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Second-Ever City Council Hearing on Street Harassment

| November 13, 2013

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Hollaback! Philly Director Rochelle Keyhan Testifies at the Philadelphia City Council Hearing

Last week, in an ornate chamber at Philadelphia City Hall, nine women shared their stories and concerns about gender-based street harassment. It was the second city council hearing ever to take place on the topic in the United States. New York City held the first hearing in 2010.

“[Harassers] in South Philly have followed, screamed, cornered, and threatened me to the point where I am forced to face life and death decisions on a weekly basis; it makes me want to not leave the house,” Sarah MM (a pseudonym) said during her testimony. “Most importantly, if I can't go out without being harassed, what is the point in going out at all? There isn't one.”

Katie Monroe, another woman who testified, runs a Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia program called Women Bike PHL. She shared her stories and those of other women cyclists, ranging from mild but annoying comments such as “Can I get a ride?” and “I wish I were that bike seat,” to sexually threatening language and being followed.

As part of her job, Monroe promotes bicycling as a form of active transportation. "Street harassment is a really relevant issue within the bicycling community,” she told me. “On a regular basis, women I know make transportation decisions based on harassment, and sometimes it causes them not to bicycle or walk places.”

Jordan Gwendolyn Davis, a transgender activist, recounted some of the sexually explicit and transphobic slurs people have made to her, and told how men have slapped her, stalked her, rubbed against her inappropriately, and threatened her. As a self-identified transgender, disabled lesbian and low-income woman, she told me she doesn’t “fit the narrative frame” typically heard around the issue of street harassment, yet it is a regular problem for her, too, which is why she wanted to testify.

The hearing occurred at the request of the anti-street harassment group Hollaback! Philly after Councilmember James Kenney asked them via Twitter what he could do to help them address the problem of street harassment in the city.

During the hearing, Hollaback! Philly’s director, Rochelle Keyhan, detailed the findings of the group’s new community survey to further illustrate the problem. Of the 416 respondents, 93% said they had experienced street harassment in Philadelphia in the last year.

She also showed a video clip of teenage girls sharing their street harassment stories, since they could not attend the hearings due to school. Hollaback! Philly and FAAN Mail, a media literacy and activism group, made the film with the girls during a workshop for buildOn’s Alternative Spring Break. It illustrated how young the girls are when they start to experience street harassment.

During the hearing, Hollaback! Philly requested that the city council help conduct community safety audits in every part of the city. These audits, designed by the Toronto-based antiviolence group METRAC (Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children), empower groups of citizens to evaluate safety in their neighborhoods and make collective recommendations for change. Keyhan sees the audit as a complementary tool to Hollaback! Philly’s efforts to collect stories online and raise awareness about street harassment through workshops because “it would validate the stories we’ve collected and give measurable ways to show something needs to be done.”

To ensure diversity among audit volunteers, Hollaback! Philly wants help from the city council in making connections with a variety of community groups and churches. Keyhan told me another reason why she wants the Council involved is because “it’s an issue the city should be doing something about.”

During the hearing, the four male council members in attendance agreed. “This is something that Philadelphia needs to do. We need to set a tone on our streets that women are to be respected and that they are not to be approached in any violent way,” Kenney said.

For decades, street harassment has been dismissed by persons in power and the general public as being a compliment, no big deal, or “just the way things are,” so to have these leaders recognize it as a serious problem is an important sign of progress.

Following the hearing, Kenney met with the women who testified and pledged it was not “a one and done day,” but that he was committed to collaborating with them. “I want women to know that we on the city council know it’s a quality of life issue,” he told me in an interview. “Changing the norm to make street harassment unacceptable may take a generation worth of work, but it’s worth it.”

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