Credit: Hollaback Facebook page.

In 2005, a young woman was making her way to a summer gathering on a Brooklyn rooftop when a man on the street shouted nasty, sexual comments at her. Once she safely arrived at the party, the frustrated woman vented about the experience.

Her female friends began telling similar stories. For the men who were there, the conversation was a revelation. “They had no idea this is something women faced” and decided, as a group, to do something about it, says Debjani Roy. She’s the current deputy director of Hollaback, a nonprofit founded by that co-ed group of friends in Brooklyn to give girls and women safe real-world and online spaces to talk about harassment and raise awareness.

Soon after that party, a New York City woman made headlines when she took a picture of a man who brazenly masturbated in front of her on the subway. She posted the image to online photo-sharing service Flickr, to both process her ordeal and warn other women about the man.

The two incidents made it plain as day that “there’s a bigger conversation that needs to be had” about harassment in public places, Roy says. To keep people talking, they founded Hollaback, which has created a mobile app that connect users inside a supportive online network, as well as on-the-ground programs that bring girls and women together.

The comfort and sense of community found through storytelling that fateful evening in Brooklyn has always inspired Hollaback’s work, says Roy, who joined the organization in 2012. The cofounders sought to forge “a space where women and girls could see that this is a bigger issue — to make people feel less alone.”

Starting a Movement

Hollaback first introduced itself to the world through its mobile app back in 2005. Users of the app can, in real time, share the details of an incident of harassment, including a description of the perpetrator and the location where it occurred, and receive encouragement from other users.

The service began in New York City, but it wasn’t long before folks elsewhere wanted — even needed — access. A national report commissioned by Stop Street Harassment in 2014 revealed that 65 percent of the 2,000 women who took part in its survey had experienced street harassment. Among them, 23 percent reported being touched sexually, 20 percent said they were followed, and 9 percent said they were forced to engage in nonconsensual sexual acts.

“When you’re harassed on the street, who’s impacted the most?” Roy asks. Victims are. “You hold all of that in your body — the fear and anxiety and upset — you carry it around with you. It’s a very lonely, isolating experience.”

To combat that, Hollaback designed a three-pronged approach: It’s trying to shift the cultural narrative by engaging the media, working with legislators and transit officers to make public spaces safer, and building a true movement of active local chapters that engage in protests and other actions.

Twelve years on, Hollaback has chapters in 56 cities in 31 countries and operates in 20 different languages. In all, the organization has received and shared via its app more than 10,000 reports of harassment, according to its website, and trained more than 550 people to work in-person with harassment victims via Hollaback chapters.

The organization is supported by a combination of individual donors, foundations and New York City government funding. Its five female full-time staffers, including Roy and executive director Emily May, a Hollaback cofounder, coordinate its sprawling global effort.

Addressing Harassment Everywhere

Credit: Hollaback Facebook page.

Initially, Hollaback focused on in-person street harassment, but as technology became a bigger part of everyday life, Roy says the team realized it needed to target virtual aggression as well. In January of 2016, Hollaback launched Heartmob, which seeks to “mobilize bystanders online and support people who are targeted by harassers online.”

Roy says the expanded focus is part of an overall effort to combat harassment wherever it occurs, whether in schools, chat rooms, workplaces, bars or at professional events and entertainment conferences like Comic Con.

The organization also has a school curriculum for educating girls. A 2015 study Hollaback conducted with Cornell University found that 85 percent of the 16,600 women who took part first experienced harassment before the age of 17. And within that large group, most said the first incidents happened at around 13 or 14. “As we know, that’s a very tender age, when you’re going through a lot of changes psychologically, mentally and physically,” Roy says.

The Hollaback team also seeks to support members of particularly vulnerable communities. Roy pointed out that harassment disproportionately affects women and girls of color and members of the LGBTQ community. And now, following the election of President Donald Trump, “we’re seeing spikes in xenophobia, Islamophobia” and hostility aimed at immigrant and low-income communities, she says.

Indeed, “Since the election, we’ve seen a very sharp increase in hate violence across the country,” she says — as well as a resulting increased interest from Hollaback users in being trained to be effective observers.

Doing Battle Through Discourse

Hollaback continues to develop new ways of defeating harassment through dialogue. For example, in collaboration with nonprofits The Dinner Party and Faith Matters Network, it recently launched an effort called 100 Days, 100 Dinners, which encourages folks from different walks of life to break bread and talk.

It’s the sort of conversation-focused effort that defines Hollaback’s approach to ending harassment, an approach that has garnered it numerous awards over the years.

The end goal for Hollaback is to ensure safety for girls and women, so that they can get on with creating powerful futures for themselves. “If you’re not treated with equality, with respect, then it’s much more difficult to break barriers in other realms of our lives,” Roy says.

Hollaback’s decision to focus on storytelling and driving conversations is crucial, she adds. It lets folks “say things they wish they had said,” and allows them “to take up space. It creates a feeling of empowerment, of visibility, of mattering.”