Aziz Ansari Helped Me with a Street Harasser

Editor’s Note: Trigger warning for stalking.

I’ve always been a fan of Aziz Ansari. His comedy specials make me laugh, but I never expected to take one of his jokes and apply it to a real world scenario.

In Ansari’s one-man special Live at Madison Square Garden, he talks about the prevalence of sexual harassment and asks if women have ever been followed by a “creepy guy.” When a large portion of the female audience responded with an emphatic “yes!” he explained how guys are consistently surprised by this information.

Ansari goes on to suggest that if a woman ever approached him and said, “this guy is following me, can I sit with you?” his answer would be yes.

His special had me in stitches, but I didn’t give it much thought. Until I was followed.

It was a regular day. I write about retail, so I was out doing research. I was in front of a independent boutique, writing down some information when I felt someone’s gaze on me. I turned around, and a guy was hanging behind me — close enough for me to notice, but far away for me to second guess myself.

In my gut I felt as if he had zeroed in on me, but the distance between us made me think, maybe he’s just hanging out.

He walked by me. And, walked by me again. I was on my phone taking notes, but also tracking what was going on. I opened the door to the boutique. He was a few short steps behind me. I headed for the racks, trying to think through what to do. Should I notify the store manager? He had a right to be in the store, too. What would I say? “This guy is acting creepy, and I think he is following me.”

I was less concerned about me sounding overly cautious and weird than I was worried about being wrong. I was second guessing my gut. Haven’t I learned by now to always trust that gut feeling? He leaned against the wall toward the front of the store. He was next to a store fixture — a very smart place to hide. From the side I could only see his feet.

He lingered.

Two smart store employees saw him and asked him to leave. Whew. I was in the clear. I stayed in the store.

I tried to focus on why I was there: to do research. In reality, I was trying to calm down and have enough time pass for him to get away from the store. I left after twenty minutes.

But guess who was waiting for me?

I didn’t see him at first, but soon realized he was trailing half a block behind me. It was the middle of the day. What was the best thing to do? The best place to go? I saw a guy in his mid 20’s ahead of me on the other side of the street. I quickened my pace, crossed the road and ended up next to him, with Aziz’s advice swirling in my head.

Me: “Hey, there’s a guy following me, can I walk with you for a little bit?”

Guy: “Wait, what?”

Me: “There is a man who is following me. Can I walk with you?”

Guy: “Where is he?” (Turns around)

Me: “He’s behind us. Can we keep walking? I don’t want to stop.”

We walked in silence for a few minutes. We exchanged names. His was Mike. He was clearly confused about what was going on and why I was walking with him.

Mike: “How do you know that I’m a safe person?”

Me: “I don’t. I’m guessing.”

Mike: “I get it. This type of stuff happens to me all of the time.”

Me: “Wait, it does?”

Mike: “No.”

Me: “This stuff happens all of the time to women.”

Mike: “Really? I’ve never heard any of my girl friends talk about getting followed.”

Me: “It probably happens so often they don’t think to talk about it.”

We walked together for a few more blocks. I turned around and didn’t see the person who was following me. The danger passed, so I turned to Mike and said thank you.

And that’s the end of the story. I wish it was more definitive. I wish when I approached Mike he would have said without hesitation that of course I could walk with him and that he understood. But, that wasn’t the person who helped me. I’m thankful that he was there and that he was agreeable, but his statements were odd. I don’t think he was coming from a bad place. Rather, the idea of being followed was so far-fetched he truly didn’t understand my predicament.

Mike can walk freely down the street. He never hesitates before walking out of the door, wondering if he should take mace with him. He doesn’t worry if he should avoid eye contact with a group of men. His outfit choice won’t cause strangers to call him a whore. Because people don’t yell at him or tell him to smile or tail him when he is trying to work.

Next time, though, I will still use Ansari’s advice. I will go up to a stranger — someone I’ve made a split second decision on and declared “safe” — and ask if I can sit down or walk with them. I will also be that person for someone else in return. Because there will be a next time. There is always a next time.

