Ami Wazlawik and Hollaback! Twin Cities Changemakers: Hollering back at street harassment - an international movement brought to Minnesota
"If we could get to a point where all girls and women felt empowered to speak their minds on a regular basis, I would die a happy feminist." - Ami Wazlawik
by Shannon Drury
Street harassment, that unwanted public attention that can range from wolf whistles and sexual remarks to flashing and groping, isn't new - but there's a new tool available to combat it, one that's already in your pocket.
It's your smartphone, and with the help of the website Hollaback! Twin Cities, it can empower anyone and everyone in our community to take a stand for public safety.
Ami Wazlawik, director of Hollaback! Twin Cities, is responsible for importing this social media phenomenon to Minnesota. Inspired by a New York subway rider whose photograph of a flasher led to the flasher's arrest, Hollaback! intends to shine a light on harassers with photos, written accounts and interactive maps documenting incident locations. Since its inception in 2005, Hollaback! has grown to include 64 cities and 22 countries, all run by local activists dedicated to making public spaces safe for everyone.
While a student at the University of Minnesota, Wazlawik interned at the campus Aurora Center for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. There, she remembers making "the connection between street harassment and other forms of violence against women and GLBT people." After doing some research, she learned about the Hollaback! movement and its mission.
"I was already involved in anti-violence and advocacy work and saw Hollaback! as an extension of that work," she said.
Wazlawik and a small group of activists rolled out the Hollaback! Twin Cities website in December 2011. Today, a visitor to the site can submit a story, search for resources, learn how to confront harassment safely and see a picture uploaded by "Isabel" of a man who grabbed her dress on a Metro Transit bus.
Wazlawik acknowledged that the Hollaback! attitude can be a hard sell in the land of Minnesota Nice, where even positive confrontation is discouraged. She said she also recognizes that more than a few women consider lewd comments simply an annoying part of life - or even somehow flattering.
"I like to point out that a lot of people who 'compliment' women on the street get seriously angry, even threatening, when they don't get a response," Wazlawik said. A person looking to express appreciation "would simply brush off any reactions, or nonreactions, and not get angry," she said.
"I like to ask women how the harassment makes them feel," she said, "and if they've ever made changes to their lives - changed their routes, dressed differently - to deal with the harassment." If the attention were so flattering, Wazlawik asked, why would people take pains to avoid experiencing it?
Hollaback!'s goal, she said, is for the public to recognize street harassment as part of "a continuum of violence" against women and GLBT people that includes sexual assault and homicide.
Despite Hollaback!'s defiant attitude, Wazlawik said she believes that "however someone decides to react to street harassment is OK, whether that's screaming, flipping the bird or silently seething."
The Hollaback! movement, she said, doesn't assume to define someone's experience for them; rather, it offers an opportunity for community members to share in a safe place and to know that their feelings are validated.
"I think that personal connection - allowing time and space for women to reflect on their own experiences with harassment - can be really powerful," she said.
And potentially transformative: "If we could get to a point where all girls and women felt empowered to speak their minds on a regular basis," said Wazlawik, "I would die a happy feminist."
BE A CHANGEMAKER:
To get involved: Visit twincities.ihollaback.org and click on the "Share Your Story" tab, where you can upload photos, videos and/or stories of street harassment experiences. On the "I've Got Your Back" tab, allies can learn strategies and resources "to be actively and visibly intolerant of street harassment."
Hollaback! Twin Cities is on the lookout for volunteers, especially those interested in doing blogging, website design or event planning. Wazlawik is also available to speak to groups about Hollaback! and its mission.