Advocate fights to end street harassment through local non-profit

Brittany Oliver had her first encounter with street harassment on an MTA bus.

While commuting to class at CCBC Dundalk, a man walked to the back of the bus where she was seated, sat next to her, and asked where she was going.

“He said that he caught the bus often and had never seen me before,” Oliver said. “I was just looking at him and I’m like, ‘Who are you? I don’t have to answer these questions. Who are you?’”

When she got off at her bus stop, the man followed her—and continued following her—across campus and halfway to her class. Oliver said she called her mom, and walked with her on the phone, while the incident took place.

“That was one of the many instances that gave me the motivation to say, you know what, I have do something about this and I’m not afraid to say something,” she said.

Community in Crisis: Violence Against Woman airs Thursday at 7 p.m. on ABC2 News. 

Three months later, Oliver enrolled at Towson University to pursue a degree in mass communication, and became a volunteer with the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, a national non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment for women and LGBTQ individuals.

She started out writing blog posts and attending events for the group, and assumed the role of co-director just last year. She envisions using her new platform as way to include women of color in the ongoing discussion about street harassment and gender-based violence.

“I felt like being involved would give me a way to start doing more with connecting to black women,” Oliver said. “Accepting the position as co-director allowed me to finally take up some space and to be a voice for myself, because if I’m not in the room, who’s going to speak for me?”

Hollaback! Baltimore has been in existence since 2011, with participation open to anyone in the area. Baltimore resident Shawna Potter founded the local chapter of a national movement that sparked recent dialogue around catcalling experienced by women and LGBTQ individuals on the street.

Oliver, who also works at the ACLU, says Hollaback! Baltimore is the only organization of its kind in the area that specifically addresses street harassment, an issue she says stems from a much larger cultural breakdown.

“Sexual assault, sexual harassment, abuse, trauma, all of those things are pieces to a larger puzzle of institutionalized sexism and just a broader issue in our society,” she said. “Street harassment is not the only problem, there are other issues that are just as important, but it’s a piece to a puzzle.”

It’s a puzzle piece that Oliver says connects to other community-wide ills, including the numerous reports of police aggression in recent months.

“What people fail to understand is that when you’re talking about police brutality and police harassment, we get stories from women and genderqueer folks who get harassed by the police. That’s street harassment and that is still connected to the larger issue of gender-based violence,” she said.

Hollaback! connects people in more than 50 cities and 20 countries globally through a free smartphone app and website that allows users to document and share instances of street harassment. The app also features a map outlining harassment “hotspots” in cities, creating an online community that shows victims they’re not alone. Locally, the group holds monthly coffee chats to connect supporters, and trains local business owners and their staff on how to identify harassment through a program called “Safer Spaces.” Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse and Joe Squared, both Station North staples in Baltimore, are program participants.

The group is also initiating a men’s caucus and is preparing for an Anti-Street Harassment Week rally on Saturday, April 16, marking a yearly celebration of the anti-street harassment movement with activities and events taking place across the nation.

It’s the type of collective action that motivates Oliver to help amplify the voices of people just like her, those who have experienced instances of harassment, so that one day the only calls heard in the street are calls for change.

“We just want to keep being loud about it and growing. The more people that we have involved, the better we can speak up about the issues,” she said. 

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