Hollaback! at the 2016 International Street Harassment Rally in Tompkins Sqaure, NY. (Facebook/Hollaback!)

How Hollaback! is creating a culture of community accountability and mutual respect

Hollaback! Co-founder and Executive Director Emily May on bystander intervention, showing up for community and not calling the police.
Hollaback! at the 2016 International Street Harassment Rally in Tompkins Sqaure, NY. (Facebook/Hollaback!)

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In the two weeks immediately following the Georgia attack that killed eight people, six of them Asian women, over 40,000 people signed up for trainings in bystander intervention with an incredible organization called Hollaback! They’re really leaders in the world of bystander intervention as a tool to end harassment, teaching a framework known as the “Five Ds” (distract, delegate, document, delay, and direct) which many groups doing similar work borrow from.

According to Emily May, Hollaback!’s co-founder and executive director, “It’s something that all of us can do to take care of each other when harassment happens that slowly but surely chips away at the institutions that underlie it — the institutions of racism and sexism and homophobia that allow it to proliferate to the extent to which it has.” She adds, however, that bystander intervention is only one piece of the solution, noting that we have to also turn to restorative and transformative justice and “solutions we haven’t even imagined yet.”

I had the opportunity to speak with May from her Brooklyn office for Nonviolence Radio about showing up for community, the Five Ds, why they don’t recommend calling the police, the power of sharing our stories (they have an app for that!), and the importance of “resourcing” organizations like Hollaback!

Hollaback! Co-founder and Executive Director Emily May (Facebook/Hollaback!)

Emily: So, hi. My name is Emily May. I’m the cofounder and executive director of Hollaback! And we are a global people powered movement to end harassment and all of its forms.

Stephanie: Now online, the website is iHollaback! So, what’s the difference between iHollaback!?

Emily: Yeah. So, that – Hollaback! was not available when we started. [Laughs] So, we were just like, “Okay, iHollaback! Right?” It was like, you know, 2010. We’re like “We got iPhones — iHollaback!” So, cool.

Yeah. So, we actually started in 2005. And I was one of the original seven cofounders. And it really just started as a conversation amongst friends. And the women in the group, we were just telling stories of our experiences with street harassment. So, all of the crap that people say to you on the street when you’re just trying to get where you’re going.

And, you know, as we were recounting these stories, like the men in our group were like, “What? Are you kidding me? Like you guys live in this completely different New York City than we do. Like I can’t even imagine if I had to deal with that much crap just to like get to work or school.” And we had recently heard this story of this young woman named Thao Nguyen. She’s now on our advisory board. But at the time, she was just trying to get home. And she was on a pretty much empty train.

And there was a man across from her who started publicly masturbating with the intention of scaring her. And she had had this happen before, so she pulled out her newfangled 2005 cellphone camera. And she took his picture with the idea of taking it to the police. She was a young woman of color. She took her photo to the police. That the guy who was doing this, we later found out, his name was Dan Hoyt. He was a middle-aged raw food restaurant owner, lover of extreme sports, White Guy 5000.

And the police were like, “Sorry, miss. He’s probably already seven or eight stops away.” And so, she put it up on Flickr, this photo sharing website. It went viral. Made it to the front cover of the New York Daily News. And all of a sudden, everybody had a story. They either had a story or they knew somebody who had a story. My boss at the time had seen that exact guy masturbating on the subway in front of her.

And so, we were just like, “Why does everybody in this city have a story and nobody is doing anything about this? Like what is wrong?” And so, we thought, “Well, why don’t we just start a little blog where everybody can do what Thao did and everybody can share their stories and, you know, bring awareness. At the very least, we don’t feel like we’re so alone anymore. Like something is wrong with us. And just started that way, you know. And that’s what it was for five years.

And we turned it into a nonprofit organization in 2010. And since then, have expanded to look, you know, certainly at street harassment, but also at online harassment, workplace harassment. And certainly, at gender, but also at race and ability and sexuality and gender expression, you know, as all parts of this. And realizing that, you know, for us to really do something about this issue, that we really needed to be inclusive. We really needed to be intersectional, and we really needed to be thoughtful about the many ways in which people are harassed.

Stephanie: So, yeah. I mean remember being on the Metro in Paris when I was in my teens and seeing a gentleman coming down the tunnel masturbating. And yeah, it is interesting that a lot of men didn’t quite understand that that’s what – that that happens.

