I Wanted To See Change Happen, Says “Stop Street Harassment” Founder
Holly Kearl is the founder of Stop Street Harassment and International Anti-Street Harassment Week. She’s authored three books and authored or co-authored four national studies in the USA on sexual harassment issues. She’s written more than 90 articles for outlets including New York Times, Guardian, Washington Post and CNN. Her work and research have been covered hundreds of times by media outlets, including on TV segments with The Today Show, AP News, NowThis and BBC World News. She has consulted for entities like UN Women, USAID, Lyft, Google, Runner’s World. She works as a community manager at the Aspen Institute.
How would you describe yourself?
A feminist activist, skilled researcher, passionate yet analytical writer, long-distance runner, devoted new mother and loyal friend.
You are an activist and author. Can you explain how you chose this career path?
I grew up with a sister who had a lot of disabilities and advocating for her rights and needs and seeing my parents do the same instilled in me a lifelong desire to help create a more equal and just world. I loved writing growing up and won awards for several of my pieces of writing in school. Later, in my 20s, I became an activist and writer on sexual violence issues because of the experiences of my relatives, friends and myself. I wanted to see change happen and realized my skills in research and writing could be useful toward that goal.
You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
I draw strength from my family and spouse, who always have my back, encourage me and believe in me. I also draw strength from knowing there are injustices out there that I can help fix. For instance, I was always scared of public speaking growing up, but when I saw that it was a way to reach a lot of people and inform them about issues like street harassment, I took a public speaking class and volunteered for small opportunities to speak until I became more comfortable with it. In the last nine years, I’ve given about 150 talks, including at UN conferences in India, Turkey, Mexico and Ecuador.
I became an activist and writer on sexual violence issues because of the experiences of my relatives, friends and myself. I wanted to see change happen and realized my skills in research and writing could be useful toward that goal.
What excites you when you wake up every morning?
The chance to spend time on work that brings meaning to my life as well as getting to spend time with my toddler and family.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
I’ve been part of an advisory group for seven years for our local Metro system and have helped them address sexual harassment on their system, which impacts millions of people’s lives. My books, research and writing are used by journalists, researchers and lawmakers all over the world to educate them on the issue, to help them persuade others to take action and to support concrete outcomes, like new laws.
My first book helped inform the creation of and launch of UN Women’s program on safe cities in 2010.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
A lot of the activist work, all of the research and most of the writing that I do is unpaid, so there have been many times when I’ve had to find and juggle various part-time jobs to pay the bills. Sometimes it’s frustrating to put so much of my time, heart and energy into activism work that won’t sustain me, won’t pay me, doesn’t give me sick leave or maternity leave and so I have to stretch myself thin to make ends meet. So there are times when I do less of it so I can focus on making and saving more money or focus on my family, etc. And there are other times when I can put more effort into activism. I’ve also learned I have to be more selective about what projects I focus on, such as prioritizing efforts and writing articles that will reach thousands and maybe millions of people instead of all the requests I get to help students with their school papers, which only helps them get a good grade.
I try to take a global lens in the research, writing and activism that I undertake. I know that there are people in other parts of the world whom I can learn from and that collaborations can make our efforts stronger.
How do you manage self care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
I am adamant about going running and walking my dogs each day. Getting out in nature and having time to myself to clear my head and push my body helps replenish me. Meeting with friends and spending time watching comedies with my spouse each week also helps me re-charge.
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
Yes, I try to take a global lens in the research, writing and activism that I undertake. I know that there are people in other parts of the world whom I can learn from and that collaborations can make our efforts stronger. In 2011, I founded International Anti-Street Harassment Week so that groups all over the world could speak out and take action at the same time each year and that’s been a really powerful event and way to connect globally.
What is the advice you would give your 16 year old self?
You’re on the right path to the life you want to live. Don’t be deterred by people who may try to tell you otherwise or don’t believe in you or understand you. Trust yourself and keep moving forward.
What are three values you think are most important for a global leader?
Compassion for others, a willingness to be open and listen to others, and creativity to think about how people from different parts of the world can connect and relate.
What’s next for Holly?
Right now, a lot of my extra time I used to spend on activism is focused on helping my toddler through several health issues and hospitalizations. Once he is healthier, I hope to figure out what’s next! One thing that’s on my mind is doing more research and writing about disabilities issues, particularly sexual assault of persons with disabilities.