SAFER: NYC (Street Action For Equality & Respect) is a fresh voice in the movement against street harassment. Co-founded by real-life partners Julia Nethero and Joseph Fan, their non-profit organization fosters a somewhat unorthodox approach to combating street harassment, a controversial and seemingly ubiquitous aspect of modern life: by the inclusion of men. We had a moment to sit down with Julia for a WildSpice exclusive and discuss SAFER’s mission, ambitions, and the struggles of trying to make the world a safer place. Check it out.
Julia, what is SAFER: NYC all about?
SAFER: NYC’s mission is to engage men to end street harassment. We feel it’s really important to engage men in the movement, because there’s no one else doing that currently; and so there’s a need for that in the market. And also, since street harassment generally is done by men, we feel that men need to part of the solution, or else street harassment will never change.
Tell us a little about yourself. What inspired you to create SAFER: NYC?
I’m a graduate student at Columbia University at the School of International & Public Affairs, getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, studying development and gender. So gender’s been a passion of mine for my whole life, pretty much. My parents are involved in women’s empowerment work: they actually owned women’s lingerie stores for the first 25 years of my life—so pretty much my whole life, I’m 26 now—and, as part of their stores, it was all about empowering women, and making them feel better about their bodies, and improving women’s self-esteem.
Then when I got to Vassar College, I started taking more classes on Women’s Studies, incorporating Women’s studies into all of my courses (and papers where I had choices on my topics). And then I went to China after graduating and studied women’s political empowerment in China—and I speak Chinese, so that was a really great combination of my two passions.
Also, my whole life, I’ve experienced street harassment, since the age of about 13. I grew up in Atlanta, GA; and Atlanta’s a really interesting city. There’s not a lot of public spaces where people walk around, it’s pretty much a driving city; but even still, in the suburbs—you know, the fairly wealthy, not-so-diverse suburbs—I still experienced a lot of harassment as a teenager; and that had a huge impact on me. And then when I moved to New York in 2014, to actually live here full time and work, I was really struck by how much harassment was occurring.
I was constantly complaining about [the harassment] to my boyfriend [Joseph Fan], and telling him, “You know I just feel so powerless when this happens, I don’t know how to react…do I ignore them? Do I yell at them? Do I pretend I don’t hear them?” I just didn’t know what to do. And so finally he said, “Let’s just do something about this. Stop complaining… let’s make something happen here!”
So, we started talking about different ideas of what we could do; and we were inspired by a lot of the other media around street harassment that was happening in 2014, here in New York—Hollaback had a big video that had a couple million views, I think. And so from there, we decided to make a really great video to start the conversation, and we wanted to do something different, that was really inclusive of men, of all kinds of men, of diverse communities and backgrounds; different ages, socio-economic backgrounds, races, ethnicity, immigrants…all kinds of people. And that’s when we decided we wanted to form SAFER: NYC.
It originally started as a video and print ad project. I started it in a course with the organization Landmark—I was in a course called “The Self Expression and Leadership” program. In that course, everyone is challenged to create a community project; and that’s when I decided to make these video and print ads that really spoke to men; and the messaging was really talking to men, a lot around the idea of: “Would you want someone to say that to your daughter? Would you say that to your daughter? To your mother? To your sister? To your aunt? To your grandmother?” Because, you know, almost every man who engages in this kind of behavior has some woman in their life that they care about. Of course, we also recognize that’s it’s not just women that experience street harassment: you know, a lot of LGBT peoples—also other men— experience harassment from other men, and you know, from some women; but we choose to mostly focus on men who are harassing women and LGBT people. So that’s how we got started.
Prior to SAFER: NYC, did you have any other background in social activism?
Yeah, I would say so. In high school I was in Model UN, and that was my first exposure to international political movements. Also, in high school I campaigned for Obama in 2008, and that was you know a really exciting time, you know, the youth movement. Then, in college, I was involved in a couple different organizations. The one I was most involved in, probably, would be ACT OUT, which is an LGBT activist group at [Vassar College]; and I went to DC with them, and participated in a marriage equality march. I lobbied on two or three separate occasions with my reps in GA, in favor of a couple different LGBT rights bills— one was on anti-bullying, another was related to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (this was back in 2010 or so, when we were doing this work).
Then, I was on a Fulbright scholarship in China, after graduation, and that was all focused on women’s political empowerment and NGOs in China. And so I got really involved in the NGO-scene in China, which is pretty controversial and politically sensitive: [the political sensitivity] limited my research a lot, but I really came to understand what it takes—in certain parts of the world, where that activism isn’t supported and is really tightly controlled—you really have to put yourself on the line when you’re doing that.
What are you working on right now? What kind of initiatives is SAFER: NYC working on currently?
