“I’d put a baby in you”

During the Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy in early May, I attended a session with the wonderful Debjani Roy of Hollaback!, a gender justice organization seeking to bring visibility to street harassment and end all harassment in person and online. We discussed the pervasiveness of street harassment around the globe and its particular prevalence in New York City, and learned strategies for both reacting to harassment targeted at us and intervening when others are harassed around us.

Like many (all?) young women, I’m no stranger to being the target of inappropriate and unwelcome attention from men. I’ve kept my head down and picked up my pace as men and boys have harassed me at various volumes and in at least a handful of languages. So I came to New York mentally prepared for a barrage of unwelcome attention, armed with headphones and a couple snappy replies. But after my first work week in the city, I was pleasantly surprised by how little harassment I had noticed. I relished in the sense of anonymity the crowded city gave me–everyone was far too busy to pay me any attention. Maybe the street harassment isn’t so widespread.

It’s no surprise that my luck didn’t last. This past Saturday afternoon, I walked a single avenue block near Times Square. In just three to four minutes, I was harassed by more than half a dozen men, some alone and some in groups. The comments were delivered casually and effortlessly, but their vulgarity left me feeling vulnerable and violated. Despite strategically planning how I would respond to such situations, all I felt capable of was lowering my gaze, speeding up my pace, and instinctively pulling my jacket tighter around my chest. How do you prepare for a stranger suddenly acting out the sex act that he would like to perform on you, as you walk down the street on a sunny afternoon?

Today over lunch, a coworker told me about a man who waits near a deli to harass her as she walks to work. He pays attention to her schedule, and has “flirted” with her nearly every day for an entire year. “I don’t usually pay these guys any mind,” she said, “but I’m starting to worry that he knows where and when I work.” As I left work today, I was met with a few harassing comments of my own. “Hey baby,” sneered a young kid, no older than 16. Less than a minute later, a slightly older boy was more explicit: “I’d put a baby in you.”

My coworker and I spend our days working at an organization that proudly asserts the humanity of all women and fights for our bodily autonomy, only to be blatantly objectified on our commutes. I wish that I could end on a more positive or empowering note, but I am frustrated that after working to take up space as a woman, a few vulgar words from a stranger can make me want to shrink myself smaller. But I am eternally thankful for the supportive communities of women that I feel safe sharing these frustrations with, and for the powerful organizations like Hollaback that are fighting this type of violence and discrimination every day. I am again reminded of women’s resilience in the face of near constant attempts at subjugation, and of the critical importance of the work of all of our partner organizations.

For Us, By Us.

Picture this. A young boy, sixth grader, at the Urban Leaders Academy weekly afterschool program led by Girls for Gender Equity. He’s hype. Running around and having a good time in the relays with his friends. Now imagine sitting him down to explain to him that he, as a male body, is an ally and takes up space in the conversation for gender equity. That he needs to check his privilege and act in a way that promotes the social equality of his female classmates.

Now consider a grown-up example. Imagine a white woman, passionate about helping survivors of sexual assault and specifically women of color. Funders hear this woman’s plea and grant her– neither a person of color nor a survivor–10 million dollars to organize for the cause. Do you see any similarity between this woman and the young boy? As you can imagine, organizers who were elected to work under this woman were able to identify the problem with this situation and made sure that someone better qualified was appointed to lead the organization.

What these two situations have in common is that they explore organizing spaces and the role of allies. A major critique of specific organizing efforts led by allies is that they pursue issues in communities that they know little about without consulting the members of those communities and without regarding the organizing work that is already being done. (See: “Solidarity Not Charity”) Consideration of the community voices and leadership from within groups who face oppression is the most effective way to impact change, as the needs of the community become the focus of the work. Furthermore, the most empowering thing you can do for a community is to support and uplift people that are accountable to those communities, have been on the ground, and understand the issues through experience.

Girls for Gender Equity captures this idea of “for us, by us”. The organization was started by a woman of color and has evolved as a grassroots organization that is led by
people across the spectrum of race, sex, gender, and class as they serve communities that capture these similar demographics. Representation people!!! It’s so important.

In addition to representation within the infrastructures of school and state, GGE programs work to empower and uplift young people as leaders and organizers in their own communities. I saw this in two key programs. Sisters in Strength is a two-year high-school women’s cohort that explores organizing and activism. Young Women’s Advisory Council is another group of young people that work on policy and meet with lawmakers to both voice their concerns and to learn the how to affect change through legislation. I think it is phenomenal to see women of color working to better the experiences for women of color. For us, by us. And from the bottom up, empowerment for some of us is empowerment for all. F.U.B.U.

