Why Women Worry About Street Harassment (And Other Language Faux-Pas)

When I was a sophomore in college, I remember walking back from the library at 2am in the dark, clutching my laptop and scurrying as fast as possible back to my dorm.

I didn’t like walking alone in the dark.

This was all made worse when I heard loud clanging sounds and male voices chanting in unison:

“MY NAME IS JACK

I’M A NECROPHELIAC

I FUCK DEAD WOMEN

AND FILL THEM WITH MY SEMEN.”

I started running until I got to the gates of my college, with the door firmly shut behind me, I paused and felt my blood pounding in my ears.

I’m 5’6”. There isn’t a whole lot I can do if an entire mob of football players decides they want to chase me down. This was a reality I was well aware of while I was standing there taking in my surroundings.

I run through a list every single time I stand at my door about to leave my apartment:

  • Do I have my house keys?
  • Is my phone charged enough to last me a few hours if I need to make any emergency calls/find my way home?
  • Do I have my wallet?
  • Do I have enough cash for a cab if I need to get home and something happens?
  • Is my dress too short, am I drawing too much unwanted attention to myself?
  • Where am I going? How will I get there? How will I get home?
  • Who should I tell where I am going in case something happens to me?
  • Is it ok for me to go to [This Location] totally alone? Should I call someone?
  • If I need to run, could I run for a while in this pair of shoes?

If I was still working in Mexico or on site in some of the places I study, this list gets a lot longer. Before I leave in the morning, I assess what risks I could encounter that day and try to build a list of options for myself to make sure I am prepared to meet my challenges for that day. Because if the going gets really rough, my options might end up being fairly limited.

That night I listened to a group of men, many of them much larger than me, chanting:

“NO MEANS YES

AND YES MEANS ANAL.”

As part of an initiation routine for their frat, meaning, freshman boys were encouraged to chant about abusing dead women, felt like what I would have labeled “a worst-case scenario” in my morning planning.

Separately, the song is completely vile in every possible way. Who comes up with this garbage?

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I wrote this post because a number of my male friends through the years have asked me why programs like Hollaback are relevant. Why women don’t like to be cat called. Why we get offended sometimes. They mean well, I know they do, so I often explain this experience of constantly wondering how you are going to get home and if someone has been watching you for too long. How we think through our options to escape and how making a single wrong decision could end very badly for us.

For me, this night in New Haven was one of many in my life where we remember that societal expectations and “manners” are abstract concepts that people opt into. They are not enforced by nature, but by communities. Without mutual respect inside of a community, they cease to exist and I am expected to compete for my own survival.

When I explain it in these terms, my male friends are often the first ones to respond with “not cool” to the guy who yells something at me when I walk by. They start to understand where I am coming from when I talk through my morning checklist and what I worry about when I am weighing my options in risky situations.

I think it would be amazing if I could walk down streets in major cities and know that I was not going to hear someone lean out the window of a car and offer me a list of “dirty things I’d like to do to you” or comment on my ass when I walk by. So, maybe it starts with you.

Check out what Hollaback is up to in your city. It’s an issue with deep roots, but it’s a worthwhile one.

Language as a Door

I am in DC this weekend for a meeting that I had today with a research collaborator and a potential project lead at the World Bank. It was a really interesting conversation — it turned out we were all thinking about similar layers of cities and factors that drive tech ecosystems… in New York, as it turns out. I was thinking about it a lot of this past summer and wrote a grant proposal for further research.

But the piece that I want to write about today just happened.

I am sitting in the AirBnB I rented for the weekend when the housekeeper hired to maintain the space appeared in the doorway. He seemed really nervous, like he was hoping I would be out while he was working. He asked me what I needed and rushed through the closet, asking me in English if I needed this or that. I took a chance, he looked like he could be from my neck of the woods, and switched to Spanish.

He visibly paused and relaxed. Visibly. His shoulders came down from their hiding place up by his ears and he grinned.