Do you have a personal experience with gender-based public sexual harassment or assault? Share your story to help raise awareness about the pervasiveness and harmful effects of street harassment. All submissions are posted anonymously unless otherwise specified.

If you experience or have experienced sexual harassment on the DC Metro system: Whether the event is happening at the moment or occurred months ago, we strongly encourage you to report to Metro Transit Police (MTP): or 202-962-2121. Reporting helps identify suspects as well as commons trends in harassment. You can program MTP’s number into your phone so you can easily reach them when needed.

If you need assistance in coping with public sexual harassment or assault, please contact the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) 24/7 crisis hotline at 202-333-RAPE (202-333-7279).

Boosting Our Capacity and Embracing New Directions

If you hadn’t noticed yet, CASS jumped full speed into a new direction last year, centering the experiences of queer and trans people of color and finding ways to ensure that all of our programming addresses not only incidents of harassment, but its root causes.

Recognizing the ways that state violence and gendered violence intersect, we released a factsheet and continue to cite this research in our work. We also partnered with Muslim-led groups and allies to form the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition to organize against state violence, and we’re working to identify opportunities for marginalized trans women of color to access supportive employment — potentially in bars and restaurants that we’ve already trained to build safe environments.

Now, I’m thrilled to announce some changes in our Board leadership with new directors who are excited to help us strengthen our commitment to intersectionality:

alicia sanchez gill:
alicia joins CASS’s Board after years of watching CASS grow and change. She currently works toward gender and racial equity as the director of research and program evaluation for YWCA USA where her work focuses on the experiences of women and girls of color. Among other things, alicia has managed crisis services at the DC Rape Crisis Center, volunteered on the outreach van at HIPS, and done grassroots grantmaking with the Diverse City Fund.

alicia is excited to join CASS in this moment as we’re bringing greater attention to the way that gendered harassment intersects with police harassment, and as we work to improve and measure the impact of our programs — we’re excited to have her expertise on our team.

“CASS, in its intention, has always meant to support and highlight the unique ways that femmes of color experience street harassment. I’m excited about CASS’s commitment to queer and trans folks of color,” said alicia. “Our experiences cannot be an afterthought.”

Cecilia Dos Santos:
Cecilia has been a volunteer on CASS’s workshops team for two years, facilitating trainings on responding to harassment and expanding our outreach efforts to the youth in her programs at the Latin American Youth Center. “I wanted to ensure that CASS was specifically reaching Spanish speaking audiences, immigrants, and young people,” said Cecilia.

Two years and many workshops later, Cecilia joins our Board of Directors with enthusiasm for CASS’s new direction. “I want to see CASS’s work move forward with raising awareness, changing behaviors, and building communities free from street harassment through a gendered and anti-racist lens.”


Emily Torruellas:
If you’re on our email list, you’ve been getting emails from Emmy already. For the second year in a row, she’s organizing our annual gala (have you bought your tickets?!), and she’s bringing her event planning and fundraising experience to the team.

In her role as a Major Gifts Officer at local poverty relief agency Bread for the City, she manages relationships with major donors and researches new funding sources. We’re eager to bring her new ideas to the table as we work to diversify our funding streams and make CASS’s work more sustainable.

And she’s personally invested in the cause: “I’ve been all too familiar with street harassment since I was in elementary school, and never knew how to address it or defend myself. When I first heard about CASS, I was thrilled to learn that there was a group of people out there trying to make our city safer for everyone, regardless of race, gender identity, or socioeconomic status.”

Welcome, new Board members! We’re so thrilled to have you as part of the CASS family under the new leadership of our fabulous Board Chair, Elizabeth Hague!

Liz joined CASS’s Board one year ago after volunteering with our fundraising and outreach efforts. Lawyer by day and accessibility advocate by night, Liz has pushed CASS to better incorporate the disability lens into our organizing and programming. “I bring a different perspective to the conversation on intersectionality,” said Liz, and she’s consistently proven this to be true.

