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Catcalls of NYC (Sophie Sandberg): Combating Street harassment & Diminishing Gender-based Violence

Camila C. | March 13, 2021

Sophie Sandberg created "Catcalls of New York City" and "Chalk Back" to advocate to stop gender-based harassment and violence along with combatting street harassment. Sophie talks with ORENDA MEDIA about not only what inspired her to create the two groups, but her aims to create a community in solidarity with those who are affected, growing the platforms, and her cyberstalking experience.

What inspired you to start “Catcalls of New York City”? Growing up in New York City, I began facing street harassment in middle school. The comments about my appearance made me extremely self-conscious. I could never respond to the objectifying words which made me feel continually silenced. As I got older, I was struck by the connections between these words and larger issues: gender-based attitudes, safety, and comfort in public spaces. These experiences drastically affected my day-to-day life, and yet they were often belittled as “just words” or “no big deal.” After my first catcalling experience, my dad suggested I dress differently to avoid unwanted attention. My work is inspired by the feeling of helplessness that resulted from this situation. I want others facing harassment to take action, reclaim the streets, and not question for a second whether it was their fault. I believe that everyone deserves to walk down the street free from harassment. What is the best part about the platform and community you created?

The best part of the platform and community I've created (both Catcalls of NYC locally and Chalk Back globally) is the sense of solidarity with girls, women, and gender minorities around the world. Catcalls of NYC is a team of more than 30 volunteers in NYC, chalking and advocating for those who face harassment. We receive hundreds of stories on the Instagram page, and so many people thank us for the work we do. It is amazing to be able to provide support and show up for people facing harassment. Globally, the young people who run catcalls pages around the world lift each other up and encourage each other to continue advocating for others. It is an extremely supportive and powerful community. What is your ultimate goal? The ultimate goal is to end street harassment and all forms of gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence. This is going to take a long time since it requires changing deeply rooted societal norms. The goals in the meantime are to change the culture of gender-based harassment that exists globally. We do this by raising awareness and educating many on the issue. We want people who don't face harassment to understand the scope of this problem. We want people who do face harassment to understand that it is not normal and not okay and give them a platform to speak up about it.

How will you continue to grow your platform?

Our platform continues to grow organically as more people find our chalk in public spaces and find us on Instagram. We will also continue to grow the platform by speaking to high school and middle school students about Catcalls of NYC and Chalk Back. I am also working with the Catcalls of NYC and Chalk Back team to grow our presence on other social media platforms like TikTok. Was there ever a time you wanted to give up on your platform? How did you overcome this? For almost the past 3 years when running Catcalls of NYC, I have been facing persistent cyberstalking from an individual who[m] I don't know. This behavior has made it hard to persevere at times. I have wanted to be less public on social media to protect myself from this person. However, at the end of the day, the fact that I have been dealing with this only makes me want to continue this project more and create a platform for more people to discuss the harassment and abuse they face on and offline.

What is the process that goes into your chalk submissions?

We receive many DM submissions on Catcalls of NYC and put them into a spreadsheet based on where they happened. Then, they are distributed to the catcalls of NYC volunteers based on where they are able to chalk. We get to all the stories that are submitted to us as quickly and efficiently as possible. And we try to write them as close to where they happened as possible.

What is some advice you’d like to give to young survivors who are ready to tell their stories?

Sharing your story is an extremely brave and valuable thing to do. Take your time with it and do it when you feel ready. But when you are ready, sharing your story will have an impact on many other people. It might inspire someone else to come forward with their own story. It might make someone feel less alone.

Who is your creative inspiration?

I have many creative inspirations, including the other young activists who run "Catcalls of" accounts in places around the world. I am also inspired by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and her public art project Stop Telling Women to Smile.

Do you have any other projects coming up in regards to advocacy? Within Catcalls of NYC and Chalk Back we are always planning more projects in regards to advocacy. For International Women's Day, we are going to share more about what we have accomplished in the last year and how we have continued to be resilient in our activism. For International Anti Street Harassment week in April, we are going to bring people together for a digital community event and cover more public spaces around the world with chalk.

What is something you wish you knew before you started “Cat Calls Of New York City”?

I wish I knew it was okay to upset people. When I first started the project, I was so nervous that passersby would reprimand me for writing these words on the street, or claim that I was doing something wrong. Now, after running the project for almost 5 years, I am no longer worried about what people will think when I'm out chalking. Part of the point of the project is about people getting upset and being shocked by these words and experiences. I'm no longer afraid of upsetting people.

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