Courtesy of Sophie Sandberg

How "Catcalls of NYC" is fighting street harassment one chalked message at a time

The bright, colorful sidewalk chalk appears in stark contrast to the dark, New York City pavement — but the message it depicts is far from cheerful. “Sweetheart, you’re gonna get me into trouble wearing that,” the quote, chalked onto the ground in Central Park, reads, followed by the Instagram handle @catcallsofnyc and the hashtag #STOPSTREETHARASSMENT.

It’s the work of New York University senior Sophie Sandberg, who initially started Catcalls of NYC — an initiative that writes catcalls women have heard in chalk at the locations where they happened and then documents photos of the quotes on Instagram — as a project for a freshman-year class.

“I was inspired to start it because of my experience with catcalling growing up in New York,” Sandberg tells Mic in an interview. “I always felt very uncomfortable [and] self-conscious walking down the street, and I didn’t know how to respond to these comments. When I talked to the adults in my life, they never really had any good advice for me.”

Some people told her to ignore the catcalls, while others told her to change the way she dressed — an all-too-common refrain that puts the onus of fighting sexual assault and harassment on the victims. That didn’t fly with Sandberg, though, who wanted to be able to respond differently to the catcalls she and others received (and continue to receive) constantly. So in 2016, she began the Catcalls of NYC Instagram to display the misogynistic comments and "give people a place to share their story," she explains.

Three years later, Catcalls of NYC has more than 120,000 followers (and likely inspired about 70 similar accounts around the world). Sandberg now works with a team of five local women to “chalk” offensive phrases they and their followers regularly hear to spread awareness about catcalling and its effects. These actions, says Sandberg, help "people go from feeling like they can't do anything to feeling like they can do a small thing within their community and actually help."

Lita Peña/Courtesy of Sophie Sandberg

That’s certainly the case for Jessica Kurtz, a Fordham University junior who joined the initiative after heeding an Instagram call from Sandberg for volunteers. “I thought that Catcalls of NYC was a brilliant way to respond to street harassment, just because it seems like there’s no way to respond to street harassment that enforces dignity,” she tells Mic. Being able to chalk catcalls in the spots they occurred, she adds, is a way to reclaim "a little bit of that space [and] a little bit of that agency that’s taken away from us when we’re harassed in public."

The fact that Catcalls of NYC doesn't reveal the names or info of the people who've sent in their harassment stories adds to the initiative's power. "It's really difficult to face harassment, but then also to feel like you can't talk about it with anyone — so it’s great to be able to give them a platform to do that," says Sandberg. "A lot of these people are really young... so I think it's especially important for them to feel like, if they can't talk to their parents or their teachers about what's happening to them, that at least they can talk to someone via DM about it.”

It's not just women who've responded positively to the campaign, either. “I get a lot of positive responses from men... asking what they can do to be better allies [and] how they can step in and help... in a situation where [someone is] being harassed,” Sandberg says. Some of the men who've reached out to her, she notes, have said that prior to seeing the initiative's Instagram, they hadn't thought much about the consequences of catcalling — "but now that they see everyone’s stories," says Sandberg, "they’re getting what the impact is" and re-evaluating their own behavior.

Courtesy of Sophie Sandberg

Not all reactions have been positive, however. Not only has Sandberg been catcalled while documenting catcalling, but she’s also received numerous angry messages from people upset with the initiative, and gotten water splashed on chalked messages from storeowners who don't want them near their businesses. “People are so outraged when we start talking about sexual harassment, and they're so quick to censor these stories and reprimand the ones who are raising awareness rather than thinking about the core issues," says Sandberg.

Things reached a new level in April, when Kurtz went to chalk a message outside Forest Hills High School in Queens, in response to a request the group received from a student. The student had sent the team an article about the school principal, who was under investigation for claims including allegedly telling female students wearing hoop earrings, “The bigger the hoop, the bigger the hoe!” The teen who messaged Catcalls of NYC asked the initiative to chalk that phrase outside the school to raise awareness. “The idea behind it was to have us amplify their story because they didn’t feel like anything was being done about it,” Sandberg explains.

Kurtz chalked the “hoop” phrase outside the school on the sidewalk, along with the principal’s name (“so it was clear who said it,” she explains). She then went to a second sidewalk to chalk another phrase she read about in the New York Post, "Did they not like what they saw?" — what the principal allegedly said when confronted with leaving his office and bathroom doors open while urinating, so his secretaries could see.

But while writing that second quote, Kurtz said she was stopped by the school’s security officers and held at the school until police officers arrived. When they came, they arrested her for making graffiti and trespassing (even though Sandberg notes that she’s been advised that sidewalk chalk, which is impermanent, doesn’t qualify as graffiti, a view that the NYPD has taken as well — and that Kurtz was chalking on public sidewalks outside the school), according to a Catcalls of NYC news release.

“It was a bit scary, because the school security officers didn’t seem to be driven by a commitment to uphold safety or legality,” Kurtz says now. “It seemed like they were really upset that I was doing something that they didn’t like.”

The District Attorney’s office dismissed the charges before Kurtz’s case headed to court, but Sandberg says that Kurtz’s “arrest was just one example of people wanting to shut down [our] raising awareness about sexual harassment.”

As for Kurtz, she says that the arrest has made her concerned with what might happen when she’s chalking in the future — but that fear isn’t enough to stop her. “I’m going to keep chalking and be as involved in Catcalls of NYC as I can,” she says. “[The arrest is] definitely not going to slow my roll at all... It feels very healing to do this work, and... it makes me feel that there’s this mechanism through which we can tell our stories in a productive way and people really learn from it.”