Emily: It just seemed like, “Of course. Of course, this is how we live our lives, you know.” Of course, you’re always kind of looking behind your shoulder to make sure that nobody is following you. Of course, you’re always trying to sit at the other side of the train from the one other guy that’s on the train, you know?

It’s just that’s like part of the experience. You kind of get into your mind, this little check that you do and what you have to do to stay safe. And to know that there are folks out there that these guys that we were friends with were just like, “Yeah, I don’t do that.” And we were like, “What?”

Stephanie: Well, a lot of people think that if — like in terms of just harassment of women, for example, that if you just don’t wear certain things then you won’t be harassed. Or in the case of like the LGBTQA+ community, if you just don’t — if you just be closeted when you’re out, then people wouldn’t harass you. How do you respond to these kinds of assumptions?

Emily: If that worked, right, if you could just like, you know, not wear red lipstick and avoid harassment or just like pretend to be a little straighter, you know, people would probably try it. The reality is, is that it doesn’t work. That it doesn’t actually matter because it’s not about, you know, attraction. You know, it’s about power, and it’s about hate. And I think that, you know, if harassment was a flirtation strategy, it’d be the most spectacularly terrible flirtation practice of all time.

And so, you know, when we think about street harassment, we think about any form of harassment, I think it goes back to how you diagnose the problem. And a lot of people like to diagnose the problem — well, the least generous of folks diagnose the problem as like, “Well, it’s your fault for wearing that.” Or, “It’s your fault for not interpreting that as a compliment.”

But even beyond that, most people diagnose it as the problem of a few bad seeds, right? If they were just not these few bad guys out there doing this, then we wouldn’t have, you know, harassment. And at Hollaback! we really diagnose the problem not as a problem of a few bad seeds which implied that in some way shape or form, if we locked them up, for example, it could prevent harassment.

We really see it as a problem of culture and not somebody of a particular culture, but our collective global culture, which is sexist and racist and homophobic and, and, and – right? And so, when we think about it as a cultural problem that means that it needs a cultural solution. Which means that, you know, we don’t endorse increasing the criminalization of harassment. But we do really strongly endorse tactics and strategies that help everyday people step up into these moments.

So, bystander intervention training is something that we do a lot of at Hollaback! for that reason. It’s something that all of us can do to take care of each other when harassment happens that slowly but surely chips away at the institutions that underlie it – the institutions of racism and sexism and homophobia that allow it to proliferate to the extent to which it has.

Stephanie: Can you say more about that idea of not calling the police.

Emily: Yeah. So, Hollaback!’s Five D’s of Bystander Intervention, just briefly – the first one is Distract. So, create a distraction to deescalate the situation. The second one is “delegate.” Finding somebody else to help. The third one is “document” – creating documentation and giving it to the person being harassed. The fourth one is “delay,” so checking in on the person after it happens. And the fifth one is “direct” – setting a boundary with the person doing the harassing and then turning your attention to the person being harassed.

So, a lot of times when we explain the 5 Ds of Bystander Intervention, people hear that second one, “Delegate,” and they’re like, “Oh, you mean call the police?” And actually, what we have learned through years of doing this work – and certainly, also even through our founding story with Thao Nguyen, is that in many communities, but especially the communities that are most targeted by harassment – so, communities of color, trans communities, immigrant communities aren’t necessarily going to feel safer with any kind of police presence there.

And I think we’re living through this moment over the past year in particular, but we’ve been building up here for quite some time, where we don’t have a lot of faith in government. We don’t have a lot of faith in the police to necessarily keep us safer.

But what that means is that we have to figure out how to keep each other safer. And so, that’s where Bystander Intervention really comes into play. So, when you think about delegate, for example, instead of delegating to the police, well, why don’t I just talk to the person right next to me, right? Like me, they’re fully human. They like taking care of other humans too. But unlike me, maybe they haven’t been trained in Bystander Intervention. They don’t know what to do.

So, if I can say, “Hey, I’m going to go and say something. Can you like hang here and document this situation?” Or like, “I’m, you know, going to create a distraction. Could you maybe just like hangout and have my back in case something goes wrong.” I find people are more than willing to show up into those moments and to take care of one another.

Stephanie: I’m thinking of the example of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper who are in Central Park. Christian Cooper was bird watching. Amy Cooper had her dog off the leash, I believe.

And she decided that she would draw on stereotypes of “violent black men” in order to get the police. Because they rely on violent force, they often need to dehumanize in the process. And in that, they are drawing upon stereotypes. And it’s very easy to activate those stereotypes when people are in fight or flight mode.