So, we had our comedy show in November, which was pretty exciting. It was our first, kind of “Hello World, We exist”-kind event/launch for us; and also it was a great fundraiser for our research, which is our big project right now. We’re conducting [an] eight-month-long research project around trying to understand what goes on in people’s heads when they harass. What are they trying to get out of the interaction? You know, it’s not a phone number—I think most men know that they’re not going to get a phone number from yelling at someone on the street. So what are they trying to get out of it? Is it masculinity-building with their peers? Are they just bored, and they want to talk to somebody who’s walking by? Is it some kind of masculinity power play over public spaces? (A lot of feminist theory talks about that: that the public space is the male space, and the private space is the female space.) So we really just want to understand, what is it that people are thinking when they do this? And that is an entryway into how we can, then, change that, and end street harassment. We’re really excited about this research.
Our first stage was participant observation studies, where we had different volunteers going out on the street, and either kind of [offer] themselves up as a target of harassment and record their experiences, or watch other harassment happening, so we can get a better understanding of what’s really happening on the streets, rather than just relying on our personal experiences (which could be pretty biased). And our second stage is focus groups, which we’re in now: we’re having focus groups with 5-10 men of different backgrounds and diversity; and we want to have anywhere from 5-10 focus groups, also. So we’ll be contacting anywhere from 25-50 men to have these conversations. Again, we aren’t focusing on trying to find men who actually engage in harassment, because (as a I mentioned), that’s actually really difficult to identify. From there we’d like to do some interviews one-on-one with people—maybe from the focus groups, but it could also be different men, as well—who are really eager to share and talk, and share their perspectives.
We have another event coming up in February that we’re really excited about: it’s gong to be a performance series, where we’ll have both open mic [contributors] and artists who are going to be sharing their experiences around street harassment to promote more awareness, education— and we can record this and hopefully reuse the content in other ways to reach a larger audience than just those who attend the event. So those are the big things we’re working on right now.
What would you say is the biggest obstacle to spreading awareness around street harassment?
We had our comedy show in November and we have the performance/poetry/story event coming up in February; and one of the challenges in having these really great events that have so much knowledge to share, is getting that out to the people who are actually perpetrating street harassment. It’s really difficult because people don’t self-identify as street harassers. They might not see what they’re doing as harassment, they might see it as complimenting, or just chatting with people on the street—when the victim might see it otherwise. And so, it’s really difficult to connect with these people, to really talk to them about street harassment, to educate them. So, we’ve chosen not to try and identify these people…because it’s kind of an impossible task.
We have an adviser, Michael Kimmel, from the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stonybrook University, who does a lot of work on engaging men in gender inequality issues. He said that he feels it’s not necessary to target only one male audience that’s engaging in harassment, but actually [it] is a great conversation to have with all men, and really everyone in society…because everyone’s going to benefit from, you know, a more gender-equal society.
What do you find is really the most helpful to raising awareness on this issue?
I find that [street harassment] is a real universal issue that [women] can relate to. Almost every woman I talk to has a story about street harassment, has some kind of really moving (and sometimes upsetting) personal experience with it. So […] that’s why I find it so powerful to focus on the story of what’s happening with these women, and connecting that to men who have these women in their lives. Because if almost every woman has this story, then almost every man is going to know a woman with this kind of story—some of those men are going to be harassers, and some of those are going to be people who actually want to be involved and actually be allies in the movement to end street harassment.
So, we also really want to focus on those men who want to be involved—like yourself, like Joseph, like [Social Media Director, Connor Martini]—because we want it to be an inclusive movement. And what allies can do is also something we’re kind of trying to figure out: what kind of actions we feel comfortable promoting, for people to take. Obviously, we want everyone to be safe, and so we don’t want to prompt people to intervene in situations where there could be some risk to them—but we’d love to empower more male allies, as well.
Speaking of male allies, the co-founder of SAFER: NYC is your partner, Joseph. How is it working with your partner, having that male figure in your life supporting this type of endeavor?
It’s really great. Joseph was really the catalyst for this happening, because I would not have taken it on without his support. Initially this was a really overwhelming thing—I’ve never run an organization before, or even a wide-scale project. I have no experience in media or art, so when we first took this on as a video and print project, I knew that I was going to need a lot of support, so having somebody else to be my right-hand man in the beginning was really, really helpful. Joseph has a law degree and also a business undergrad degree, so he’s much more familiar with the business side, finances, legal structure, which was really important when we then decided to found SAFER: NYC as an organization (we’re incorporated in NY). So, that was really great to have his support.
But also, as a man, to have his input is really useful, because…some things I don’t take a critical eye to, when they’re in the world of gender equality, because I immediately want to support it (because it’s the same message, same mission, as what I’m all about). So, having his perspective is really useful, because he sees things I don’t see in a lot of these videos that go viral online, or articles: because I [might] see this as “Great, this is advancing the mission,” and he might hear something in it different, as really alienating men, or blaming men; and that is not the message we want to send at all. So, having him as a co-founder—to serve as kind of a check on that, and make sure that the messaging we have is really engaging—is so important. And to be working with my partner is really awesome. It’s a whole new way for us to build our relationship together, which is really cool.
