Meet the People Extraordinaire – Emily May


Emily May is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!, an international leader in the anti-street-harassment movement. In 2005, at the age of 24, she co-founded Hollaback! in New York City.  Hollaback!’s mission is to give women and LGBTQ folks an empowered response to street harassment, and ultimately, to end it. 

Tell us a bit about your early life and education. What experiences most shaped who you are today? Did you always want to be an activist?
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. My mom was a feminist and I remember reading a Susan B. Anthony biography when I was seven years old. Susan B. Anthony is historically a very complicated figure. What I was struck by, at the time, was that here is this woman, who lives in a world where the right to vote for women was something that was seen as ridiculous to have and popular opinion was just completely against her. But she was convinced that women should have the right to vote, and so she went out and fought for it. Now here we are a hundred years later, and of course women have the right to vote.

I was really compelled by the idea that something could be totally wrong, and also be totally normal in our world, and that if you worked hard enough, you could eventually fix it. I think that was my first lesson. Looking at her life was one of the ways in which I started to think about street harassment. Especially ten years ago when I started this work, street harassment was very normal, and still is largely very normal, although I think the public opinion is starting to shift. Through the work of so many people over the past ten years globally, it is starting to change, and by the time our little kids get old and grey, maybe we will live in a world where it isn’t normal anymore – that people are taught that we barbarians ever lived that way. That was one of my really early influences in terms of the work that we do now.

What motivated you to work specifically on the issue of #StreetHarrasment? Any personal incidents or stories that sparked an interest in this global problem? What was the inspiration behind starting Hollaback!?
I have been living in New York City for about six years and street harassment is a part of my day to day routine and I feel really hopeless about it. I was hanging out with a group of friends and we all started sharing stories of street harassment and the men in the group were shocked at the extent to which we experienced it all the time. We heard this story of a young woman named Thao Nguyen, who back in 2005, had seen a guy masturbating on the subway, and she pulled out her cellphone camera and took a picture with the idea of taking it to the police. And when she took it to the police, they totally ignored her, saying there’s nothing they could actually do.

She posted the photo on social media and it soon went viral and made it to the front cover of the daily news, and started this huge city wide conversation about public masturbation. It seemed like everyone had a story, or they knew someone that had a story, and we were sitting there thinking ‘this is ridiculous, this isn’t just our problem’, or the problem across the city, if not across the world, and here’s this amazing thing that this woman did in response to it, that didn’t require any decriminalization, or the police at all, in fact it was a response to not having the support of the police.’ And so we started this little blog, and went from there. And what’s really interesting and timely about this particular story is that   the same guy masturbating on the subway ten years ago, was caught again groping in January. I don’t even know what to say, I’m shocked, and horrified, the work doesn’t stop.

What were (are) some of your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
What’s interesting about Hollaback! is that on the outside people think it’s this giant shiny organization and we must have a 100 people on our staff and we have got people who come to our office and they assume that we have the whole building. We have a tiny little office with five people sitting and working feverishly on their computers. When we started, and I was trying to turn this into an organization, it was just me, unpaid, for that first year. In the first year, I applied for six fellowships/eight foundations and we were rejected from all of it. I think a big part of it is when you are trying to change something that the society has not identified as a problem, it’s almost impossible to get that funding and support. It rings true for a lot of issues, even more severe issues, like rape, there’s really not enough funding out there because people don’t realize the extent to which it is a problem and street harassment is an extension of that. So the first year was all blood, sweat and tears. I worked from 7am till midnight every single day, rarely saw my friends, gained a solid 15 pounds, eating rice and beans. That was the challenge then. But eventually there were a lot of successes and significant wins that came out of that. 

Just another day at the Hollaback! office

Now it’s a different challenge. The most recent and most public mistake was the viral video that came out in 2014. There  was somebody who was interested in creating a video on street harassment with a call to donate to Hollaback! in the end. And we were of course thrilled that people would donate to a small organization so we associated our name with the video. And they went out and made this video showing that it’s mostly men of color that are doing the harassment and it’s white women who face a majority of the harassment. Both things, which we know are untrue. Hollaback! was very much associated with that video and to be honest we should have pulled our name off of it. We didn’t make the video and we had no control over the video and people had no idea who the filmmaker was but they knew who Hollaback!  was and we were attributed with a lot of that. It was a very hard experience to go through having done the work for the past ten years. Having had an anti-racism policy on our site from day one, we have always taken racial identifiers off our posts because we knew that even though we regularly saw that it was just as many white guys as black guys or Latino guys who were doing the harassing, that it was really easy to wind up with population differences. We still knew that people read harassment very differently if they saw the harasser was white compared to if they saw the harasser was black, for example. So we wanted really to get people’s racism out of the way in terms of helping them understand the issue and not perpetuate these myths.

It was a really hard time for the organization. It’s something I will probably regret for the rest of my life. We still work through it. The way you correct a mistake that quite literally went viral, is that we continue to do our work with the integrity and attention to anti-racism that we always have. Of course we issued a public apology and a letter to our supporters but at the end of the day it’s about continuing our fight against racism and sexism more than anything else.

