Amplifying voices: How Women in Urbanism Aotearoa got women speaking out about harassment

Last year, Women in Urbanism Aotearoa took our streets to social media in an enlightening Stop Street Harassment campaign. Following some time in the public eye, Erin McKenzie sat down with Emma McInnes co-founder of Women in Urbanism Aotearoa and a designer at MRCagency, to talk about the purpose of the campaign and reflect on the realities of unearthing personal stories for it.

Stories of catcalling, groping, stalking and public masturbation were last year shared across social media as Women in Urbanism Aotearoa shed light on real-life experiences of women in a touching and shocking campaign.

Women in Urbanism Aotearoa is an advocacy group to make towns and cities inclusive for everyone with its principles touching on a number of topics from creating spaces that are receptive to the interests of all. Areas of focus include the design of public spaces to have resilience in the face of climate change.

Bringing that vision to life is a team of 20 who dedicate time to it outside of their full-time work.

Emma McInnes, co-founder of the group and a designer at MRCagency, says it was founded three years ago as a networking group for women in the urban design industries, the idea being that the more women there are in architecture, engineering and planning, then the more needs for women will be considered.

“They will be putting in pram ramps for the mums who have prams, they’ll be taking out cobblestones for the women who want to walk around in heels.”

But it’s not just tackling inclusion from a functionality perspective. The group is also an advocate for safety in public places and its recent Stop Street Harassment campaign realises that hope of giving women the freedom to use public transport and places safely.

A survey by Women in Urbanism Aotearoa early in 2019 saw 74 percent of respondents report experiencing harassment while using transport, footpaths and cycleways.

The campaign hopes to support women, by validating what they are feeling while also educating people about what is considered harassment so bystanders will feel encouraged to intervene. Because while it may not look threatening to an outsider, McInnes says women who are being harassed often feel like the situation will escalate into violence.

“Even though some consider catcalling is harmless flattery, a lot of women think they are going to get punched, or the person will run after them,” McInnes says.

Unearthing the stories

To make people stop and think about this, the Stop Street Harassment campaign features a series of illustrations, each paired with a woman’s story and shared on social media.

Though a simple idea, it tackles a complex topic and McInnes says great care was taken when putting together the survey asking for women to open up.

The survey ensured anonymity for those who shared their stories and explained the purpose of the campaign and what the amplification of voices could achieve.

The resulting request drew in hundreds of submissions with stories ranging from catcalling to public masturbation before the survey was closed.

McInnes and the team were overwhelmed by stories and though they validated the need for the campaign, she was wary of promising people their story would be shared but then not have the time and resources to do so.

But it wasn’t just the task of receiving so many stories for McInnes that has touched her. She says the graphic nature of some of the stories had an emotional impact on her.

“I get really sick when I read the stories,” she says.

“It really panicked me to be honest and I thought ‘these women actually need support’.”

The experience has been a big learning for McInnes as she’s learned how to be there with the appropriate level of support and knowing when professional help is needed.

“It’s a complex issue and needs to be dealt with in a lot of sensitivity to make sure people feel heard and seen and supported,” she says. “But without actually being an expert in psychology, you need to know when it’s time to hand over to an expert.”

Given the nature of the campaign, she was also worried about how it would be received up by the public but says it been good and any shock it’s caused has been productive.

“It is shocking and I worried people thought the campaign should be taken down because it’s too shocking. Then I would get feedback saying ‘no it’s just shocking because we didn’t know this happened’.”

The feedback did, however, include some requests to stop the stories about public masturbation but the reality was, those were the common stories being told by the women.

“We had to share those stories because that’s what women were telling us,” McInnes says.

Lessons for all

As well as being a learning experience for McInnes, AUT advertising students were also given the opportunity to create their own take on the campaign.

McInnes shared the brief with the school and was “overwhelmed by how amazing their work was”.

“I feel that since I was at university, the level of creativity has far surpassed what we ever did.”

She also saw how the campaign opened the student’s eyes up to harassment, as female students got talking among themselves while the males raised the topic with their female flatmates and girlfriends to learn more.

The way in which the students took to making their campaigns genuine reflects the way those who have seen it tell McInnes they feel a real connection with it.

“It’s not pushing someone to buy something, it’s pushing them to know where they can go for help or pushing others to help others,” she says.

“So it’s very wholesome in that regard while also telling stories that are hard for people to hear sometimes.”

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