Brianne Nadeau is a member of the D.C. city council representing Ward 1, which includes Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and parts of Shaw among other neighborhoods. Over the past year, Councilmember Nadeau has spearheaded efforts to address widespread street harassment throughout the District and today she joins me to discuss her work and the issues affecting residents of the nation’s capital.
David Newstead: Last December, you pushed for a roundtable on street harassment in D.C. What motivated you?
Brianne Nadeau: When I first moved to the District of Columbia, I started getting involved in groups that were working to address street harassment. It was not my first time living in a city, but it was definitely my first time experiencing street harassment with the frequency that I did. And so, I sought out a community for that.
When I came to the city council, I realized that I could bring a new focus to this issue and bring more attention to it. Working with CASS and working with other community organizations that care about violence against women, we got the roundtable scheduled.
The roundtable was a big victory, but it is really only the beginning.
DN: Did any of the experiences people shared at the roundtable make an impression on you?
BN: Yes. I was actually brought to tears several times during that discussion. I think partially because I could relate to the stories, but also the stories about how young the girls or the women had been when their harassment began really moved me. We had a mother and daughter come testify. And the daughter is in school in D.C. and she was talking about the way she’s been harassed as a young girl. A lot of the women told stories about being harassed as young as age twelve. And the reason that was so moving to me is that it really makes me think about the spaces that we’re creating in our community or not creating in our community. For a young person, I want to be able to protect you and keep you safe and also let you be who you are. And a lot of times when we’re being harassed in public – women – we shrink. We make ourselves smaller. We try to not be seen. And that’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been trying to teach women all these years. Which is, you should shine. You should exert yourself. You should be heard. So, it’s really a mixed message.
DN: If you’re comfortable talking about it, what’s been your experience with street harassment?
BN: I’ve had several incidents. I shared a couple of them in the hearing. One was a time when I was walking to work down U Street near where I live and I was professionally dressed. I was just passing by a corner that I would always go by on my commute. This was in the morning before work on a weekday. And a man was just harassing me and I said “You know, I don’t appreciate that.” And he said “Well if you don’t want to be harassed, why do you dress like that?!” Which was strange to me. I mean, it was rude and inappropriate, but also I was dressed in a suit. So, what does like that mean? Right? What is the definition?
I’ve had countless experiences where I’ve just been walking up and down 14th Street. I sometimes describe it as the gauntlet and I pretty much assume if I’m doing that route that I’m going to be harassed on one side of the block or the other.
But since the roundtable hearing, I had one other incident that I’ve been sharing quite a bit, because really it’s the intersection of my world. So, I was up on 16th Street in Ward 4 in a fairly residential area and I was there for an event. So, I was walking down to the school up there. And as I was walking down 16th Street, a municipal vehicle passed me and a municipal worker in uniform on duty started harassing me. I was wearing a red dress, so he started off with “Hey, lady in red!” And I shook my head at him as he passed by and they stopped at a light. So, there he was. I’m walking and he has full access to me, because he’s stopped and he just keeps harassing me. And I think I said, “You know I’m sure you don’t mean it, but this is not something that we all appreciate. It’s not appropriate. Please stop.”
I said “Please stop” several times and he kept at it. I can’t even remember now what he said, but it was something like “Enjoy it” or whatever. Totally demeaning, but I had to keep going to my event. As I was walking, I typed a message to the director of that agency explaining what had happened. The director immediately responded and acknowledged that it was not appropriate, that it was not acceptable, and that it was not what those staff are trained to do. Of course, they are trained not to do that. And that the director would address it.
But I was struck in that moment that A.) how unlucky for that worker that he harassed the person who introduced the bill, right? But also he’s probably done it to many, many people and the odds are that he eventually would have gotten to me. A bigger piece is, you know what if we just started with training every D.C. city employee? That would be thousands and thousands of people who had the training not only about what street harassment is and not to do it, but also how to be an active bystander. So, I’m thinking more and more about that now and perhaps making that part of our Human Resources program, because it’s a start! These are our people.