He eventually asked me, where did you learn to speak spanish? Your accent…

So we talked about it. How I am from Mexico City and grew up around Spanish speakers with DF accents. I told him about how I was at a bar last night with a number of Latino servers and they were talking about me in Spanish next to me. I pretended to ignore them to see what they would say. They were guessing my age and where I came from, making up back stories for me. It was all in good fun — they were having a laugh.

But the best part, was when I closed my bill and said, Thank you and have a lovely evening, in perfect Spanish. The looks over their faces told me, “oh! She speaks Spanish! Cool!” followed immediately by “oh wait that means she totally understood everything we were saying… oops.”

My visitor thought this was all very funny — he laughed with his whole heart.

He told me where I can go in DC for real Mexican and El Salvadorian food, where to find cheaper groceries, and where I can find a community I would find interesting. It was wonderful.

So, today I confirm that language is my favorite door. The sound, the experience of it, really, makes it much easier to engage with someone when it feels familiar. Spanish, in particular, has always felt like a gentle purr in my throat. I prefer the syllables to English ones. It feels and hits me like laughter.  It will always be a place of warmth for me.

And I was glad to share that with someone else on this cold winter day.

Public Health Spending vs. Infectious Disease Rates

Some food for thought, from a really interesting piece on the World Mapper website.

This is a map comparing public health spending around the world. Countries that spend more money are exaggerated to show their spending size compared to their neighboring countries and other continents.

World Map by Public Health Spending

Nothing too surprising here, I think. We see that the United States and Europe spend the most, relative to their size. Look at Germany up there! And France! Kind of nuts.

Compare this public health spending map to the map of infectious Disease Outbreaks.

World Map by Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Nearly the opposite map in terms of perspective/size of countries, no? The Western Hemisphere is tiny tiny in this case, and India and Nigeria are MASSIVE.

Again, nothing here is too surprising. But it is really striking to see and compare these contracts in a similar format of distortion.

Based on this information, consider where we find ourselves in the Ebola crisis. We have a highly infectious disease that travels through social networks, tearing apart families and communities while also presenting truly horrifying symptoms. The disease also presents itself in some of the hardest to reach communities on the planet. I have learned, throughout our efforts to improve tech opportunities for doctors and field workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone, that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to public health data collection and/or patient follow up. What worked for the US to run in its contact tracing programs are not necessarily a good fit for the communities that we work with in West Africa or the West African Diaspora Community.

This version of public health, especially in the face of a disease as challenging as Ebola, requires a mix of practical applications and rethinking models to fit limited infrastructure, and compassion for the communities that we are trying to reach. The tools we provide, on their own, are worthless if we cannot convince our communities to adopt and engage with them. This seems to be the missing piece in a number of the programs and efforts we see on the ground. But, I am hopeful that we will continue learning from our mistakes and improving our methods and outreach.

Leave-Your-Shell-At-The-Door Spaces

When I was a senior at Yale, I met a girl who seemed to understand and articulate all of my thoughts on feminism and independence and what I wanted for myself in terms of self respect and adhering to my personal value system in the same language that I was using in my journal. It was strange. Like having my mind read for 3 hours. Obviously, we clicked and, as I usually do, we decided to build something together.

Now, nearly two years later, the salon series we built for our friends and growing communities in New York have expanded into several cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, DC, Miami and soon, hopefully, Minneapolis and abroad). The salons grow organically — what started as one salon based in NYC turned into four of them running independently in NYC and several others sprouting up because people are generally interested in what we have created.

For me, the real value add of these salon spaces is that people come to have coffee/brunch in my apartment and agree to “leave their shells at the door.” While New York and certainly other cities value carefully curated public personas and responses, we value honesty and kindness to yourself and others, self respect, and the bravery it takes to dig into the soft, uncomfortable, not fully formed pieces of thoughts and values and goals that we all hide in our mental closets for a while longer than we should.

I love meeting new, cool, badass, creative ladies across cities and inviting them to join the salon space. I naturally have found a series of close friends through these spaces. Because I’ll explain something raw in my head and they will engage with me about it, seriously. They listen. They value the ideas and person that you introduce to a space. Because that is what it is — showing up and being fully present and engaged with a stranger, but promising to listen and be present throughout the conversation, is a sign of respect. It is what builds strong communities.

