Young Women in Brooklyn Fight For Respect

A group of young Brooklyn women grew tired of being sexually propositioned by men on their city's streets. They funneled their frustration into creating Girls for Gender Equity, an anti-harassment street campaign. Two members of the group talk about the purpose behind their work, captured in the documentary Hey Shorty.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we're going to switch gears and talk about something that's a big problem for some girls and women as they go about their daily lives. It's the verbal air pollution. You know what we're talking about? The name calling, the sexual remarks as women just try to go about their business. Well, a group of young women in Brooklyn decided they were tired of it, and they decided to fight back. As part of a group called Girls for Gender Equity, they started a campaign to raise awareness. They produced a short documentary, "Hey Shorty," about their experiences on the streets of Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hey Shorty")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Yo, shorty, shorty, shorty.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Child: Shorty (unintelligible). They a girl, yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: They try to grab our hand.

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: I just saying nothing to disrespect (unintelligible). Yo, yo…

Unidentified Woman #1: Impolite, disrespectful, ill-mannered.

Unidentified Man #3: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Joining us now to talk about that campaign is Joanne Smith. She's the founder of Girls for Gender Equity, a community group that promotes self-esteem among girls. Also with us is Latasha Belton(ph). She's an intern with the group and helped produced "Hey Shorty." They join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Ladies, welcome.

Ms. JOANNE SMITH (Founder, Executive Director, Girls for Gender Equity): Hi, Michel. Thank you.

Ms. LATASHA BELTON (Intern, Girls for Gender Equity; Producer, "Hey Shorty"): Hi, how are you?

MARTIN: Great. What made you think about this street harassment campaign? Because I have to tell you, I'm sure there's a lot of women and girls listening to this or people listening to this think, well, that's just normal. So what made you think you could stop it, or at least build a campaign around it?

Ms. BELTON: Well, actually, building the campaign about street harassment was an idea taken from the interns ourselves. We sat around a round table on the first day of work, and we decided what topic can we focus on that would bring about the most change and the most point of views? And we all got this street harassment everyday as a part of our so-called natural lives. And we all thought that it really wasn't natural, so this is something we had to focus on.

MARTIN: When you talk about street harassment, what are you talking about?

Ms. BELTON: We're talking about when men, boys of all ages constantly try to get us to talk to them, give out our numbers, any type of advancement that we don't like and they keep on doing it. That's what street harassment is for us.

MARTIN: You're 17 years old now, Latasha. Is that right?

Ms. BELTON: Yes, I am.

MARTIN: Do you remember when you first started encountering this or experiencing this?

Ms. BELTON: Actually yes, I was with my mother, so it wasn't as outright as it is now. I was probably about 12 or 13 years old, and I was with my mother and I felt the eyes looking and saw the men staring, but they wouldn't say anything because I was with an older woman. And as I've grown up and I started to go on the streets by myself, that's when men had actually started approaching me and talking to me and even grabbing my hands.

MARTIN: Joanne, Latasha talked about men, so are we talking about men doing this, or are we talking about teenage boys doing this?

Ms. SMITH: We're talking about both. We're talking about male aggressive behavior and just like women get street harassed from the time that they're 12, boys start from the time that they're 10, 11, 12.

MARTIN: Does it still happen to you, Joanne?

Ms. SMITH: Of course. Everyday.

MARTIN: What is it that you find most offensive about it?

Ms. SMITH: I think the most offensive thing about street harassment is that it's along the lines of violence against women and the spectrum of violence against women. So, it's something that's frightening. It's disrespectful, and we don't like it. One important thing that I want you to know about this campaign is that we know that all men don't street harass. We just want the men who do street harass women to take responsibility for their actions.

MARTIN: Latasha, a number of the young women in the documentary talked about not just being verbally abused, but getting - had a - physically attacked from men who want to talk to them if they don't want to - if the women don't respond. We even have a clip from the film. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hey Shorty")

Unidentified Woman #2: I had (unintelligible) when they, you know, when you know (unintelligible). I have, you know, had - he was pulling on my arms. I've been pushed, shoved. I think what (unintelligible) another girl (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #3: I'm walking down the street, and some guys in the car are talking to me. And because I didn't want to talk to him, he just threw a bottle at me.

MARTIN: Joanne, what do you think this is about? What do you think they catcalling and all of this is about?

Ms. SMITH: I think it's a power dynamic. Most of the times, the men knows you're not going to respond or how you're going to respond, and they do it anyway to impress their friends. They think that it's a normal part of, I guess, initiation into manhood. They know that we're frightened by it. They know that we won't say certain things. I really think it's a power dynamic.

MARTIN: Latasha, what about you? What do you find most upsetting about it or most offensive about it?

Ms. BELTON: What I find most offensive about it is the way they react to our reactions. Whether I give them a no thank you or whether I'm quiet, the reactions from the males is always violent, always threatening, always rude and disrespectful. I have never once had gotten an okay, I'm sorry, miss, or okay, you have a nice day. It has always been something rude about my personality or my behavior.

