A Conversation on Accountability with Yola, Founder of @Catcallsofchicago

In honor of 16 Days of Activism, Chalk Back and Cheer Up Luv are teaming up to highlight what accountability means to six activists around the world in a photo and interview series. The series will highlight the topic of accountability from the perspective of young activists in different contexts. We hope these interviews will help engage people of all genders in the conversation on gender-based harassment. This interview features Yola, founder of @CatcallsofChicago.


What is the role(s) of men and boys in the movement against gender based street harassment?


Yola: Boys and men have an immense responsibility when it comes to advocating against gender-based street harassment. The reason why so many women and girls are catcalled and harassed everyday has, contrary to popular opinion, little to do with how we look or how we’re dressed and everything to do with power, misogyny and the entitlement people feel over the autonomy and bodies of women. In order to change the culture around street harassment, it is imperative that those who hold power in society - the people who benefit from the oppression of women - realise that they, too, can change the culture around harassment. Men and boys need to actively hold their peers accountable, there needs to be a shift in thinking that the only women entitled to respect and care are the women one is related to and that ‘locker room’ talk is just harmless fun. It is not. Gender-based street harassment and harassment of any kind are detrimental to how people with oppressed gender identities navigate the world, both in the literal and psychological sense.


What has your experience been with men and boys during your time running Catcalls of Chicago? What are their reactions? Have you gotten negative or positive feedback?


Yola: I have been working with Chalk Back for two years now and I run the CatCallsOf Chicago account. Since I started chalking on the streets of Chicago and the Chicagoland area, I have received, mixed reviews, to say the least. Most of the backlash I receive are from men, and more specifically, men with daughters. I recall once chalking near Millennium Park, a very family-friendly park in Chicago. The story I had chalked was from a 16-year-old girl who shared with us her most recent experience with street harassment, it read, “Has anyone asked if they could eat your *** out before?” Quite profane. This man and his 10-year-old daughter walked up to me to essentially give me a piece of their mind about how children seeing the chalking is harmful and is ruining the ambience of the park. Later that day, I posed a question to the CatCallsOfChicago community: How old were you when you were first cat called? The answers ranged from 5 years old to 11 years old, with the average being 8 years. I was very frustrated at this since young women and girls are already being subjected to street harassment yet the only thing the man from the park took issue with was the respectability politics of it all. Another incident involved the Chicago police department. Around the time of the US presidential election in 2020, we began chalking all of the obscene things Donald Trump had said to women and about women. His comments bordered from casual sexism to admittance of sexual assault. We were chalking near the Trump Tower, and two police officers drove up to us and asked us what we were doing. We explained our motive is to raise awareness around the issue of street harassment and how it was unacceptable to have a misogynist president. They looked at us in the eye and chanted, “Four more years!” A phrase popularized by supporters of former president, Donald Trump.


What does accountability mean to you? Who needs to be accountable when it comes to gender-based street harassment? How do we hold harassers and abusers accountable?


Yola: Accountability to me means many things. Accountability means taking a step back and assessing the causes of the cause in order to prevent further harm. Accountability means transformative justice, it means seeing systems of power, and not just individuals, as perpetrators of violence and harm. In that vein, everyone should be held accountable for the violent and abusive experiences victims of street harassment are subjected to. Everyone from public officials, abusers, bystanders, enablers of abuse and the culture of misogyny. In terms of how do we hold the systems and individuals accountable, it may tricky, but one thing is for sure, police, the law and the carceral system are inadequate agents for holding people accountable, They, in fact, reproduce or exacerbate harm. Accountability needs to take the form of a community based approach, where members of the community collectively decide how to address systems of injustice and oppression and how to move forward after acts of violence.


In your context, what are realistic next steps towards accountability?


Yola: What I have seen in Chicago is the growth in collective action and community care over the years. Additionally, in the communities that I am a part of, accountability has taken a victim-centred approach that promotes the safety of all community members whilst ensuring that perpetrators of harm are publicly held accountable. I think that, beyond accountability, a lot of learning and unlearning needs to happen, so that we can move into existing in a world where women and girls are able to do just that - exist.


Credit: Eliza Hatch/ @CheerUpLuv