Emily May was sick of it.
For five years, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit employee had withstood catcalls, whistles and stares almost daily from men while walking down the street – unwanted attention that irritated and often scared her.
“Every corner I turned, every guy I saw on the street was a potential harasser,” says May, 31. “I would leave my apartment and think, was I going to be walking alone, and did I have shoes I could run in if I needed to? It was happening so consistently, it felt like a non-stop assault. I was always bracing myself.”
And she wasn’t alone: Friends had been groped, privy to indecent exposure, and worse. In one instance, a pal who had caught a man fondling himself on her cell phone camera went to police but was told there was nothing they could do. “Because I was on the street, everyone just told us that we had to put up with it,” says May. “It was the most frustrating thing.”
Fed up, May and her friends created Hollaback! in 2005, and the organization quickly turned into an international movement. Dedicated to fighting street harassment, Hollaback! has trained leaders in 54 cities and 19 countries to start campaigns bolstered by workshops, marches and a blog upon which over 4,000 victims worldwide have posted photos and stories.
The group empowers people by encouraging them to speak up when they are harassed, and provides a community so they don’t feel alone. It also teaches them the best ways to handle confrontations. Among Hollaback’s tips: Tell a harasser in a firm voice, ‘That’s not okay,’ and just keep walking; Don’t get in a dialogue or answer questions from a harasser.
The group has also developed iPhone and Android apps which utilize Twitter, Facebook, and Google maps so victims can post quickly and anonymously while pinpointing the locations where they were harassed.
After suffering catcalls and being groped, Amalia Sirica, 23, posted on the site. “It gave me a sense of relief,” she says. “It’s an outlet for those feelings of anger and fear, and it’s given me a sense of empowerment.”
Which is just what May is after. Since she began sharing data with local officials, New York City council members are now planning to make an increase in reporting a priority, a huge step. The ultimate goal? “That victims who felt scared and isolated feel powerful,” says May. “Somebody has to stand up for these girls.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine