Sexual Harassment Is Pervasive on Public Transit. Bay Area Youth Are Fighting Back.
A new campaign on Bay Area Rapid Transit, designed and developed by young people of color, encourages people who witness sexual harassment on trains and buses to discreetly intervene.
Stacks of cards saying “I got you,” and “You got me?” have started circulating on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) vehicles this month, with the goal of helping young riders recognize sexual harassment and understand how to safely respond to it. It’s the latest strategy in a yearslong effort by BART and other transit agencies to address a pervasive and damaging problem.
In 2019, the Alliance for Girls, a Bay Area-based nonprofit organization, coordinated a series of youth-led listening sessions with girls of color in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose. The aim of the sessions was to understand the lived experiences of girls and “gender-expansive youth,” including trans, nonbinary and gender-queer kids. In the course of the sessions, the group found that “nearly all the girls talked about everyday instances of being physically or verbally harassed as they took the bus to and from school or traveled by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to meet up with friends,” according to the report, called Together, We Rise.
The group took the findings to BART. Were they tracking incidents of harassment on trains and buses? Did they have an initiative to address it? The answer was no, not really, says Alicia Trost, BART’s communications director. It soon set out to develop a youth-led campaign to stop sexual harassment on transit, called the Not One More Girl initiative. The effort included a public awareness campaign, changes to the agency’s rider code of conduct and an increase in unarmed safety staff on BART vehicles. This summer, the initiative entered a second phase, with new resources encouraging bystanders to discreetly intervene when they witness sexual harassment, and a call to create “a culture of supporting girls when riding transit.”
The initiative was developed by BART along with other area partners, including the Betti Ono Foundation and the Latina Mentoring and Achievement Program at the Unity Council. Together, the groups worked with local girls to develop strategies for intervention that young people could embrace and that didn’t involve the police.
“We knew we wanted the message and the goal of the initiative to be focused on community care and building that courage for bystanders,” says Gaby Guzman, the Latinx mentoring and achievement coordinator at the Unity Council.
An ‘Omnipresent and Consequential’ Problem
Public transit environments can be uniquely conducive to harassers engaging in unwanted verbal and physical abuse, Loukaitou-Sideris and her colleagues have concluded. Crowded vehicles provide both proximity and anonymity, while empty vehicles or stations can be unsafe for other reasons. Other researchers have explored how the pervasiveness of harassment changes the way women, girls, and trans and nonbinary people navigate public spaces. Women’s “sense of possibility and confidence can be bound up with their freedom of movement,” which is damaged by past experiences of sexual harassment and the fear of future experiences, one scholar has written.
Many Bay Area girls avoid using transit at certain times of day or altogether because of the threat of harassment, Trost says.
“Youth are being sexually harassed on transit or on their way to transit, and that has literally impacted their daily life, whether they’re not going to school because of it or changing their patterns,” she says.
Encouraging Careful Intervention
Efforts to combat harassment on transit and in other public places have been growing for years. New York City Transit began running anti-harassment advertisements inside its own vehicles in 2008. Los Angeles Metro began surveying its riders about incidents of sexual harassment in 2013. Campaigns to raise awareness about street harassment and catcalling were elevated by the #MeToo movement. Many agencies now run ads on vehicles and at stations to raise awareness of sexual harassment, and provide resources for both people being harassed and for bystanders. The group Transport for London began a campaign earlier this year urging bystanders to intervene when they witness sexual harassment.
BART’s campaign is unique for centering “the voices of youth and gender-expansive youth,” Trost says. It’s also unique for not involving police.
“We were like, why don’t we just use those phrases? Because that’s actually what y’all said,” she says.
BART began circulating the “bystander intervention cards” at stations and on trains this month. The campaign organizers hope they can help young people begin to figure out “how to navigate and decipher harassment.” For bystanders, they encourage subtle expressions of support for people who ask for it, like standing with the person who is being harassed, texting BART Police or contacting the train conductor. The agency is also displaying posters, designed by a local artist, depicting ways that bystanders can respond to harassment.
“Our goal is just to make sure that we are reducing violence, that we’re bringing awareness and ensuring that people know what gender-based violence is,” says Guzman. “And that we’re promoting and creating opportunities for youth to be involved, and including their voices in these campaigns.”