Ten years ago, Thao Nguyen was riding the NYC subway when a man sat down across from her and began masturbating. Terrified, and armed only with her new smartphone, she took his photo. When the police ignored her, Thao posted the picture on Flickr—and it went viral. The man, an older, upper-middle class restauranteur, was identified and charged, and Thao’s story made the front page of the New York Daily News, inciting a city-wide conversation about street harassment and inspiring Emily May to do something about it.
Studies show that 70-99% of women—many LGBTQI and people of color—are verbally harassed, threatened, or flashed at some point during their lives. As a college student in NYC, Emily endured near-constant verbal assaults, so in 2005, she and a group of friends (four women and three men) adopted Thao’s example and launched Hollaback! to end street harassment via digital storytelling. By uniting and empowering victims, creating real-time tools to address it, and amassing data to change policy and minds, this international movement ensures this pervasive problem can’t be ignored.
“People said that it couldn’t be done, that there were no solutions,” says Emily. “They said that if you didn’t want to be harassed you shouldn’t live in a city, or walk down the street; just hang your head and pretend that it didn’t matter. I knew folks couldn’t do that anymore, and it was this desire to bring hope to people that compelled me to address street harassment. Around the world today, they’re coming forward and boldly saying this is about our rights…and this does matter.” Her 21st century approach to end gender-based violence—taking feminism from the front lines to the internet—has earned Emily praise as a modern-day women’s and equal rights leader. When feminist icon Gloria Steinem was asked who is most continuing the feminist movement, she said: “Emily May of Hollaback!, who has empowered women in the street, literally.”
These women, along with thousands of young girls, LGBTQI individuals, men, and bystanders make up a “badass” army of activists, who are exposing this international epidemic and changing cultural norms and laws governing discrimination. In just a decade, Hollaback! has grown from a blog in Brooklyn to a movement with on-the-ground coalitions in 92 cities and 32 countries. “We’re discovering that this is related to population density,” says Emily. “The more people in a given space, the more often you are to be harassed. This isn’t a race or a class thing—it’s an everyone thing.”
To help everyone end street harassment, Emily uses technology as a grassroots organizing tool, empowering victims, bystanders, and the public to capture acts of harassment and to respond not just as individuals, but as a collective, citizen-driven media. She’s created real-time tools, including a blog, online forum, and iPhone and Android apps, where victims can post photos of harassers, document and share their stories in real time, map where and when harassment occurs, and contribute to a growing database that’s informing strategies to end discrimination. “The Internet, combined with mobile technology, is giving us a way to document day-to-day discrimination like never before,” says Emily. “It’s no longer a battle over who speaks the loudest, but rather who speaks. It’s with us every time we need a response, and it allows our voices to be heard worldwide.”
Since 2016, Hollaback! has trained 500 leaders in 10 languages, building a powerful, global coalition of digital organizers and grassroots leaders, employing a system of decentralized leadership to empower a new generation of activists to own the movement. Most are under 30, and many are LGBTQI and/or people of color. These local leaders are trained to increase storytelling within their communities and to feed those stories to legislators and the media. They partner with universities, lobby elected officials, and hold rallies, workshops, and flash mobs. Hollaback!
Emily and Hollaback! recently created HeartMob, the first virtual platform to tackle sexism, racism, transphobia, and homophobia on the internet. The site provides real-time support to individuals experiencing online harassment, enabling them to document their stories and ask for help from bystanders who can intervene and take action.
Known globally as the “Harassment Avenger,” Emily was recognized along with Nancy Pelosi as one of “30 Women Making History” by the Women’s Media Center. She was named one of “21 leaders for the 21st century” by Women’s E-news and a “Hero Among Us” by People magazine. An Ashoka Fellow and “ChangemakHER” and recipient of the “40 under 40″ award from the New Leadership Council, Emily believes:
“Being young isn’t easy. And being a young woman is even harder. But it’s never been a better time to be either. I think my generation is eagerly embracing that, and fearlessly being the badasses that too many generations before us never had the opportunity to be. When I Hollaback!, I Hollaback! for me, but I also Hollaback! for the world.”
TEDCity2.0: Emily May
TEDxWomen 2012: The Mirror
TEDx636EleventhAve 2010: #goodmorning
How did you become involved in the movement?
I was harassed three or four times a day and felt like there was nothing I could do. When I walked on, I felt humiliated. When I yelled at the guys, the situation escalated. Nothing worked. When I was 24, I was sitting on a roof with my friends (three men and four women). As the women told story after story of harassment, the men became increasingly concerned. Samuel Carter, who was my friend from high school, said quite simply, “You live in a different city than we do.” Collectively, we resolved to change that. Around the same time, a woman named Thao Nguyen bravely stood up to her harasser – an older, upper middle-class restaurant owner – who terrified Thao by masturbating across from her on the subway. She took his photo, and when the police ignored it, she posted it on Flickr. The picture made it to the front page of the New York Daily News, where it incited a city-wide conversation about street harassment. We were inspired by her story, and decided to apply her model to all forms of street harassment and documenting these experiences on a public blog.
When did you realize you were leading a social movement?
It wasn’t leading that helped me understand I was part of one of the greatest social movements of our time, at least not in a typical “power over” sense of leadership. When I realized that I was surrounded by and facilitating the growth of other leaders of the movement from around the world, I felt like a leader. And together, by creating a “leaderFULL” movement, we’re changing the course of history.
What’s your advice to aspiring movement leaders?
Leaders don’t build movements, followers do. If you develop followers into leaders, they develop their followers into leaders, and you’re guaranteed to have a movement that will be too powerful to ignore.
Now you’re a national leader in the movement to end street harassment. What did you want to be at six years old?
A doctor! And then at age 12 I bought my first navy blue “power suit,” and decided I wanted to be the CEO of PepsiCo. When I was 15 and working in a soup kitchen, I realized there was too much injustice in the world for a career like that—and from there on out I committed 100 percent of my work, education, and career to ending injustice and building a world where everyone has the right to be who they are, not who they are told to be.
News About Emily May
The Daily Show, October 2, 2014
YouTube - Ashoka, February 10, 2014
The New York Times, October 21, 2013
Fast Company, August 29, 2013
People, October 4, 2012