In March, on a day Kearl declared “Anti-Street Harassment Day,” teams fanned out across the city with questionnaires that encouraged them not only to look for signs of harassment but also opportunities for someone to take it to a more violent level: ill-lighted nooks, deserted areas, the absence of a police presence. In May, the audit teams went out again, this time at night.
After leaving the young men the night of the audit, Langelan motions toward a bank machine tucked in a corner. “Did you see that dangerous ATM?” she says. A few blocks later, she stops in front of waist-high barrier separating the sidewalk from a building under construction. “If someone was attacking you, they could throw you over that wall.”
Across the city, more than 50 people are asking the same types of questions, looking with similar skepticism at nooks they might not otherwise notice.
Fast-forward three weeks to a meeting around a horseshoe-shaped table topped with Hershey miniatures and stapled sheets of papers. About a dozen people have shown up. Langelan sits at the table. Shenoy and Kearl stand at the front of the room. Lynberg conferences in by phone.
The question on all of their minds: What was learned from the audit?
The data are at best a rough sketch and reveal few surprises. The majority of participants reported seeing graffiti, trash on the ground and dark streetlamps. Most also reported that, day or night, they would feel safe waiting for a bus alone, would feel comfortable seeking help from someone at a store nearby and believe if they screamed for help, someone would hear them.
During the daytime audit, three people reported witnessing or experiencing harassment. At night, one person did.
The findings will be broken down further, Kearl tells the group, but even then it’s not enough to take to the City Council. The picture is incomplete. Volunteers did not come forward to survey Wards 7 and 8 and among the participants who showed up to canvass other areas, there wasn’t enough diversity — racially, economically or otherwise — to declare a representative effort.
Kearl is disappointed. But the positive side — one that is not lost on her, Shenoy or Lynberg — is that in just a few months they motivated dozens of people to analyze their city and to think about what would make them feel safer.
“You made it happen,” Shenoy tells everyone in the room. “I know the data we collected is not research-worthy ... but it starts adding numbers to something we’ve never had numbers on in D.C.”
At the table, hands go up, and suggestions are thrown out on how to improve the audit — everyone assumes there will be a next time.
What about using an iPhone app?
What about writing on maps since one block can differ greatly from the next?
What about having people keep personal logs?
Langelan supports the idea of logs.She says that when she has asked her classes to keep track of street harassment experiences, some people have recorded three incidents in a week and others 300.
She, like others in the room, appears undaunted by the audit results. Langelan, out of everyone, knows the challenges that come in trying to change the status quo. In her book, published in the early 1990s, Langelan wrote about an effort in the mid-1980s in Washington dubbed “The Hassle-Free Zone Campaign.” At that time, a group of women from a half-dozen community organizations came together with the goal of declaring the nation’s capital a harassment-free area. Posters were printed, the mayor passed a proclamation and speakouts were held in known hot spots.
“Did we succeed in ending street harassment once and for all in Washington, D.C.?” Langelan wrote in the book. “No. That might take a few more years.”
Or a few decades.
Before the meeting is over, Langelan offers another suggestion — one that is less ambitious than a city-wide audit but promises immediate results. She pulls out a stack of papers and starts passing them around the table.
It’s her flier.
Theresa Vargas is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.