Social work can be discouraging at times, what keeps you going? Are there times when you question the work you do?
It’s not something at this point that I am questioning in and out. Having done this full time now for five years, the reason I do this work reminds me of the stories that come in daily. Stories that they will never forget their entire life. It’s good for people to know that there’s someone who has their back.

There is this incredible energy having watched this issue change wildly over the past ten years. When I started this work ten years ago, despite being an active feminist I never even heard the term ‘street harassment’ regularly. Sexism as a conversation was when you were talking about the wage gap, or you were  talking reproductive rights, or this that, and the other. Street harassment was rarely mentioned.

You have the Power to End Street Harassment

I look at my generation and wonder where are the big social movements of our generation? I think that being a part of Hollaback!  is  one of the social movements of our time. How often are you able to be a part of a movement that allows you to change an issue that everyone thought cannot be changed? There is still lots of work to do for sure but we are starting to see a glimmer of hope – that maybe we can really change the culture that makes street harassment okay.

How do you measure the effectiveness of your movement against street harassment? Are modifying laws to punish offenders enough to end street harassment?
We have debated a few times on how to evaluate our work. Really we’re looking at three different metrics; one you just mentioned, which is stories told, and that is really important to us, and that’s how we measure culture change. We do culture change in a lot of different ways, we do press, we do video blogs, we do op-eds, we do social media, we collect stories and we have an app. Whilst many people would argue that you should measure it in terms of press, because that’s how you get into people’s ears – the purpose is not just them seeing it and reading that Hollaback! exists. It’s them seeing that, and then feeling safe to take action. We want to measure that next step. Are they able to take that internalization to the point where they are able to take action and tell someone, and that’s how we measure culture change.

The second part of our work is systems change, and that’s making change within particular systems. That’s looking at schools, what can we do within the infrastructure of schools, what can we do within the infrastructure of the workplace, what can we do within the infrastructure of Government? With the nature of defined systems, how can we leverage these to address street harassment? We measure that in terms of partnerships. Looking at partnership with schools, employers, and the Government – people who aren’t on our side, who aren’t those easy allies, and what can we do to pull in those folks from the outside, and get them closer to where we are; and use the big systems in which they operate to make some change.

Emily May speaking at Columbia University

The third lever that we work in is really around leadership development.  We have our site leaders around the world. Here it is not about how many countries we are in or how many people have been trained by us, it’s really about the impact. We measure it in terms of actions that have been taken . How many actions have we and have our site leaders around the world taken to address street harassment? It could be a chalk walk, or a research project, or a rally, or an art project, it can be anything. We’re pretty open with what we qualify as an action, but it has to be coordinated with your team, and public, etc.

Talk a little bit about the laws, we can do all the awareness work, and take actions, at the end of the day if the laws are not implemented correctly, there’s only so much we can do at our end. What is your opinion on that? 
The law is an interesting tool. I think when it comes to street harassment, we really haven’t looked towards visions that are looking at increasing of criminalization of harassment. There’s a few reasons for that, number one we’re really concerned about the ways in which there are type of policies which are impacting ladies of color, and the targeted communities of color, and low income communities. The other piece is that when people get street harassed, they’re not eagerly running to the police as part of the solution; they’re upset that the person next to them didn’t help them out, or they themselves didn’t know what to say.

What we really look to in terms of solutions here, is community accountability. That’s our angle with Hollaback!. Recently we launched a new platform for online harassment called HeartMob. It’s slightly different with online harassment. In the case of online harassment, there are laws in place. A lot of these laws aren’t even up-to-date. So it’s not about increasing criminalization, as much as the law works with its intention. There’s also a lot of pressure on the social media companies to sort of solve online harassment, which is great and very rightly placed, but I think what we know about violence is that it’s not just the police that are going to fix it, it’s not just the corporations that are going to fix it, that ultimately it takes a community to fix things.

Pride Rally

Do you think the internet/social media has changed the face of violence against women? Are people now more quick to pass judgements. Is it a boon or bane?
I think there definitely is the sort of culture in social media that’s challenging, because when you meet with somebody in person, or even on the phone, you can hear the intonation in their voice, you can see the expression on their face, and there’s so much that is communicated through those two things. That is impossible to communicate through social media, or through email, or through the written word. That is compounded by the fact that people aren’t great writers, frankly. All of us are just not gifted writers, and so the written word is tricky. I do think that the lack of face-to-face interaction, does create a situation – where people have less empathy, and less compassion for each other in certain ways; it’s easier to misread what people are trying to say, and they get hurt easily.

I also think that it’s very easy to harass, and intimidate people. We see a lot of that through trolling, and doxing, and these more extreme forms of violence that are happening online, that are incredibly scary. On the positive side, the internet has opened up a lot. The most powerful way to change hearts and minds is for people to tell their story. All of a sudden, it’s not just the high profile social change-makers who are able to do that in front of an audience or the people who are able to make it on the nightly news. All of us can talk to a thousand people right now, if we want to, share our story, and change hearts and minds. I think the way those stories have come out, and disseminated in our culture is awesome, and it’s creating so much more awareness, and so much more empathy for each other. All of a sudden we’re seeing real people’s real narratives. There’s  more empathy created by this increase in storytelling.

