Emily May Rockstar Of “Activist Fairytale” Hollaback! – Fighting Street Harassment
When I first met the incredibly badass Emily May, she had just quit her day job to focus completely on Hollaback!, her then fledgling website that focuses on fighting street harassment. She was working in her apartment in Brooklyn, kept company by her cats and dreaming of the day when Hollaback! would be the go-to site for people enlisted in the daily battle against the sexual violence that is catcalls and wolf whistles (and groping, and flashing, and all kinds of other invasive behavior).
The idea is pretty simple, at its basic level. When women (or men, though it is less common for men) are faced with harassment in the street, they’re encouraged to go online and share their story. If they have a camera on their phone and feel like they can do it safely, Hollaback! also encourages photos of the harassers to go along with the story and the location of the incident. Through this collection of stories, Hollaback! is building a community of people online and off who are supporting each other and standing up to say that street harassment is not okay.
Now, two years later, Emily May and Hollaback! are well on their way toward seeing that vision become a reality. The CDC just released a report saying that street harassment is the number one form of sexual violence against men and women in the United States; legislation addressing street harassment is being passed in New York City and across the world; and Hollaback! itself has expanded (and continues to expand) internationally.
Emily May took a break from a frustrating, hot NYC summer day at the end of a week where her internet kept crapping out and nothing seemed to be going right to chat with me about why Hollaback! is definitely a startup, continuous crowdfunding, and balancing the business/activist aspect of running a nonprofit website.
Do you have an office now?
Yeah, we do! It’s happening. I’m at an actual desk! Look, there’s a desk! (Laughs)
Are you in Brooklyn still or have you moved?
We’re on 3rd Ave and Atlantic. We’ve actually been here for over a year but we’ve only been in this office for about two months. We were downstairs before in a tiny office where we’d all sit at one big table and stare at each other all day long. Which was a little unpleasant…
And who is “we” these days? I take it it’s not just your cats who are you coworkers anymore?
No we have a bunch of interns and I’m rehiring a Deputy Director, which I’m super-stoked about.
Would you consider Hollaback to be a startup?
Yeah, totally. It’s more of a startup than it is a nonprofit, I think. Startup is such a specific thing. It is everything, all the time, moving in all directions. It’s bringing something from nothing into the world. It’s like a birth; it’s like a pregnancy. (Laughs) I feel like I’m pregnant!
I actually think of Hollaback as being birthed at this point and more like being a two year old, a toddler, that just kind of runs around all the time.
And gets in your way and breaks your internet…
Sticks it’s fingers in the electrical sockets and breaks everything and has all the energy and all the cuteness and everyone loves it but it’s secretly kind of a pain in the ass.
You’ve had some pretty massive growth the past year, right?
Well I’ve been doing it full time now for two years. We started launching sites internationally in January 2011 and in the past year and half we’ve launched 50 in 17 different countries and 11 different languages. We’re launching another 6 at the end of August so it’s been pretty awesome.
Now the question is not just how do we launch these sites, but how do we keep them sustainable… We’re about to release this report that looks at some of the on the ground activism. We’re pretty deliberate about making sure that they’re doing on the ground activism to pair it with the online activism, so that it’s not just a website. We want them to really mobilize it so they get this message to their communities in the way that they see fit, so we’re really proud of the work that they’ve done.
The tech element of Hollaback has really evolved since you started, am I right?
It’s gone from being like, “We’re gonna launch some apps! That would be awesome!” to being a full-scale movement that keeps moving and growing and exploding… It’s been a wild trajectory in a very short period of time.
I think Hollaback has always been an activist fairytale but now that it’s legitimate, it’s more of an activist fairytale than it’s ever been.
One of the things we’re always looking at is how people monetize their websites. You’re working full-time, so this is your job, so clearly you’re making some money.
We’re about half funded by foundations and half funded by individual donors. It’s a nonprofit in that sense. There’s no pay for service type model that we’re using for the website.
We have a quarter million dollar budget right now, which is kind of exciting.
Has it been difficult balancing the activist/idealist side of Hollaback and the need to support yourself?
You know what, it’s been… Yeah. Our challenge is that we have such an atypical model. We don’t easily fit in the frameworks of foundations. They’re like, “What are you?” and we’re like, “We’re a movement.” Are you an advocacy organization? Kind of. Are you a youth organization? Kind of. Are you a feminist organization? Kind of.
What we’ve seen is that the feminist sphere and the women funders are enthusiastic about the fact that we’re young and we’re spunky and we’re addressing street harassment. They totally get that but they don’t understand the online movement building model that we’ve developed.
On the flip side of that, what we see from the social entrepreneurship funders is that they love the model that we’ve developed, the love the scaleability of it, the energy, the branding. They don’t understand street harassment. It’s a male-dominated sector and they don’t think that street harassment exists or if it does exist that it’s not a substantial problem. They’re sort of at the place where if street harassment was a substantial problem then they would already know about. And we’re like, “That’s the point, that’s what we’re already doing!”
That’s really the challenge. The upshot is that individuals really get us but our target audience is young folks. Most of our donations are ten dollar donations, which is awesome because it means we’re speaking to our target audience, but it’s also challenging to have things like staff and offices and computers. It took a lot of ten dollar donations to build up that. That’s the challenge behind what we’re doing.
It’s almost like crowdfunding.
It is, but it’s ongoing crowdfunding, which is the challenge to it. We’re not just crowdfunding one project, one time. We’re trying to crowdfund the longevity of an organization, which is a lot of crowdfunding.
I’m gonna ask you one more question and then I’ll let you go. Where do you see Hollaback going in the next year?
In the next year we’re going to expand our site internationally. We’re going to deepen the work that we’re doing in communities internationally. We’re going to create and provide a lot more resources for the sites so that they have the energy and the know-how to keep moving in the direction they’re moving.
We’re also broadly going to be doing more though-leadership around street harassment. We’re coming out with more research and more informational material for folks who are interested in addressing street harassment.
It’s gonna be a pretty great year, I think. I think this next year is really about taking the energy and the work that we’ve cultivated over the past few years and deepening that.