MARTIN: So, you know, it's interesting, because I think that this goes back so deep - in fact, these are famous photograph. It's an iconographic photograph in black and white. I remember I'm a photographer dating from the '40s of a woman in Italy who's walking pass a group of men who are ogling her, you know, not enough - it doesn't appear to be a hostile way. They should have smiles or leers in her face, and she looks very intimidated and not at all sort of pleased by that. I think - I don't know, I guess, Joanne, I want to ask, do you think most men take this seriously or understand how upsetting this is to women?

Ms. SMITH: No. They don't see it as an issue. They see it us as complaining, and they see it as being (censoring) if we don't accept it, if we don't respond with a smile and a nod. They don't realize that when we go out at night, during the day, the first thing we see is can we run in these shoes? The first thing you look for is our keys to hold our hands in certain ways that we have some line of defense, especially if we're about to walk pass a group of men and you can't cross the street.

MARTIN: Well, but wait a minute. Are you suggesting that men - I can understand why it's like verbally, you know, the kind of catcalls and so forth like that, but is the physical piece always a part of it? Or are you just saying that feels like part of a continuum? You feel like you might be physically assaulted.

Ms. SMITH: Exactly. It's a hostile environment created, and we're forced to be silent because we fear that they'll retaliate. And we're forced to alter our behavior due to fear and cross the street if we have to.

MARTIN: You're listening to TELL ME MORE, and we're talking about girls and young women fighting back against street harassment. With us are Joanne Smith and Latasha Belton from a group Girls for Gender Equity.

Joanne, it makes me wonder whether maybe a better group to work might be boys and men.

Ms. SMITH: I think so, too. I think more onus needs to be on the perpetuators, and we really need to understand why some men don't do it and some men do. And some men can't control themselves when they do see a women scantily dressed, walking down the street, and some men can. There seems to be a conversation that definitely includes boys and men.

MARTIN: You know, that raises a question for me, though, is do you think that some women enjoy it - girls, some girls enjoy it? The attention.

Ms. SMITH: I think as a false sense of self-esteem, a false sense of being validated. I think that they're definitely deficits in some girl's lives and some men's lives and some boy's lives where they feel like this makes them feel better to hear catcalls, to catcall.

MARTIN: Well, okay. But you're putting an interpretation on it. You're sort of assigning it a certain motivation. But the fact is, you know, we are part of a culture now where some women - girls - are very overt about their sexuality. We see a lot of this in - you know, I hate to keep bringing up the old ever-present, you know, cultural trope, the music videos - but what are music videos but scantily-clad girls being ogled, sometimes touched, by men, right? And they're voluntarily, one would assume. And I just wonder whether this is sort of a part of a culture dynamic that suggests that women like this.

Ms. BELTON: Well, as a 17-year-old who watches these music videos and has friends who do like the attention and friends who don't like the attention, I'd like to say that as females, we understand the difference between these women. My question is, as males, why can't they understand? There's a certain vibe that you give off - a certain walk, a certain confidence that you have. If you're a female that likes and respects this attention from men, as well as there's a certain vibe that you get off if you don't want the attention from men. And men either pick up on which women they want to talk to.

MARTIN: Joanne, one of the things we hear from men in the documentary is that what you are calling it street harassment. They say…

(Soundbite of movie, "Hey Shorty")

Unidentified Man #4: There's a lot of black young women disrespect (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #5: Females walking in the street with a short dress on and a halter top (unintelligible) shirt, (unintelligible), with short dresses and stuff on. Man.

Unidentified Man #4: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #5: (unintelligible) They're going to treat you like (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Can you offer, Joanne, any guidance girls for how they might carry themselves in the street to handle this? You can't pepper spray everybody who speaks to you inappropriately. Do you have any thoughts about how you can handle it in a way that preserves your own dignity?

Ms. SMITH: Sure. In mentoring other women, one of the things that we teach our girls is that it's not your fault, and that you don't have to accept this as a way of life. We help the girls to be more assertive, to follow their gut instinct. So they feel like they need to cross the street rather than pass a group of guys that's standing there, that they know what behavior to expect to go ahead and do that, to be proactive and to think ahead. It's about self-preservation at times. So at times, you have to put yourself in a situation that's safer, even if it causes you to go out of your way.

MARTIN: You know, it's so interesting we're having this conversation, because when I was a White House correspondent and my office was across this park, and I didn't stay at the White House all day just because working conditions there were very crowded, and I would go back and forth to my office. And one day, I was standing on the edge of this park, Farragut Square Park - well known to anybody who works in Washington, lives in Washington.

And I was standing there for apparently some few minutes before some male colleagues of mine observed me and were laughing. And they were saying did you forget the way to the White House? Why are you standing here? And I said, I'm looking for the path of least harassment. And they said, what do you mean? And I said, I just don't feel like hearing it today. I'm just debating with my self whether I'm going to go straight through the park…

Ms. SMITH: Exactly.

MARTIN: …and listen to all that mess or I'm going walk around it, because it's 90 degrees and I'm hot. And they, to their credit, kind of embarrassed because they don't even noticed that this went on and they said, we'll walk with you, which they did. But it's just, I don't know. It's a kind of thing - I don't know. Well, good luck to you.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Joanne Smith is the founder and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity. And Latasha Belton is an intern with that program. They joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thank you, ladies.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. BELTON: Thank you.

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