working to engage the local community to better understand how the use of Hollaback! has changed a given area, would be a great first step in understanding not only who has been harassed, but also who hasn’t been harassed because of Hollaback!’s work.

Hollaback! represents a new kind of solution, one where crowdfunding, the franchising of a model into many local contexts, and new updates in technology can forge social change in communities globally. While Hollaback!’s theory of change could create further accountability, it proves that the creation of a community around a social problem empowers those dealing with the problem, fostering solidarity and a drive for change. A paradigm has shifted for the feminist, as well as other social movements: true power is not only in the people we produce at marches, but in the people and communities we can bring together online to create something greater.