Right on. Speaking of the broader anti-street harassment movement: what would you say sets SAFER: NYC apart from other sister organizations?
So what’s really unique about SAFER: NYC, is that we actually focus on men and engaging men. A lot of other organizations are doing really wonderful and powerful work around providing a space for women to share their stories and for victims of harassment to share their stories. You know, Hollaback has a really great app, where people can actually tag where they’ve been harassed and share their stories online, and other people can have discussion around that. Stop Street Harassment (SSH) is another great ally in this movement, and they do a lot of research on street harassment, which is so necessary and important for creating new programs and any kind of policy change that we would want to [have] happen.
But none of these organizations are really working with men. And if men are the people who are mostly perpetrating this problem, they also need to be part of the solution. Having women share their stories is really important for these victims to deal with what’s happened to them, but to really advance the movement we feel we have to have a broader and more inclusive reach and audience.
In what ways, if at all, are you intending to collaborate with other organizations?
So, we totally recognize that we are a new organization, and that there’s so much out there that’s already out there being done; and so we don’t want to duplicate efforts. Hollaback and SSH, both their founders—Emily Mae and Holly Kearl —have been really helpful and supportive of our founding, and of me, in terms of getting connected with other people in the movement, so that’s been really great. And [it is] really great to know that everyone working in this field is all focused around the mission, and it’s not a competition of which organization is doing what, and that kind of the thing.
In the future, there’s always a rally that happens in April—it’s International Anti Street Harassment Month— so we know other organizations will be organizing events then, so we’d love to work with them for that. We also explored working with SSH on some of our ads, and we chose not to continue with that because we both have a little bit different focus and messaging. But it was really great to have their input and support in that. And we’re open to other collaborations in the future—maybe through research, since we have a big research project going [on] right now. SSH—their expertise is in research, so that’s another great area we could look into collaboration.
Do you see SAFER: NYC expanding to other cities?
We would love to expand to other cities. We’d love to see SAFER: DC, SAFER: ATL, SAFER: LA, SAFER: SAN FRAN…obviously we want to have a strong model here in New York before we expand. A couple things we’ve been thinking about, going forward is—as I said we did create some PSA ads, print ads, for NYC subways, but there’s other ways we could expand that in the future. We also have considered doing a college chapter kind of model, where SAFER: NYC could actually be on college campuses; and so college students could get involved making their campuses safer and free of street harassment. That would be a pretty great way to expand, because that model’s pretty well–established. And we definitely would like to expand in the future to other cities. Hollaback has expanded to, I think, over a hundred cities internationally, so that’s another great model to look at.
You mentioned that videos can be very effective in spreading awareness. In your videos most recently, as well as at the stand-up event a couple months ago, comedy played a large part in your messaging. How does comedy help SAFER: NYC achieve its mission?
We feel that comedy is a way to make street harassment an approachable topic for men to discuss and have a conversation about. Since our audience is men, we’ve been looking into different entry points into how to have this conversation about what’s generally a pretty uncomfortable topic for men to talk about. [Comedy] is a very safe space—because you know, we’re joking and laughing about it, but we can still talk about serious issues inside of comedy.
Comedy would serve as just the starting point, and from there we’d love to have deeper and more serious conversations about the problems of street harassment and how we can actually fix it; but we feel that comedy is a great way to get people engaged, especially in the beginning. And I think it’s a great way to differentiate ourselves from other organizations that tend to have a more serious attitude and tone in their messaging. We want to make SAFER: NYC an organization that people feel really comfortable talking to, an organization that is welcoming of all kinds of people, and we feel that comedy is a great way for us to establish that in our early years.
What do you think our readers can do to help SAFER: NYC achieve its mission to end street harassment?
We’d love to have many people coming to our event next month—you know if readers of Wildspice Mag would love to attend, that would be really wonderful to share that. We are always looking for donations to support our research and operating costs—we are entirely self-funded right now, so more donations in the future would really help us expand and take on new and exciting projects. Once we finish our research, we want to then use that research to, of course, make more powerful and effective programs, and so we’ll need to find new funding sources for that.
Also, just having conversations with people in your life about street harassment, and sharing your stories with, you know, your girlfriends, your boyfriends, everybody...just having that conversation and promoting more awareness amongst everyone in your life.
For more updates from SAFER: NYC and information, you can go to www.safernyc.org, or follow SAFER on
Facebook @ www.facebook.com/safernyc/
Twitter at @SAFERNYC
Ricky Rose is Editor & Marketing Fellow of Wildspice Magazine. Ricky is an actor, singer, musician, and photographer on the journey of self-realization. His multivalent approach to expressing his version of the human condition questions the collective consciousness of this generation. Ricky currently resides in his hometown of New York City, and eagerly anticipates reaching the bottom of the rabbit hole.