Emily: Yeah. You know, I mean the history of police in this country is that they were originally really established to maintain the institution of slavery. And a lot of that, you know, I mean talk about the ultimate in white supremacy has sort of bled through into policing today and how the police show up today.

And I think, you know, one really great book that I just read on this is called, “My Grandmother’s Hands.” And it talks about it from the vantage point of, you know, of white bodies, black bodies, and police bodies. And how all of us have our own journey around racialized trauma.

But in the case of police bodies that are on the frontlines, you know, that are equipped with guns, that racialized trauma converts into racialized violence very, very, very quickly. Especially given that, you know, police are not given strategies to undue that racialized trauma. They’re not given strategies to, you know, calm themselves down, to bring themselves back to center in moments that are escalated.

And so, it’s come to a point where regardless of all that’s come into it, now we need to figure out how to take care of each other if we really want to break that cycle of violence. And ultimately, you know, in my work, I believe that that is the work, right? You may be completely pissed off that somebody is harassing your friend or harassing your co-worker. But even then, you know, we want to break that cycle of violence. We don’t want to harass the harasser, right? Because that just keeps it, perpetuates it.

And same thing with the police. We run the risk of just creating different forms of violence by bringing them into these scenarios. So, how can we look for other solutions and how do we depend on each other, I think, is one of the core questions of this moment in history.

And you know, Bystander Intervention is just a piece of that solution. I think a lot of – there’s a lot of pieces in here, including restorative justice, transformative justice, and solutions that we haven’t even imagined yet. But I think, you know, we’ve got to figure out how to ask that and lean into that question and start to figure it out.

Stephanie: Did you guys come up with the – is it the Four Ds or the Five Ds?

Emily: The Five Ds. Yeah.

Stephanie: Did you guys do that research and pull that together? Or did it come from someplace else? Or what was the story there?

Emily: So, in 2012, when we realized that we wanted to start doing work around bystander intervention to address street harassment, we partnered with an amazing organization called, Green Dot. And Green Dot, at the time, was doing a lot of work to address campus sexual assault. Since then, they’ve very much expanded. But they had the concept of the three Ds of bystander intervention.

So, distract, delegate and direct. And as we sort of worked with them and partnered with them to launch our workaround bystander intervention, over time sort of built-in those other two Ds of bystander intervention, just from receiving stories, from hearing stories on our website. We’ve collected 15,000 stories of harassment. Many of them involve bystander intervention. So, we started to kind of build it out as we saw it in action, in relationship to harassment in particular.

Stephanie: Fifteen thousand stories of harassment, which is probably just the tip of the iceberg too.

Emily: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

Stephanie: But what else do you do with those stories? It looks like you have a way of creating community and support so it’s not just people then, reporting in, but there’s people standing by, waiting?

Emily: Mm-hmm. So, we collect stories of harassment. When you submit your story, we’ve got an anonymous “I’ve got your back” button on our website. So, folks can say that they’ve got your back and support you in that way. And so, that’s a concrete action people can take. But we actually did research with a researcher named Jill Diamond. And her research showed that when people went through the act of simply sharing their story with us on our website, that it had a really transformative impact on that person who shared their story. That they went into the process really believing that their story of harassment was essentially like a personal problem.

And they walked out of it actually believing this isn’t a personal problem. This is a societal problem. And that is huge from the standpoint of getting people to take action. Because when you believe it’s a personal problem, you’re going to look for personal solutions like, “Well, I won’t go there anymore, or I won’t walk down that street. Or I won’t wear this. Or I won’t do that.”

But if you believe that it’s a societal problem, you’re like, “Okay. Well, we need to do something about it, you know? Let’s go get trained and let me tell my mom and my teacher about this. And let me,” you know, these little types of actions, we started to see people taking when they no longer were blaming themselves. They were able to see it. And I don’t – you know, even if they weren’t using these words, they were able to see it as a broader societal problem. A problem of sexism of racism and homophobia. And they were looking for solutions along those lines.

So, to me, that’s transformative. And of course, in the history of movements we know that storytelling is an essential catalyst. That that is typically where it starts is effective storytelling. And so, you know, as simply a way to heal, it is effective. But as a way to take action, and to activate oneself, it is also very effective.

Stephanie: Because when other people hear stories, it’s easier to imagine being there in terms of how it impacts the listener too. It’s easier to imagine being there. It activates empathy in people. You can see the suffering of the other person in a new light, or maybe it didn’t even occur to you.