DN: Tied to that, you’ve recently been working on legislation to form a taskforce on street harassment. What do you hope to accomplish with that effort and where do you see it going?
BN: CASS has done a great job of studying anecdotally what happens in D.C., but we would like some hard data on incidents of street harassment. So, we want more study and we also want educational resources. We’ve talked with the Office of Human Rights who would be managing this process if the bill passes. And they’re excited about it, because they feel like they can really contribute and do a real educational campaign around this issue. Because this isn’t about locking people up, right? That’s not what we seek to do. What we seek is to change behavior.
DN: So, a lot of the groundwork is being laid?
BN: We are laying it little by little. And you know no pride of ownership for me, really. We just want to get it done. So if my bill doesn’t pass, but we still get all these pieces done – I’m happy!
DN: What are some of the barriers that you’ve encountered regarding your bill or just facing this wider effort?
Brianne Nadeau: Interestingly enough, there are two incidents that surprised me of people really being opposed to what I’m working on. I went on the radio to talk about the bill and the issue. Actually, the Director of the Commission on Arts and Humanities was also there, because they put money into arts grants around street harassment. Which is very exciting too! There’s a whole public art grant now.
DN: Like murals? That’s cool.
BN: Yeah! He’s a great person to talk to too. Very enthusiastic. So, the two of us were on the radio and a woman called in basically to be like “I don’t understand why you’re dealing with this issue. This isn’t a big issue.” And I always try to gently explain that it really is a big issue, because I think a lot of times women are conditioned to accept the behavior because they’ve had to. So, my goal is that we look at street harassment ten years from now the same way we look at workplace sexual harassment. I was just watching the HBO film that was made about the Anita Hill hearings and actually getting very worked up while watching it and thinking about all she went through at the time. But back then, you know your boss could proposition you, harass you, and it was just the sort of thing people would go to work and say “Well, that’s what happens to us, because we’re women,” like it was a fact of life. And now it’s completely unacceptable.
DN: Like in Mad Men?
BN: Exactly! But also, this was in the 1990s! In my lifetime, women were harassed in the workplace and it was totally acceptable. Or at least, it was accepted and now it’s not. And what did it take? It took some laws and it took a lot of education. I’d like to be able to do that with street harassment in this country, in particular in the District where I have a little bit more influence. But if we could do that and eradicate that from women’s lives, then we could start tackling other issues.
DN: Just to broaden our discussion, there have been several incidents recently that CASS has been highlighting involving violence and harassment against the trans community and the LGBTQ community writ large. Can you speak to how these efforts would address the issues that they go through?
BN: Well, the thing that we know about street harassment is that women of color and trans women are targets of it more than anyone else. And so, one of the goals in tackling this is to really address that as well. Because as a young white woman, my experience in the world is very different than a woman of color, than a trans woman. I want to insure that we are supporting those communities.
DN: Just to ask about this, because I know Jessica Raven and other CASS people have been working on it a lot. Do you have any thoughts on their Safe Bar program and how does it factor into your work?
BN: I love the Safe Bar program. Safe Bars is really exciting not only because of all the bar staff that are getting trained in the District, but how it’s really expanded beyond the District. You know, CASS says it in their name: the more we create safe spaces in our communities, the safer our women are going to be. And I think a lot of it is also just about reminding everybody in our community that it’s our responsibility to look out for each other and when we see harassment to say something about it, to diffuse the situation, and through all of that work ultimately be safer in our community.
DN: You touched on this when you mentioned going on the radio, but you know there are a lot of issues affecting D.C. residents. Why do you think this is so important?
BN: I think it’s important, because it touches the lives of so many women living in the District. There are very few women I’ve ever encountered that haven’t been harassed on the street. And when you start talking to women about this, they open up. I mean, the stories just pour out. So, it’s clear that it’s pervasive and it’s clear that it impacts people’s lives. In the most severe cases, it means women are afraid to take transit or they’re afraid to walk down the street and that’s deeply impacting their ability to have a career, to have a social life, and to just have a good quality of life.