What’s next for Hollaback!? Where do you guys see yourself in the next 5 years? 
On February 27th, we launched HeartMob, our new platform to address online harassment, and we are so excited about it. It’s launched in beta, so we’re still hard at work, working on the details, but the basic concept is in place. And we’re really excited to be able to help people in this way. I think online harassment is increasingly pervasive, similar to street harassment. It’s really limiting people’s access to public space, of which I would argue that the internet is public space. You can’t avoid the internet anymore, not just in terms of, having relationships or maintaining relationships, but also professionally. It’s increasingly important to be active online, and so I think this is an awesome opportunity for us to provide some safety and some care for people who are harassed online and to build a network of people that you know. A  network of people who can fight against harassment and are as powerful as the network of people who are doing the harassment.

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Courtney from team Hollaback! presenting the HeartMob platform at CivicX!

In the next five years, what I would love to see is this model of community accountability to address other forms of micro-aggression and day to day discrimination. Street harassment, online harassment these are two examples that I’ve experienced a fair amount of, but there are so many different ways in which people are discriminated against for so many reasons, based on ability, race, age, the way they look, gender performance, you name it. And I think it would be really awesome to expand our work to take on some of those other forms of discrimination. It’s tricky because these spaces are nascent and emerging social issues. People are just starting to notice, it’s a time in which there is a tremendous need, and very little funding. We’ve seen that with street harassment, we’ve seen that with online harassment. We’re going to have to see, and figure out if we can stay in business, at least in this kind of radical work, that inspires us so much.

Biggest lessons learnt as a co-founder of Hollaback!. Any regrets?
It’s easier to not really think about it in terms of regrets; but instead to think of it in terms of ‘well we’ve made it here, what have we learnt along the way?’. Recognizing all those necessary things that got us here. It’s this art of learning, and relearning how to run an organisation that is constantly changing – and working in a movement and mediums that are constantly changing. We try to be adaptive. There’s a lot of change that happened here over the past ten years, and I hope that we can continue to stay responsive to it.

Hollaback! supporting the YWCA’s #weekwithoutviolence – No person should be subjected to violence and harassment

What is your idea of an empowered person?
I think that it’s about being able to be self-actualized. I think it’s about being able to have the support that you need, the love that you need, the food and the shelter that you need, to be able to be your authentic self, wherever you go. That is what I am striving for in my journey professionally, to really be myself. It’s okay that I am not perfect, and it’s deeply important to me, that I continue to work. As long as I can be okay with those two truths, in any context, I think to me, I feel like I can accomplish anything.

Sayfty’s mission is to Educate, Equip and Empower women so that they can protect themselves against violence. What is your message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women?
I think when it comes to violence against women, if you’re somebody who has experienced it, one of the most important things is to realize that it’s not your fault. If you’re somebody who has never experienced it, one of the most important things that you can do is to listen. Whether you’re listening via reading stories on Hollaback!, or whether you’re listening to your best friend, make sure that you’re doing everything you can, to help people understand that it’s not their fault. Ask yourself ‘What can I do to really support people who experience violence?’. It’s so common and people shouldn’t feel alone.

Emily May, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Hollaback!

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.” Emily is an international leader in the anti-street-harassment movement. In 2005, at the age of 24, she co-founded Hollaback! in New York City, and in 2010 she became the first full-time executive director. Hollaback!’s mission is to give women and LGBTQ folks an empowered response to street harassment, and ultimately, to end it.

Emily brings a fresh perspective to social action in the digital age.  She argues that the internet has provided new opportunities to tackle discrimination, by transforming discrimination from a lonely experience into a piece of a larger, public movement.  Her project Hollaback! gives women, girls, and LGBTQ individuals an empowered, real-time response to street harassment that will build public awareness on why street harassment matters, and how it hurts. Emily, who hold a Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics in Social Policy, argues that a crowd-sourced movement is the key to changing policy and minds, and ultimately, creating a world where everyone has the right to feel safe and confident.

Prior to running Hollaback!, Emily worked in the anti-poverty world as a case manager, political action coordinator, director of development, and most recently, a one-woman research and development team.  She has also worked on four political campaigns.

In 2014, Emily was named an Ashoka Fellow for her pioneering work in the field of social entrepreneurship.  She has also won eleven awards for her work ending street harassment. In 2008, Emily won the Stonewall Women’s Award, in 2010 the Women’s Media Center selected her as one of thirty “Women Making History, and in 2011 she was selected as one of “21 leaders for the 21st century” by Women’s E-news, won the 40 under 40 award from the New Leadership Council, and was named an Ashoka “ChangemakHER”. In 2012 she was named one of twelve women to watch in 2012 by the Daily Muse, one of 20 women “leading the way” by the Huffington Post, a “Hero Among Us” in People Magazine, an AOL “Next Maker,” and one of Jezebel’s “25 kick-ass and amazing women we love,” and in 2013 she was named one of the Daily Muse’s “50 Fearless Minds Changing the World.” Emily serves on the board of YTH, an organization at the forefront of piloting innovative technologies to reach young adults with accurate, actionable health information.