When we discuss data that shows that black people are three times as likely to be killed as white people, Liz shares additional data showing that 50% of police brutality victims are people with disabilities. We’re grateful for her voice, her service, and her leadership on CASS’s Board!




Meet all of these fabulous new Board members and more awesome humans this Thursday at CASS’s annual party extravaganza, Safe Space Jam.

Thank You, Mindi!

Our wonderful board chair Mindi is stepping down after over three years of service to CASS to pursue new opportunities. We are very grateful for all of her work to make our organization a great success! Below, board member Caitlin shares her thoughts:

Mindi Westhoff joined the CASS Board in 2014 and was nominated to Board Chair shortly thereafter. In her more than three years with the organization she has guided us during a time of tremendous growth. Working in partnership with our executive director, she helped make it possible for CASS to become the vibrant organization it is today.

In 2015, CASS faced an almost existential crisis. Our first executive director left the organization and we had no obvious successor. Finding someone new to lead CASS was a massive undertaking for a relatively new organization with no paid staff and a young Board. But under Mindi’s leadership, the Board came together and succeeded in ushering CASS into its next phase under Jessica Raven.

Mindi leaves behind a strong organization, with a powerhouse executive director, an army of volunteer staff who are leading on innovative programming, outreach, and policy, a strong Board of Directors, and a newly minted advisory committee.

We are sad to see Mindi go, but we wish her the absolute best in all of her future pursuits and are so grateful to her for leading us with focus, determination, and grace for the last three and half years.

“If I’m Old Enough to Be Harassed, I’m Old Enough to Protest It.”

Advocates for safe public spaces gathered in Farragut Square on Saturday, April 8th to raise their voices against street harassment and to support the Street Harassment Prevention Act.

Advocates and community members discussed street harassment prevention strategies, shared their experiences, and showed their support for community-based, non-criminal solutions to end harassment. CASS Executive Director Jessica Raven kicked things off with a welcome that emphasized an inclusive, intersectional approach toward ending street harassment. She reminded the crowd that harassment affects us all and that any “solutions” to violence against women that cause harm to other marginalized communities are not real solutions. 

This set the stage for Brianne Nadeau, DC’s Ward 1 Councilmember, to discuss the Street Harassment Prevention Act, a measure to educate District employees on street harassment and strategies to combat it. Councilmember Nadeau hopes to shatter misconceptions about street harassment and drive the District’s government toward cultivating safe public spaces through better awareness and training.

The need for such solutions and increased understanding from District employees – especially law enforcement – was emphasized when CASS’ 2016 Program Fellow Nona Conner shared her own experience as a black trans woman who survived violence in the summer of 2014. When Nona was attacked and stabbed 48 times, law enforcement officials seemed more engrossed in her gender than tending to her medical care. In a similar vein, Kiki, a black trans woman who works at Casa Ruby, shared her own experience when she was shot and police failed to adequately provide her with rapid medical attention. Sharing their stories with the crowd, Nona and Kiki emphasized the lack of attention that law enforcement and officials pay to women’s harassment – especially when women are black, Latinx, queer, trans, Muslim, immigrants, sex workers, homeless, or all of the above.

This intersectional approach was emphasized by Darakshan Raja, director of the Washington Peace Center and steering committee member of the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition who talked about the impact of street harassment on Muslim women in the face of state violence like the recent Muslim Ban.

Before breaking out to chalk sidewalks, community members from the crowd came up to the mic to share their personal experiences.  Those who came forward ranged from male allies working on CASS’ Rethink Masculinity program to a woman and her 11-year-old daughter who had recently been verbally harassed for the first time. Listening to these stories was a clear reminder that harassment affects everyone – people of all genders, young and old, and people across the racial, religious, and sexuality spectrums; as a result, we need to support one another and listen when discussing solutions to a collective problem.

The event concluded with participants sketching some anti-harassment language in chalk around the square and recalling our all-purpose response to harassment – “I don’t like it, nobody likes it. Show some respect!”

Learn more about the Street Harassment Prevention Act, and join our email list to stay involved. You can show your support for the Street Harassment Prevention Act with the hashtag #PassSHPA. 

