Social Action

Role Models: Emily May of Hollaback

 Welcome! Today is the start of my series interviewing a new generation of role models. I will be profiling people from all over the world. They will share their stories  about the amazing actions they are taking to create positive change or break barriers of prejudice to succeed. I am so excited to share these amazing role models. You will learn about what it takes to break barriers of prejudice and create positive change in your own community. Every week new interviews will be posted and eventually all the interviews will become a book.  The book will be free to read on, freely available as a PDF, and for sale as a soft cover that can be given to someone who needs a little inspiration. Let’s Begin~

Emily May is the Executive director of Hollaback and if you are a woman you should definitely know who she is. Emily and her friends(both women and men) started Hollback to create a worldwide community support system so people can stop the street harassment of women and girls. She is a role model because she is taking what seems like a problem that can’t be fixed and is fixing it.  For someone like me who walks and takes public transportation just about every day, harassment is an annoying, unwanted part of my life. Men  and even boys will creep up close to me with some disgusting comment, drive up and proposition me,  or yell “hey baby” at me from across the street. At first the harassment made me nervous so I just pretended to ignore it, but after a while it pissed me off. So now I stand my ground.  I don’t smile or say please. I just tell them to leave me alone.  It may not work every time, but I feel good speaking up for myself. It also feels great knowing that there are thousands of people out there who will stand up with me. Hollaback encourages women to take a photo or video of the harasser(s) and post it online. It’s also really funny watching the videos of these men who in one moment have no problem being loud pushy jerks suddenly get all shades of shy.

What was your inspiration or what necessitated you to begin this adventure?
I started the journey to end street harassment when I was 24 years old. My friends and I — four woman and three men — were sitting on a roof deck in Brooklyn, when the women started talking about the crap men said to us on the street.  My friend Samuel Carter – who grew up in the same town as me and went to the same college with me, said quite bluntly, “Emily, you live in a different NYC than I do.”  And we resolved to change that. It was 2005 and we’d recently heard the story of Thao Nyugen, a young woman who was riding the NYC subway when an older man sat down across from her and began to masturbate.  She pulled out her newfangled cell phone camera — because remember, this was 2005 — and took his picture so that she would have evidence to give to the police. But when Thao showed the photo to the police, they dismissed her and her story. They didn’t take the photo as evidence, and they didn’t file a report. What Thao did next was a game-changer.  She put that photo up on flickr, where her story quickly went viral. It made it to the front cover of the NY Daily News and ignited a citywide conversation about public masturbation.  It felt like everyone either had a story or they knew someone who did. My boss at the time had seen that exact guy masturbating on the subway. We inspired by Thao’s story. So we logically did what any other twenty-something would do in 2005: we decided to start a blog.  We named it Hollaback, and we documented stories and photos of street harassment in New York City.
What steps did you take to create your program?  Our little bog struck a nerve. Almost immediately after launching we were overwhelmed with requests from activists wanting to bring Hollaback to their town.  So, in 2010, I applied to 8 foundations and 2 fellowships. I was rejected from all of them. And so, with no promise of an income, I took the leap, left my job, and built wings on the way down. Today, I am proud to announce we have scaled our work to over 60 cities in 20 countries and in 12 different languages —- and now we’re expanding to address sexual harassment on college campuses too.
What obstacles were you forced to overcome?For the first six months, I shot up out of bed at 6 a.m. and worked straight until midnight. To save money, I ate mostly dried beans. I gained ten pounds. I barely saw my friends – or the light of day. At my worst moments, it was an obsession. At my best, it was a calling.

All I knew was that I had to make this happen. And I did. In those first six months, we launched iPhone and Droids apps to give people a real-time response to street harassment, and a new website to house local sites; and began working with the New York City Council on ways to address street harassment.

What must you do to stay operational? We’re in over 60 cities, but we only have two full time staff. To keep this movement moving, we need to build additional capacity. Support us by donating or becoming a member:
Who, if anyone, helped you succeed? So, so, many people.  My mother, who raised me with courage and confidence. My small but mighty staff, who make this organization what it is. Our site leaders, who keep this movement moving internationally. Our donors, without which we wouldn’t be here today. Our volunteers, who give over a half million a year in in-kind services.  Our board, who goes above and beyond to keep us on track. The list could go on forever.
Do you have any advice for readers who want to get involved or start a similar program? If you want to start a Hollaback site, check out our website for details! It’s a free, three month on-line training a planning process — but the result is world-changing.
And if you’re looking at starting your own venture, my best advice is surround yourself with people who believe in what you’re trying to do.  This includes volunteers, a board, and friends for sure — but it also includes a supportive partner.  It’s a hard road, and there will be times when you’ll need to come home and cuddle it out.  Having a supportive partner in my life has made all the difference.   …This interview is from a  book that includes 15 other amazing people who are creating positive change. You can read the full book and buy a copy for you or your school at

9 thoughts on “Role Models: Emily May of Hollaback”

  1. this is great, totally fantastic! You are so energised by your projects still. You are an inspiration, more inspiring over time.



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