#YouOkSis: Online movement launches to combat street harassment

theGRIO REPORT - #YouOkSis launched online on July 10th with the intention to bring in a number of voices to the topic in terms of experiences with street harassment and possible solutions.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“Damn baby, you have some sexy lips!”

“Aye, aye! If I was yo’ man, I wouldn’t let you leave the house alone.”

“Smile, ma!”

These are just a few of the comments a woman might encounter as she walks down a city sidewalk — and this type of behavior has a name. It’s called street harassment, and activist, social worker and blogger Feminista Jones has created a movement to combat it.

#YouOkSis launched online on July 10th with the intent to bring in a number of voices to the topic in terms of experiences with street harassment and possible solutions.

“I define street harassment as any unwanted attention from strangers that makes a person feel uncomfortable,” said Jones in an exclusive interview with theGrio.

The idea for #YouOkSis was born when Jones intervened in a street harassment situation on behalf of a young mother pushing a stroller.

“She was probably 20 or 21, pushing a stroller with a newborn. I just went and asked her ‘Are you ok, sis?’ and she said she was fine and so I kept walking,” said Jones.  That was Jones’s first time intervening in such a way when she witnessed street harassment, and she says no one has ever intervened on her behalf in that matter,  though she notes that an average day includes being harassed on the street at least five times.

theGRIO | Photographer takes photos of men who catcall her on Philly streets

The #YouOkSis movement is supposed to inspire people of both genders to intervene with street harassment situations by engaging with the victim of said harassment.  “If you just talk to the person who is the focus of the harassment, you’re placing yourself in that moment and giving that person an out. It’s something that breaks up the situation and diverts attention from the victim,” said Jones in reference to not placing one’s self in harm’s way while intervening.

The word “sis” is a word that is fairly specific to the black community, and Jones addressed why her focus is on black women.

“A lot of the conversations about street harassment in the mainstream media only show white women as the faces of victims. Rarely do you see black women as the face of the victim,” said Jones.

When the #YouOkSis campaign launched on July 10, there was a lot of support and sharing of stories and strategies but also a notable amount of criticism. “I was not at all surprised at the negative response. Any time an oppressed group speaks out, people react negatively to that. It was a small, but vocal group (mostly men and mostly black people) who did not understand anything about  what we’re doing. They had conspiracy theories that were fed by trolls who have had issues with me for a while,” explained Jones.

Some of Jones’s detractors even accused her of being some kind of federal agent plant whose purpose is to further exacerbate the plight of the black man in the United States judicial system. “We are not advocating for police intervention or criminalization of black men when it comes to street harassment. This is a movement rooted in community involvement,” explained Jones.

Given the fact that the #YouOkSis campaign launched online, it only makes sense that the impact of it is not just on the street but in the digital world as well.

“#YouOkSis is absolutely for online situations too. Sometimes people will come into my mentions and start tweeting the people who are attacking me. People will re-tweet positive things or cute animal pictures, things like that,” said Jones, who has used the #YouOkSis hashtag to rally support behind black women being harassed online. (Full disclosure: Jones came to my defense on Twitter when fans of radio host Anthony Cumia sent me threatening tweets in the wake of my piece on Cumia’s firing.)

As far as the future of #YouOkSis, Jones plans to keep expanding beyond the computer screen and the sidewalk.

“I have the YouOkSis.org website and a Tumblr. I want to create a resource. Eventually, I’ll have free, online tool kits that people can download,” Jones said.

“For example,  if you’re in a sorority and you’re having a workshop for your sorority sisters or your mentees, you can have these materials available to you to show young women safe ways to respond to street harassment. Same for fraternities who want to teach young men to not harass women on the street.”

Have you ever been the victim of or witnessed street harassment? What did you do?

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.