When was the last time you saw a billboard flashing messages about consent, respecting women or street harassment? I’d guess never.
I had never seen one either, until a few days ago when I drove to Lancaster, Penn., and stood in front of a digital billboard along Dillerville Rd. displaying these three messages. As an anti-street harassment activist, I was especially excited by one reading, “Street harassment? Not cool. Women are NOT prey. Respect women. Respect Yourself. hu-manup.org”
The billboard messages were made possible by the new nonprofit the planet project and their initiative hu-MAN Up. I met with co-directors Adele Taylor Ulrich and Ray Manlove, both theater professionals and social-justice activists, whose work has included addressing sexism and sexual violence. They believe in using unconventional methods to reach as many people as possible; other tactics they’ve used include sidewalk chalk messages and flyers placed by urinals in men’s bathrooms.
Earlier this year, they launched a call for image and spoken-word submissions focused on rape culture. All image submissions were exhibited in the spring at Lancaster’s Zoetropolis Art House and Theater, and community members performed a play devised from the entries. While the event was very successful, like so many anti-violence events that take place nationwide their audience was comprised of people who were already informed about sexual violence and sexism. So they decided to take their messages to the general public through the billboard campaign. Said Manlove,
We have to raise public awareness. We have to stop having this issue in the closet. We need to get it out in the open. Now that I’m in my 60s, I really feel a sense of urgency to push to change our culture in as many ways as I can, as quickly as I can.
The placement of their billboard is strategic: It’s near Franklin and Marshall College (F&M), which is under a federal Title IX investigation for its handling of sexual assault reports. The campus is supportive of the billboards. Said Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland, Ph.D, director of the campus’s Alice Drum Women’s Center,
In this age of constant advertising and visuals that objectify women’s bodies, the messages on these billboard seem like they could serve a key function. These are important reminders that we need to hear and see more of: Street harassment is not okay. Rape is not okay. Respect for women matters.
The Alice Drum Women’s Center, according to Luttrell-Rowland, is “doing work around gendered violence. We run a public speaker series and ongoing leadership trainings and discussions that align with similar messages as these billboards.” The center also addresses “interlocking systems of oppression” and teaches and talks about “racism, classism, ethnocentrism, homophobia and transphobia, as well as about sexism.”
College spokeswoman Cass Cliatt talked to me too, saying, “We feel there is value in initiatives that seek to build constructive partnerships.” They are currently exploring ways to collaborate with hu-MAN Up on educational programs and outreach around campus sexual assault prevention.
hu-MAN Up hopes to bring their messages to billboards near other Lancaster college campuses and to build partnerships with them, too. So far, says Taylor Ulrich, the billboards have received nothing but positive responses from the Lancaster and F&M campus communities. “I believe they will help F&M step up their game when it comes to dealing with sexual assault,”says F&M senior Mackenzie Oettel, who has experienced street harassment many times and sees it as “a major issue that needs to end.”
Adds Lancaster resident Ky Harris, who has many friends attending F&M, “I think the billboards are a great idea for fighting back.” He notes that to change the culture, “it takes a lot of ‘calling someone out’”—something he does with friends and teammates.
The billboard messages will be on display through September 6. hu-MAN Up has an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to expand the billboard campaign and launch a bus ad campaign in Lancaster as well. If they raise enough funds, they plan to buy ad space on billboards in other cities next year.
Taylor Ulrich and Manlove especially hope to mobilize men with their campaign. “Until men become engaged and involved in the work, change will come slowly,” Manlove says. Adds Taylor Ulrich,
We need to ask good guys out there to speak up safely. They need to know that when they witness sexism, harassment and violence and are silent, it makes them complicit.
Photos of Ray Manlove and Adele Taylor Ulrich in front of two of the three Lancaster billboard messages. Photo credit: Mark Hutchens.
Holly Kearl is the founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment and author of two books about street harassment, including the just-released 50 Stories about Stopping Street Harassers. She also works as an international consultant for the United Nations’ Global Safe Cities Initiative.