What CASS Means to Me Part 2: We Can Make a Difference

In my last post I described how I became part of CASS — mainly as a supporter of RightRides. For the first two years, I mainly was learning about street harassment and learning how to be a board member. Then, in the summer of 2011, I found a way to put my advocacy and organizing skills to work to launch what would grow into a multi-year campaign to end harassment on DC’s public transit system.

That summer, we at CASS identified a disturbing new trend with harassment on Metro. We had previously heard about the pervasive sexual harassment on Metro by other passengers and brought our concerns to WMATA’s leadership, but to no avail. Now, we were hearing about Metro employees such as bus drivers who were harassing passengers. We again tried to get a response from Metro but again were unsuccessful. I mentioned that WMATA was having its performance oversight hearing in March of 2012 and that we could bring these issues before DC Council.

We continued to get no response from Metro, and we prepared to assemble a group to testify before DC Council at WMATA’s Performance Oversight Hearing. It was not easy. I worked with then board member Holly Kearl and our unpaid ED and founder, Chai Shenoy, to prepare for the hearing. We sent out one email blast, but we couldn’t find anyone else to testify. We talked to many people personally, and while we knew folks who had been harassed on the metro system, we couldn’t get anyone to share their stories.

And I understand it. Sharing such a personal and traumatic experience can be incredibly difficult. But we also got a strong vibe that a lot of folks believed that nothing was going to change. Here is a comment from our old Holla Back DC! blog from a post about a Metro bus driver encouraging sexual harassment:

Good luck getting action taken on this situation. Since WMATA is involved, and almost assuredly the driver is a member of the union, I highly doubt anything will happen. It is sickening, but to my mind the only way you’ll get WMATA to do anything is to ……. contact the press. – Jaded

Still, we refused to give up. We sent out another email blast to recruit more witnesses to testify. We also prepared for the possibility that it would just be the three of us. Chai would give data and anecdotal evidence from our blog as well as sharing her personal experience with sexual harassment on Metro. Holly would discuss what had been done on metro systems globally to show that PSA campaigns and training employees could make a difference. I would testify about my sister being groped on Metro and my experience as a bystander witnessing harassment on Metro. We were ready to make it work.

About a week before the hearing, something truly wonderful happened. Three women came forward to testify about their experiences on Metro (one more witness prepared written testimony), and they backed up the reports we’d received on our blog. One person testified about being sexually assaulted on Metro and then having Metro employees laugh at her when she tried to report it; another person testified about being harassed by a Metro bus driver; and another testified about seeing public masturbation.

Even with these powerful testimonies, we didn’t know if we could move WMATA to make changes.

With support from DC Council and local media outlets that covered the issue, our team was welcomed to the first meeting with WMATA where they agreed to pursue all of our recommendations: a PSA campaign, training for all their employees, and an online portal where people could report incidents of public sexual harassment and assault on their system.

Now, four years later, we are working with WMATA on a new campaign to encourage bystanders to get involved in reporting, and we even worked together this year with WMATA and Stop Street Harassment to conduct the most comprehensive study of sexual harassment on public transit of any U.S. city.

I have found that with some of us who do social justice work, there comes a point where there is a temptation to give up. Many of us come to this work with the intention of changing the world – of making a difference. Yet, there is always going to be evil in the world. There are always going to be systems working against the good. When I led the fight against adult literacy cuts, many folks were pretty beaten by the indifference they encountered from city leaders. It took some convincing for some of them to fight back. Similarly, as described above, some of us didn’t think that Metro was going to do anything about the sexual harassment on its system. But we fought anyway.

What I learned from this experience, what CASS taught me, is that we have to believe. We have to have faith that what we do is worth doing even when it looks like things aren’t working. We have to refuse the temptation to be cynical and bitter. I am not naive, but I am not cynical either. We might not be able to completely change the world, but we can make a difference. I believe in CASS. I believe that we can make this city safer.

We already have.

Join us in celebrating the difference we have made in DC. Click here for details about our fourth annual gala.

What CASS Means To Me Part 1: RightRides DC

Sometimes people ask me why I’m on the board of CASS, or they want to know why I got involved in this work. I usually tell them it’s because I donate to RightRides and then go on to explain that the program gives free, safe, late night rides to women and LGBTQ folks to help prevent sexual assault and harassment. I usually leave it at that.

But that, of course, begs the question of why I donate to RightRides. I haven’t shared this story with more than a handful of people. I haven’t told some people for concern of being shamed or worrying friends.

However, I think it’s time I told this story so that people know why I am compelled to invest in a program that doesn’t necessarily serve a straight male who would otherwise use it.

In the summer of 2008, two weeks after I had closed on my new condo unit, I was involved in an attempted robbery. It was attempted because I successfully resisted. A van had followed me into the parking lot of my building and a young man jumped out with a shotgun. He told me to give him my money and the bags I was carrying. I first attempted to run, but he pulled back on my backpack and prevented me from doing that. I next started yelling “fire!” as loudly as I could. The driver of the van panicked and shouted to the man with the shotgun to get back in the van. (Shouting “fire” instead of “help” is potentially more likely to get people to come out of their homes and thus produce many potential witnesses).

Later, after I called the police, they canvassed the area and found a woman who had heard what happened, wrote the license plate down on her hand, and gave it to them. Apparently, later on, there was a high speed car chase with the police and they caught them. I testified at a preliminary trial and the man with the shotgun was sent to jail.