Where I found out about your work was from a wonderful resource list, I think, that was crowdsourced on supporting the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, especially right now as there’s a growing awareness of racist violence happening towards these communities, especially with the shooting in Georgia. But more stories are pouring out. I’d like to spend some time addressing that and how your work can help support people being able to have real skills of being allies to these communities as well as people in these communities to be able to find skills that they feel could be empowering if they’re feeling afraid right now.

Emily: Yeah. Absolutely. About a year ago, right when we went on lockdown, we saw instantly the rise in anti-Asian, anti-Asian American hate. And we reached out to our partners in Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC. And we were like, “We want to help, you know? We’ve got these trainings in Bystander Intervention. We’ve got all these tools to address harassment. Can we be of use?”

And what we did is that we launched these one-hour free bystander intervention trainings to address the rise in anti-Asian, anti-Asian American harassment across the country. And at the time, I mean, you know, this is a year ago, they’ve caught on like wildfire then. We had thousands of people showing up to those trainings then. And so, over a year we trained about 16,000 people which is, I mean truly just a phenomenal feat.

Well, in the past week, week-and-a-half since the shootings in Atlanta we have had 40,000 people sign up for trainings. 40,000 people.

Stephanie: That’s amazing.

Emily: It is, right? It is. And I think it’s amazing because here are all these people that are like, “I want to do something. I want to help,” you know? And all these people that get it, that whether or not they think the police are not the solution or they think they’re part of the solution, they at the very least, think that they themselves are also part of the solution. That they have something to give. That they have something that they would be willing to do to take care of folks if they saw things like this happening. And that’s a really powerful statement.

I think it’s also been really interesting just to see people in action. A lot of times after these events we’ll see large calls to donations to amazing organizations. And that is great, right? But it doesn’t necessarily force you as a person to embody the change, right? It delegates that change to another organization.

Whereas this push towards getting all these folks trained, people are saying like, “No, I actually don’t just want to endorse this change, right? I don’t just want to fund this change,” which both of those are very important. I run a nonprofit, funding the change is important, right? [Laughs]

I also want to embody the change. And I want to get all my friends to come with me. And we’re going to embody this change together. And there’s a recognition that this stuff is not going away, you know? We’ve seen a year – a year of this stuff. And it only seems to be getting worse.

So, you know, it’s been a really powerful, powerful moment to see this level of response. And, you know, we’ve got 5000 people coming to trainings. They’re emotional. Our trainers are emotional. You know, to feel that level of support in a room, even if it’s a virtual space, it’s just gorgeous.

Stephanie: How do you run that? How many trainers are running trainings for 40,000 people?

Emily: We need more. We’re actually hiring. I’m not even kidding. We’re hiring because we need help. Apply today. We need more. We have about 10 trainers on our team right now. And in the middle of this, reached out to Zoom and we’re like, “Help. We need a bigger room.” The Zoom licenses are expensive, so they gave us a webinar room that can hold up to 5000 people for the next year. So, with that, we’re like, “All right, let’s get the whole country trained. We got the room. We got talented trainers.” Like we probably need a little more funding to hire a few more folks, but let’s go. Let’s get the whole country trained.

Because the same tactics that we teach in that training, you know, the 5 Ds of Bystander Intervention, you know, we focus on in that training anti-Asian, anti-Asian American violence and harassment because it’s important that we’re educated in specifically what that looks like if we’re going to intervene.

But the tactics themselves apply to anything, right? The tactics apply, you know, to anti-Black harassment. The tactics apply to gender-based harassment, to ablized harassment. And so, you know, if we can get the country trained in Bystander Intervention we’ll have a country that, you know, is not only safer, but is ultimately more caring. It’s a country full of people taking care of people.

Stephanie: Which seems to be really at the basis of this. It’s not just being on the defense.

Emily: Two to three places that we’re really watching with a deep level of concern right now, certainly the Black community. And we have a training on Bystander Intervention to address anti-Black harassment and police violence. And we want to continue to establish partners on that training in the event, you know, to not only be able to provide that training free and ongoing which is something that we don’t have funding for right now.

But to be able to show up strong, you know, the next time that kind of violence happens. And I hate to say the next time. I don’t want to bring it into existence. But it just feels like we haven’t done enough to make it stop yet.

I’m also really concerned about the LGBTQ community right now, especially the trans community. Especially trans women of color. We do have a training in that space as well. But again, I want to see it more partnered up. I want to see it funded so we can do it more than once a year, twice a year for free.

