Chalk Black: speaking out against catcalling in NYC and around the world
Updated: Mar 25
Cat from Factivists interviews Sophie Sandberg, founder of the Catcalls of NYC social media campaign. They discuss the harassment faced by young women, and the challenges encountered when raising awareness of such an intense, but widespread, issue. Written by Elizabeth Bratton.
Sophie Sandberg is an intersectional feminist, youth activist, and founder of the world-renowned initiatives Catcalls of NYC and Chalk Back. Having experienced sexual harassment when walking down the street, Sophie decided to chalk the insults and jibes of perpetrators onto the paths of New York. These movements were created with the intention of combating gender-based attacks, and catcalling, and have now spread from New York to 150 different locations across the globe.
Sophie’s first experience of verbal harassment was on the journey to her first job; as she walked through the city, “it felt like every other person was catcalling [her]”. Naturally perplexed as to why this has happened, Sophie turned to her parents for answers, who informed her that such behaviour is common, and nothing to be dwelled upon. Her father even suggested a change in outfit.
The project was prompted by a college assignment that required the use of social media. Sophie chose to use chalk to spread her message, as is clearly visible, although not illegal. However, one of her volunteers has previously had an encounter with the police; while a scary experience at the time, charges were eventually dropped.
Once the movement began to gain traction, activists from a range of countries were messaging Sophie, asking how they could make the scheme local to them. The street artist hopes she will be able to turn the chalking initiative into a sustainable movement; in the meantime, she is making money by giving talks to schools, specifically speaking to high-school students. For Sophie, it is exceptionally important that her volunteers have the funds to purchase chalk, and any other vital resources, which are essential to keep the organization running smoothly.
When asked about how young people can get involved in activism, Sophie suggested they research an issue they are passionate about, and check to see if anyone else has already created a similar campaign. If so, she suggested, it is better to be a part of that movement, rather than making a duplicate of their idea. Of course, it is then important to build a team; there are currently 15 individuals volunteering for the New York branch.
Sophie then highlighted the importance of eradicating the role of bystanders, citing a study conducted by L’Oréal Paris, which showed that onlookers only stepped in 25% of the time, when witnessing harassment. By empowering others to share their story, Sophie explains that we are empowering an entire generation to take action in such uncomfortable situations.
Sophie proceeded to criticise the censorship of women’s stories, discussing the number of men that felt offended by the “#MeToo’ Movement. To her, it seemed the campaign had been misunderstood, as the point was not to launch an attack on men, but rather to trigger conversations among women, and let their experiences be heard. When discussing the case of Harvey Weinstein and the hanged Nirbhaya Rapists, Sophie explained that, while it is important to condemn these actions, it is more effective to slowly educate communities about why such behaviour is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, running the Instagram accounts has not been without its difficulties. The staff have been victims of hateful messages, which is certainly ironic, considering the page was created to reduce abuse. Sophie encountered one follower who had been stalking her, repeatedly making accounts under names such as “Catcalls of Nottingham”, and “Catcalls of Chicago”. The perpetrator asked Sophie on a date, then continued to harass her on under the guise of wanting to volunteer for the project. Sophie explained that the issue could be resolved if Instagram were to introduce guidelines that prevented an individual from creating several accounts; understandably, she is exhausted of having to block the harasser time and time again.
Such incidents cause questions about online activism to arise, as creators of such projects are making themselves more vulnerable; campaigners, including Sophie and her team, are publicising their lives to hundreds of thousands of people.
If you are interested in getting involved with the “Catcalls Of” movement, and there isn’t already a chapter of the project in your city, simply send in a video (or audio file), explaining why you care about the topic, and what you can contribute! All applicants should be active on social media, and have genuine intentions.
The “Join Us” page can be found here: https://www.chalkback.org/set-up-your-own-account