Local Breweries and Distilleries Stepping Up as Safe Bars

We are just two weeks away from our Safe Space Jam and we have a lot to celebrate this year! We’ve trained 27 Safe Bars, facilitated over 40 workshops, and launched a new program called Rethinking Masculinity. What a year!

Last week, we sat down with two awesome individuals who brought our Safe Bars program to their bars. The program trains and empowers staff at alcohol-serving establishments to recognize and respond to sexual harassment and assault.

Brandy Holder from New Columbia Distillers and Lizzie from DC Brau shared their experiences with the program with us—and why they think Safe Bars is a vital program for their communities.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS): How did you get involved with the Safe Bars program?

Brandy Holder (New Columbia Distillers): I thought it was important for our distillery to initiate the training and to become a safe bar. Personally, I have been an advocate of CASS for a few years, and when the distillery received the email a couple of years back to donate to its annual fundraiser, I was the person to set that into motion from the distillery’s standpoint. Since then, I have wanted to keep up-to-date with the organization and try to be a part of it in some way.

CASS: Why was it important for you and the staff at the distillery to take this course?

Lizzie Palumbo (DC Brau): I felt it was important for my team to receive this training because many of them haven’t worked in the service industry before and didn’t have experience in dealing with problematic customer behaviors.

BH: The drive for me wanting to establish New Columbia Distillers as a safe bar was to make Ivy City known as a safe space and to experience the training with not only our distillery crew, but the majority of Ivy City alcohol-makers. New Columbia Distillery has never had any incident of harassment, assault, or any unsafe behavior from any of our patrons and we have been very fortunate with this. Our limited hours and use of space in our distillery definitely works to our advantage for combating that. But personally, as a woman, I experience sexual harassment/catcalling daily and it is disgraceful and uncomfortable.

When I can see an opportunity to make men (and people in general) aware of how much it actually happens, I try to show them. This training was a great way to gather some of the men from not only our distillery, but the other businesses as well, and have everyone talk about it, raise awareness, and learn new ways to notice signs and take action when we see something happening.

Safe Bars training at DC Brau


CASS: Brandy, you were able to bring a few other companies together for the training as well. What was that experience like?

BH: I was happy to coordinate and bring together One Eight, Jos A. Magnus, Republic Restoratives, and Atlas BrewWorks together for this training. I find it an honor that our industry folks — the people who are making the booze that you drink and who run the establishments in which you imbibe and have fun — want nothing but the best for their patrons. And the best means safe, welcoming, and inclusive attitudes and businesses. 

CASS: What outcomes did you see as a result of the program?

BH: I am very fortunate to have wonderful co-workers and the knowledge that all the other distillery/brewery crew are on the same side and will all work together. As a mixed group, we were able to have a great discussion and share our experiences with each other. Some even admitted that stepping up to harassment was harder for them because they do not handle confrontation well, but the training gave us many different ways of handling it, which I think was helpful to everyone. We learned so different ways to intervene: take folks out of the situation without being obvious, and know when to take it to the next step. The training allowed folks to stop and think about it and bring awareness to situations to which they may have previously not given any more than just a fleeting thought. 

Ivy City safe bars training
Ivy City distilleries training


LP: The training was really useful in establishing what behavior is and isn’t acceptable. It also was a great way to get everyone on the same page as far as how to handle difficult situations that may arise.

Several members of my team have let me know that they have already successfully implemented strategies they learned in the training. I think we all felt empowered by the class. We strive to make DC Brau a safe and inclusive space for everyone who visits, and the Safe Bars training and certification really drives that point home. Being a certified safe bar is a big point of pride for everyone in our company.

Both New Columbia Distillery and DC Brau will be helping to stock the open bar at the Safe Space Jam, and New Columbia is providing a gift basket for the silent auction, too!

We’ll be awarding the BARstander of the Year award at our annual event. Vote for the Safe Bar you think is doing the most to cultivate a safe environment, and get your tickets today!

Editor’s Note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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