And then the third space, which is really emerging, that we’re just starting to learn more about. We don’t have a training to the full extent in this space, but is the medical space. You know, we’re seeing a tremendous amount of harassment of physicians, of nurses, of staff, of anybody who endorses science.

We’re also, of course, seeing a tremendous amount of patients not getting the care that they need or deserve. Not getting access to the care that they need or deserve. I think this is a system – it’s been very stressed over the past year. It’s a system that has not received the government support that it has needed. We don’t have national health insurance. I mean there’s a lot of things going wrong here. And that’s really showing up in terms of the ways in which people across the board are treated in that industry. And so, we’re really starting to look at that piece of the puzzle as well.

Stephanie: Yeah. I imagine things must have been really challenging under Donald Trump, in a way, who’s entire campaign has been based on hatred of anyone who’s non-white male and rich.

Emily: Yeah. I mean I think that he set a stage for a country that was emboldened to harass. I think he also validated a sense that – the sense that a lot of us already had. That that level of hate was there. You know, in a way, you know, he was sort of a flaming message that like, yes. Like you do need to be doing this because the way in which he rallied his supporters to be so hateful, to entrench this culture of hate and harassment and racism and sexism.

Like it just – he really showed us the ways in which, you know, when the people at the highest office model this behavior, people follow. On the flip side of it, wow. In a sense, it’s educational if we can just get somebody at the highest office to model what it’s like to care for one another. We’ll be making a lot of progress, you know, if you can influence people to that degree, you know, then let’s influence people in the right direction.

Let’s take this opportunity, now that we can all see it for what it really is. You know, we can see the world for what it really is. Like the past five years have been like a great reveal of the country that we actually live in. In many ways, in one of many, great reveals. But now we can’t unsee it, you know? And so, now that we see it, it’s like, okay. We got to do something about this. Like we can’t just have business as usual.

Stephanie: A friend, Paul Chappell, he does work in something called, “Peace Literacy.” He was a graduate of West Point, turned peace activist. He said people have him come and speak to their schools and they have him come in for an hour to talk about peacebuilding or nonviolence. And he said, “You know, would you teach math this way? Would you teach science this way? Where you get every student from sixth-grade to eighth-grade in one room for one hour to listen to me talk about, you know, math for everybody.”

And they’re like, “No.” But I just – I love that because this feels like essential education. I hate to be that voice, as like, “Well, the teachers need to do this.” You know, like [laughs] that’s always the answer, is like the teachers. But it just feels like a rehauling of our educational system to have these kinds of skill-building, from early childhood on, would be wonderful.

Emily: Yeah. I agree. And I think that young people are most at risk of this type of harassment. They’re the least resourced. And we’ve done, you know, a real disservice to young people by framing bullying as some sort of equal opportunity game, you know. The truth of the matter is, is that bullying is happening based on lines of power. It’s the kids that have the least money or the kids with disabilities or learning differences, or the kids who are kids of color. Yeah. The queer kids. Like, you know, those are the kids that are getting harassed. It’s not like your everyday all American white people that are the ones being bullied.

And we’ve seen so much energy and bipartisan support for initiatives that address bullying, but we’re not really addressing the true problem. And we’re not equipping kids, you know, to understand these issues. Not equipping kids to take care of one another. We’re not equipping kids to take care of themselves inside of this, right?

It’s like, “Well, this generic thing is bad. And if you experience it, you know, go to your principal’s office.” Meanwhile, your principal may hold the exact same bias as your bully.

We need all the help that we can get at Hollaback! right now in order to be able to respond to not just this moment, but what we know are going to be more moments in the future as well. And to use these moments to remind people that there’s things that they can do when they witness harassment happening. That being active and ending harassment is more than just not harassing other people. And you can join us at iHollaback.org. That’s I-H-O-L-L-A-B-A-C-K .org. And there, you can share your story of harassment. You can sign up to attend one of our next free trainings. And you can make a donation so that we can be resourced to show up into the next moment and the next moment and the next moment until there are no more moments. And then I will go to the beach. [Laughs] Have a nice margarita and write a book about how we made together no more moments of these kinds of hate and harassment.

But until then, you know, it’s not that I’ve got a lot of work to do, we’ve all got a lot of work to do. And so, whatever you can do to show up into that, you know, to help us out, to help your neighbors out is an amazing and beautiful thing.

Show transcript, captions, and sound design by Matthew Watrous.

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