I am excited to see how we grow and change this year. It has been such a pleasure to organize and attend these salons for a few hours every few weekends. I leave feeling raw and open and reminded of my own values and personal growth goals. I am grateful to have a space where I am required to leave my shell at the door. It gets heavy and unpleasant to carry around all the time.

Most importantly, I am grateful to the women who have pushed me and challenged me and listened to me when I sometimes feel lost and unable to full express myself. Thank you, Tiffany, Sharone, Camilla, Joanna, Molly and our other organizers. You have changed me for the better.

Ferguson

This quote came up in my twitter feed last night and summarizes all of my sentiments about what is going on in Ferguson, Mexico City, and many other places that I know and love that suffer through injustice.

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t realize that we were seeds.”

When governments do not listen and engage with their citizens…

When a ruling caste degrades and berates the rest of the community…

When the “just” wrongly claim “justice is served”…

They bury the seeds.

But the seeds will grow and they will be strong and form their own gardens, to sow and reap the fruits of their labors.

Will these castes be part of it, or will they be left in the cold?

Effective Recruitment Strategies: Voluntary Engagement

While I was working as a volunteer, trying my hand at community organizing and voter turn out efforts, I struggled to figure out the best ways to get people to show up to events and participate.

Time is such a valuable and limited resource. How could I convince people that my cause was the most worthy one for that block of time?

It is hard. Especially, in New York City. But we’ve had a lot of success with our current high touch model and salon program, so I wanted to share some of our successes with you. Maybe it will be helpful for people organizing other audiences.

The Salons: 

We just celebrated the first birthday for the Salon series I started with a friend while we were at Yale. The Fourth Wave project describes itself, currently, as:

WHAT ARE SALONS?

Drawing inspiration from the French Enlightenment and consciousness raising groups from the 70s, Fourth Wave Salons aim to foster a tight-knit community of female changemakers through collective self-exploration. Each Salon is a small, intimate gathering of 15 women who commit to meeting regularly for discussions.

The group explores topics like the following: What is self-respect? // What makes a good leader? What does character have anything to do with it? // What do success or happiness even mean? // What is “being mature” or “growing up?” // What’s the difference between transactional vs. unconditional love? Is one better than the other? // Why is failure good for our souls?

All of these questions, we hope, lead back to the core investigation: What is a life worth living and how do I go about living that life?

We ran the first test of the project during my senior spring at Yale and then took it live in New York City a few months later. The group grew from 15 women to a little over 250 people in our mailing lists and attendee lists. We have salons running in Miami, Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are 4 salons running in New York City, regularly, each with their own loyal base of attendees. I have not yet attended a salon that did not have new faces and friends.

Why does this model work?

1) Make sure the leadership is accessible. We are very high touch. I reach out to and talk to every potential salon attendee about what we do, what the atmosphere is like, and what the program means to me.

2) Keep building and growing your team/base. We are constantly reaching out to new people and inviting them into the fold.

3) Offer options. Each salon has a different flavor to it — we try to fit people into the best fit for them.

4) We created something unique and high quality. Women are generally excited about the work we want to do here. The honest, open spaces of our salons feels like a real contrast to a lot of the social spaces in New York City. People open up to strangers, because we create spaces where people are immediately accountable to each other. We dig into complicated and personal topics and ask our attendees to give full picture stories of what they are thinking about/experiencing.

5) Culture matters. Set an example early on. Our discussion moderators and organizers start off conversations by being honest and contributing deeply to the conversation. They set an example early on that it is ok and safe to be honest in these spaces.

6) Give everyone some responsibility for making the experience run smoothly! Each person contributes to the experience: we usually host potluck brunches or dinners, and each person is responsible for something.

7) Choose an appropriate setting. We host all events in our living rooms. I think this adds a degree of intimacy and sharing a space that belongs to other people.

8) Ask for feedback. We are constantly asking our attendees what salons mean to them, what they enjoyed and what they would like to change about the experience. The whole experience is meant to be a collaborative effort.

That’s it for now, but I am sure I will keep adding points as I go through our year in review documents.