Spotlight On: Holly Kearl

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Meet Holly Kearl, one of the hardest working women in the fight against gender-based violence. She is the founder of Stop Street Harassment, has authored two books, and is a consultant for organizations like UN Women. Here, she talks about her passion for fighting street harassment, the MJIA and UN Women’s Safe Cities Global Initiative. Enjoy!

What was your inspiration for making street harassment a focal point of your life’s work?

I started off simply researching and writing about the issue for my master’s thesis in 2007 and that was in part because of the impact the issue had in my life, especially while I was in college and graduate school. I didn’t intend to do more with this issue, but because so few people had researched it at that point, I received media requests, including from CNN in 2008. Women started e-mailing me with their stories. It made me realize how much more dialogue was needed on this issue and that perhaps I could help make that happen with what I’d learned from my thesis work.

Around that time, I noticed that an anti-street harassment website I liked the best was gone, so that’s why I started www.StopStreetHarassment.org. My parents encouraged me to write a book since there are almost no books on the subject. I did and it came out with Praeger Publishers in 2010. So in both instances, I was simply filling voids I saw.

Up until early 2011, I had mostly been documenting people’s stories and the growing swell of activism, but as I heard more and more stories and realized how much this issue limits people’s access to public spaces – making it a human rights violation – I decided to take a more active role.  I’ve been involved in many activism campaigns and initiatives since then – including getting the Metro in Washington, D.C. to launch a system-wide anti-harassment campaign, and last year I got 501c3 status for Stop Street Harassment and run many programs through it.

My continued inspiration for this work comes from the stories and emails I receive daily from women and men all over the world who are upset, scared and angry about street harassment, and from those who write to let me know how much SSH has helped them. Similarly, I’ve given more than 100 talks from Alaska to India and have connected with so many women who inspire me to keep speaking out. On a personal level, each time I’m harassed, it’s more fuel. I want to be safe in public spaces, too.

There seems to be an uptick in efforts to combat street harassment, or at the very least, these efforts have gained more public visibility. What accounts for this?

The Internet has played a big role. There have always been pockets of resistance to street harassment—there’s documentation of it from at least the late 1880s—but the Internet allows us to amplify our resistance, learn from each other, and work together across the nation and the world. That is powerful.

Also, thanks to online platforms, people can more easily discover that they’re not alone in dealing with this issue and realize it’s not happening to them because of anything they’ve said or done, and that realization makes people more able to speak out and take a stand against it. Online platforms like Twitter and Tumblr make it really easy for people to quickly share stories and then those stories spread and can inspire other forms of activism and resistance.

One of your areas of expertise includes military sexual assault. How do you interpret the Senate’s failure to vote on MJIA and what message do you think this sends?

There are now 53 senators who support MJIA and groups like Service Women’s Action Network are urging the senate to take it up again on Dec. 9. They are very close to having enough support to pass it. I still hope it might pass.

While I can’t imagine any senators are not supporting it because they are pro-rape, it’s likely that most who are not supporting are in favor of keeping the military hierarchy and chain of command in place, despite the way it makes sexual assault worse. I hope those senators will decide to listen to survivors and advocates over the primarily white, male, privileged military leaders… in this instance, it’s the experiences and advice of survivors and advocates that should have more weight.

You’re currently a consultant for UN Women, working on their Safe Cities Global Initiative. Can you tell us about this project?

I’m a consultant for a specific project funded by Microsoft. We’re investigating if women and girls in low-income areas in three countries have access to mobile technology and if so, what kinds. We’re also examining if/how they use mobile technology to prevent, document, and respond to sexual violence in public spaces/street harassment. The findings will inform future mobile phone initiatives.

Who is your number one feminist role model?

Oh I could never pick one! But one of my top role models is Anita Hill. I had the honor of meeting her and hearing her speak in 2011 during events marking the 20th anniversary of the then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas’ Senate confirmation hearings. For anyone who hasn’t watched a recording of that hearing and her testimony, I highly recommend it. She was so smart, articulate, and cool under pressure as she shared her upsetting experiences of sexual harassment by Thomas on national television, while having to face a panel of hostile and often disrespectful white men. Her bravery to speak openly about her experiences allowed women all over the nation to share theirs. She changed how we think about and treat sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace. She changed the nation. And she led the way for my activism on the issue of street harassment.

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