Just a Bandaid?

I have to admit, I started Saturday morning with a pretty sad attitude as I sat in the rain in Central Park, waiting for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, curled up in as tight a ball as ever.

Image result for misery in the rain

Luckily the sun came out, and after a short dance party we all were in much better moods.

As part of our seminar, the group began to discuss one of our assigned texts for the week: “To Render Ourselves Visible: Women of Color Organizing & Hurricane Katrina” written by Alisa Bierria and Mayaba Liebenthal (2007). This essay criticized the work of several organizations that came to New Orleans to help after Katrina. As the authors explain, many non-local organizations tended to address surface level issues present as a result of Hurricane Katrina (for example, domestic violence), but failed to address the poverty that was present before and continued after the hurricane. Poverty, they argue, plays a major role in the intensification of gender violence that occurs in the wake of natural disasters. As Bierra and Liebenthal explain, “cramped living conditions (families housed in small travel trailers, or in overcrowded homes and shelters) and high stress situations increase the prevalence of domestic violence” (Bierra and Liebenthal, 2007). By failing to address the underlying poverty at play, organizations are positioned to make little significant change, if not do harm themselves.

Image result for ignorance

Reflecting on this, I began to wonder whether Sanctuary for Families (SFF) is also set up to simply put a “bandaid” on the issue of domestic violence, without addressing the issue of poverty that can lead to such violence. Upon further consideration, I realized that many of SFF’s programs may appear to solely address the aftermath of poverty (i.e. domestic violence), such as SFF’s housing, legal services, and child care programs, but these programs, in combination with SFF’s new Economic Empowerment Program (EEP), allow Sanctuary to help women already affected by violence and prevent future violence.

EEP gives women the tools to be financially and economically independent, helping  address the issue of poverty and break the cycle of violence. Not only can poverty lead to situations in which gender violence is more common, female poverty in particular can make it extremely hard for a victim to leave her abuser, who she may depend on financially. I think EEP is a very valuable program that is complimented by the other services offered at SFF.

Image result for female independence meme

I am excited to learn more about the different programs that SFF offers and how these programs work towards ending domestic violence by attacking its roots and addressing the current needs of domestic violence survivors.

Expectations vs Reality

7:00 AM          Wake up energized

7:15AM           Go to the gym yay fitness

8:00AM           Head back to the dorm and get ready for the day

8:45AM           Breakfast time!!!

9:15AM           Go to GGE

12:00PM         Eat yummy lunch

6:00PM            Time to go home

7:00PM            Cook dinner and eat

8:00PM            Do Moxie Readings

9:30PM            Hang out with friends

11:00PM          Get ready for bed

This looks like a pretty productive day right? Work out in the morning. Check. cook all three meals. Check. Work on interesting projects at work. Check. Finish Moxie readings early. Check. I mean my mom would be impressed considering I spent the last two weeks watching TV and eating out back home. If you believed that this is how my first week of Moxie went, then you have been fooled. My day actually turned out like this…

8:20AM           Wake up tired and never made it to the gym

8:25AM           Get ready for work slowly

8:50AM           Munch on cereal

9:15AM           Rush out the door to go to work

12:00PM         Eat salad because I was too tired to cook the previous night

3:00PM            Tired… tired… tired…

6:00PM            En route to head back to the dorm

7:00PM            Too tired to cook so snacking on frozen mangos

8:00PM            Too exhausted to socialize

9:00PM            Get in bed

Adjusting to a ten to six schedule while recovering from a 12-hour jetlag, I’ve never felt this tired before. I come to realize real life is so much harder than college. There are no midday naps, no food points to eat in dining halls, and no work out sessions in the middle of the day. After a 40-minute commute home from work, I have to cook my own dinner, clean up, and run other errands.

Despite how tired I felt all week, I am so grateful and excited to work at GGE this summer! Even though I’ve only been at GGE for a week, I witnessed the impact GGE has on the lives of young women of color. At the graduation of Sisters in Strength–a two-year program that provides 15 young women of color education sessions on gender-based violence while equipping them with the skills to confront individual and institutional discrimination–I saw a roomful of confident, intelligent young women with big dreams. The love and support they have for each other filled up the space.

So, while living in New York might be harder than I anticipated, I love the city and the work I’m doing. I can’t wait to see what comes next!