So, I was in a rough situation and ended up with the best possible outcome. But for a long time, I had to deal with some emotional and psychological fallout from this experience. Even though the incident happened in the late afternoon while the sun was still out, I became fearful of walking alone at night. I avoided taking the bus to that bus stop and took another one that came closer to my building. I became triggered whenever I heard a car slowing down next to me when walking.

I found that when I told this story to some men, I was shamed. They said I was stupid for not handing over my stuff when I saw a shotgun. Didn’t I know I could have been killed? I was also careless for not paying attention to my surroundings. I should have been looking around more carefully. Also, what was I doing carrying around a bunch of bags in my neighborhood acting like I was in Northern Virginia? Some pressured me to move. Well, I had just closed and bought a new home, so I wasn’t going to do that. The shaming got so bad I cut off contact with many of them. I decided they weren’t my friends if they were going to treat me that way. Interestingly, I got quite a different response from women. None of them shamed me and some even wanted to know more details of how I resisted.

In 2009, I learned more about the impact of street harassment and started following anti-harassment advocates like Holly Kearl on Twitter until I met CASS’s co-founders, Chai Shenoy and Shannon Lynberg. I wanted to find out more information about what this organization did, and I learned about their plans for RightRidesDC. After reading stories on the Holla Back DC! blog and researching RightRides, I started asking myself several questions:

  1. What if I was raped or otherwise sexually assaulted? How would I feel about walking around the city and taking public transportation?
  2. What if I was sexually harassed on a regular basis? How safe would I feel? Again, would I feel safe walking around the city and taking public transportation?
  3. What if, after I was raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, I was catcalled or otherwise publicly sexually harassed on a regular basis? How safe would I feel?
  4. What if, after any one of the above, I was shamed? What if I was told I shouldn’t have been wearing what I was wearing? What if I was told I should have been more careful? What if I was told I should have paid more attention to my surroundings? What if many people made me feel like it was my fault that this terrible stuff happened to me? How would I feel?

I realized that I would have to completely change my life. I would probably have to get a car. I’d probably have to really think about how I would get home if I wasn’t driving. I’d have to plan out how I would be safe walking and/or taking public transportation. I know quite a few people get harassed everyday. I know some of them don’t have a car. I can’t imagine how they deal with it. Do they somehow get used to it? Based on the stories we heard at DC’s roundtable on street harassment, it seems like feeling unsafe just becomes a fact of their lives.

Because, here’s the thing: whenever I am fearful about walking around, I can talk myself down and say to myself that the likelihood of being robbed again is very low. I can feel safe most of the time because there are pretty much no potential threats coming at me on a regular basis.

I don’t think I could say the same if I’m a woman or a member of the LGBTQ community who faces regular sexual harassment and the constant threat of sexual assault.

I realized that it is only due to straight cis male privilege that I can talk myself down when I am afraid. It is only due to straight cis male privilege that I am able to feel as safe as I do.

So that is why a straight male has given lots of money to a program that gives free rides home to women and LGBTQ folks.

I joined the board in 2010 and have poured many of my resources into launching RightRides DC, which we finally did on Halloween of 2014—giving 67 people safe rides home in the pilot year. We are currently in the midst of a transition period for RightRides DC, working to make sure we can serve the most people and serve the greatest need. I have contributed thousands of dollars to CASS’s work over the years, and I think of it this way: Is it worth thousands of dollars if we prevented just one of those people from being raped? Is it worth thousands of dollars if those folks felt safer?

Absolutely. It’s worth every penny.

Help Us Take RightRides DC to the Next Level!

unnamed

People who don’t regularly experience sexual harassment in public have the freedom to choose where to go and how to get there based on convenience and cost. But for women and LGBTQ folks — populations that are at a higher risk of sexual harassment and assault — these considerations are often in conflict with a need to stay safe.

Our answer: RightRides DC. This summer, we wrapped up our pilot year of RightRides DC and it was a huge success! Thanks to all of you, our supporters and volunteers, we were able to provide free, safe rides home for dozens of women, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming members of the community over four service dates since last October.

Now we are ready to take RightRides DC to the next level, but we can’t do it without you!

Starting this fall, we hope to offer RightRides DC service dates once a month for an entire year! But to do that we need to raise $10,000 by September 30.

You can help us reach our goal by making a donation to RightRides DC right now.

As a small, grassroots organization, we depend on our donors and volunteers to make our work possible. Together, we can make DC a city free from public sexual harassment and assault. And we can start by making sure women, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming members of the DC community can get home safe at night.

Donate to RightRides DC today and help us ensure even more people can get free, safe rides home in the coming year.

Thank You for Making RightRides DC a Success!

rightrides-dc-1024x533Thank you to all the volunteers, friends, donors, and riders who made the July 4 service date a success!

We are thrilled to announce that we have completed our pilot phase for RightRides DC. Thank you so much to everyone who has made the program possible since October! We’re looking forward to the future of the program and continuing to provide free, safe rides home for women and LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people in DC.

Be a part of something big. Sign up to volunteer for the RightRides program now!

Can you donate today to keep RightRides DC operating in our community?

JOIN OUR EMAIL LIST! (2)

RightRides DC will bring you home on the Fourth of July!

LET FREEDOM RING!

Save the #RightRidesDC number in your phone now: 202-556-4232!

palmcard front

The freedom to get home safely and without breaking the bank. RightRides DC is back on Independence Day – so women, LGBTQ, and gender nonconforming folks in all 8 wards of DC can get a free, safe ride home this July 4th!

Call or text July 4 between midnight and 3:30am for a free, safe ride home.
Save the #RightRidesDC number in your phone now: 202-556-4232!

1 2 3 4 5