by Alice Wilder
Ten girls are in the center of the room in a tight circle. Hannah, who is facilitating this activity, takes out a slip of paper and reads, “Step in the circle if you’ve cried this week.” Everyone steps inside the circle: the seven girls of Youth Against Rape Culture (YARC) and their three adult mentors, Rachel, Nicole and Abbie. “We should have a group hug to celebrate that we’ve all cried this week but we’re all still here.” The circle tightens, and the group hugs in silence for a minute.
YARC is part of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center (OCRCC) and this group of girls, along with their adult mentors, recently founded a Chapel Hill/Durham chapter of Hollaback! Hollaback! is a rad organization focused around ending street harassment worldwide. I’ve been wanting to live somewhere with a Hollaback! chapter for a long time, so naturally I was excited that Chapel Hill was starting a chapter–then I heard that the founders were a group of teenage girls. I got even more excited and knew I had to meet the girls making moves in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. This is a college town, so there’s activism everywhere, and I love that–but Hollaback is special. They’re young women who could be spending their evenings studying and relaxing with their friends, but instead decide to drive to the rape crisis center to work against street harassment.
I attended a meeting of YARC to witness the greatness of young feminists in action. The first part of their meeting is “special time,” where they do activities like “step in the circle” or “would you rather.” Nicole said that “special time” is activist work, even if it might not look that way from the outside: “Each meeting we get together we do an activity that involves affirming one another and building connections and community.” Nicole added that self-care and community building is at the heart of all activism, and that’s what special time is to her.
When special time is over, things kick into gear. “The first thing we need to talk about is the School to Prison Pipeline film screening,” says, Hannah, one of the facilitators. Conversation bounces from Historic Thousands on Jones Street to Zerlina Maxwell to whether school will be cancelled because of the snow.
The group started work on their Hollaback! chapter this fall and have already launched a full website. Kayla, 17, of Chapel Hill High School, said that she was initially ambivalent about Hollaback! until she got to know the organization better. “I hadn’t realized how much street harassment is a problem,” she explained, but the group’s intersectional approach to harassment–examining street harassment as an issue that affects everyone differently according to their identities–helped her to understand how widespread the issue really is.
The leadership team behind YARC makes a concerted effort to teach all of the girls to look at issues intersectionally. Nicole explained that often, “people come into the understanding of feminism in tiers–we’ll think about how feminism applies to white women and then maybe in a couple years someone will check me and I’ll breach the class thing–but to have women really young thinking about this in an intersectional way right off the bat cuts to the chase. That’s really difficult because everyone in the group except for myself and another person all identify as white… but right now I’m working on facilitating a workshop in a couple weeks around “how do we reach out to people who don’t look like us, and what are the insecurities behind that?” It’s always difficult to have that conversation when there’s still a majority white presence in the room but I think we’ve been really good about it.”
Hannah said that looking at street harassment through an intersectional lens added to her enthusiasm about the cause. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that making women, girls, LGBTQ individuals, racial minorities, making them feel uncomfortable on the streets, that’s a form of oppression, that’s a form of violence towards those people. So once it was put in that framework it was really easy to latch onto that issue. It’s not so large that we feel it’s impossible to tackle, we truly feel that ending street harassment in Chapel Hill could be a reality.”
Outside of the group the girls are working on projects within their own high schools and using their influence to teach peers about harassment and gender based violence. They’re organizing events within their respective schools for sexual assault awareness month. Between bites of Chinese food and fits of laughter they plan for the coming months, not just for Hollaback! but for NC activist groups all over the state.
Governor Pat McCrory isn’t paying attention to much of anything that’s going on in North Carolina, but he should be paying attention to the Hollaback! girls. They’re representative of all the young activists in the state who put organizing for justice ahead of going to parties or spending lazy days at home. The group is not explicitly anti-NC GOP, but if I were Pat, I’d be watching and preparing for what this group of teenage girls will accomplish next.