Interview Date: 9 March 2015
Name and Bio:
At the time of our interview, Melanie Keller, 27, had only recently moved to Austria to become an au pair. Prior to that she has worked professionally as a crisis counsellor for Baltimore City and Washington DC, and an advocate for victim’s trauma. She is a graduate of gender studies, linguistics and Spanish.
When She First Heard About Hollaback!
Melanie first of heard of Hollaback! during her college degree, around a time when she was taking courses on gender studies as well as experiencing street harassment on a regular basis. As she recalls, this all happened around the time when Hollaback! was just ‘kicking up some momentum.’ She became involved a few years later after a friend persuaded her to become involved.
Involvement with Campaigns:
As stated above, Melanie’s involvement with Hollaback! Baltimore started through her friend and co-director, Shawna Potter. She started as a volunteer in 2011- 2012 and with time ended sharing the workload with as co- directors.
Although Hollaback! Baltimore hasn’t attracted a lot of press coverage, it is popular on social media with over a thousand followers on Facebook and lots of traffic on Twitter. They participate in hashtags such as Stop Street Harassment, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, End Street Harassment and other local Baltimore conversations. The goal is visibility and connections. At the same time very important to Hollaback! Baltimore is to combine feminism activism and racial justice activism.
Hollaback! Baltimore created a programme called “Safer Spaces” programme, specifically aimed towards creating safe spaces for women and LGBTQ. With the programme, participating venues such as coffee shops and bars sign a pledge, which commits them to providing spaces free from harassment. In signing up to the pledge, staff are provided a 90 minute training session on how to identify and challenge harassment they might encounter, and create spaces safe for everyone. As part of their participation, venues can display a Safer Spaces sign, so members of the public know they will be welcome and safe there.
When asked about her feminist identity, Melanie shared that she started identifying as one in her third year of college. However, as she recounts, although this is when she adopted the label, she realised ‘oh, yeah, I’ve been a feminist all along.’
When asked if Hollaback! Baltimore labels itself as a feminist organisation, she just ‘assumes everyone knows that we are.’
Overall experience with Hollaback!:
Melanie’s experience with Hollaback! Baltimore has been “a grounding and learning experience.”
“And working with Hollaback! and meeting all these people, and talking to all these women and queer folks, and hearing all these stores and doing all this extra research and all this stuff, has really been so validating in so many different ways and given me much more empowerment than I could have gotten on my own. And yeah, I just feel like I’m a much, much stronger person.”
Trolling and strategies:
Although Melanie hasn’t personally experienced trolling, the organisation has been the target of trolling from the TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) community which she says is ‘fucking strong’ in the city. Common attacks are that the organisers are ‘not really feminists,’ and other derogatory insults. When sharing how she dealt with such abuse, Melanie stated there was one anti-trans troll in particular woman they reported. Aside from this one particular troll, Melanie notes Hollaback! Baltimore hasn’t attracted much, likely because don’t have a high profile in the mainstream media.
Self- care strategies:
Melanie feels like her skin is “translucent” when it comes to dealing with everyday Hollaback! activities. She does stress that coping skills are required because not every day is the same: “there are days when it really, really gets to me, and there are days when I’m okay”, she says. It can be quite difficult when doing the workshops but she finds it easier working with her friend Shawna and going through this together. The two of them always stress self-care, mental and emotional health. She finds talking to other people, reading and art as the most appropriate self- care strategies for her.
On discussing the ‘waves’ of feminism:
“Maybe it’s because what would a fifth wave be? I don’t even know yet. And, like, each wave has been better and more inclusive, but at this point I’m, like, why do we need waves to…I don't know. I identify as a feminist and I definitely come post third wave, but perhaps we’re in the fourth wave but I’m not really sure. I guess that will be clearer in a few years when something happens to delineate the next wave, and then, you're, like, oh, yeah, now we're in this fourth wave now.”
On self-care strategies:
“Talking to other people really helps me work through my thoughts and my feelings. That’s my biggest way of dealing with stuff. But a lot of the stuff I can’t talk about because it’s all confidential. So reading about everything, poetry or reading from authors who have gone through similar stuff. Or reading the works of intersectional feminists, or poetry from…like Dark Matter, the Trans Women of Colour, or Trans People of Colour, really helps me. Because a lot of those emotions that are really difficult to conceptualise are articulated really well by these artists, and it really makes me feel a lot better.”
On the impact the movement has had on her:
“I feel like I was a small seedling of myself when I first came to Hollaback! three years ago. And now I’ve sprouted and I’m like a stronger little sprout […] I feel so much healthier, I feel so much stronger and I feel so much more confident in my own feelings.”
On the distinction between on/offline activism:
“Well, I think, to be honest, that question is misworded perhaps. Because I don’t think you can have online activism properly, without an offline foundation. And I think that it’s very clear when things are explicitly online because for me, they seem kind of hollow sometimes, or the perspectives and the analyses are really one dimensional. So Hollaback!, yeah, the main tenet is an online blog, but that online blog is filled with stories that actually happen on the physical street in the physical world. And physical people are telling those stories. So it just can’t happen without offline activism.”
On the ways online spaces are particularly important for marginalised people:
“[W]hat I love about online activism is that it’s created…people who have been historically marginalised have been able to create our own space and dictate our own rules for how we want to share our stories and what we want to say. And that is so invaluable…. I know specifically for Twitter, I’ve found such a great community of women of colour activists that I had never encountered before.
When thinking about the identifies of our participants, Melanie was one of the few BAME women that we interviewed for this project, and perhaps unsurprisingly, talked about the importance of intersectional perspectives. Melanie, and Hollaback! Baltimore, in particular paid a lot of attention not just to the ways women are harassed, but the ways this harassment intersects with other identities. Melanie also notes the ways social media can be particularly important spaces for traditionally marginalized voices and communities. However, we discovered when analysing the contributions to the Hollaback! site, it is difficult to tease out markers of identity, due to the anonymity of the web. As researchers, we are caught between assuming posters are white, middle-class, able bodied, and heterosexual, unless otherwise noted, while at the same time acknowledging that offline inequalities which often privilege the voices of a few, are reproduced in online spaces. Thus, these digital feminist spaces present a challenge for researchers who would like to take more intersectional approach in their work, but are constrained by the platform affordances and vernaculars which make various identities hidden.