Shortly after my mom came down with COVID-19, we were running out of Tylenol for her fever and headaches. I rushed out to the pharmacy to find some. The first pharmacy didn’t have any. The second pharmacy didn’t either. The third… still no luck. Discouraged, I headed to the exit, face mask firmly in place when I noticed a man lingering there. I froze. Not wanting to enter his 6-foot radius, I waited for him to exit. When he finally walked out the door and I exited behind him, he muttered to me, “You dumb bitch.” He was walking in the same direction as me, slightly in front of me, and continued to call out to me over his shoulder, “dumb bitch.” I had to turn around and go the other way. I was worried he would turn around too and follow me. I was confused about what I had done to provoke this and mainly, I wanted to cry. I found myself walking quickly and looking behind me frequently, unsettled by the quiet New York streets. I was exhausted in a number of ways. I headed home to a sick mom with no Tylenol, stomach-turning from the harassment I faced unexpectedly.
I lead Chalk Back, an initiative against gender-based street harassment that started with my Instagram account @catcallsofnyc and grew into a global movement. Chalk Back is a collective of amazing young activists from around the world who use sidewalk chalk to raise public awareness, share stories, and reclaim spaces. We write word-for-word phrases of harassment on the streets where they happened to take back power and show all passers-by what was said. Then we take photos of the chalk to share on social media with the first-hand story of what happened. The street and social media are two equally important public spaces we use for our work.
Starting this work, I was motivated by the anger that came from my first experiences of street harassment as a teenager. Writing down the comments on the streets in chalk has been a way to transform that original feeling of being silenced and helpless, into using my voice, reclaiming spaces, and building a community of solidarity.
My experience of activism during COVID-19 cannot be separated from my mom’s illness. While caring for her during this time, I balance feeling a heightened sense of vulnerability with my role as an activist and caretaker.
Day 1 was the hardest. When the fever and body aches hit and my mom’s doctor said it was almost surely COVID, I was so scared about the uncertainty of what was coming. About a week later, she was having tightness in her chest, a sign that she might need to be hospitalized. With a lack of clear treatment options, waiting and anxiously monitoring her symptoms has been the most difficult part. Encountering the constant stream of news on social media with rising death tolls makes me feel so vulnerable to loss. This week marks the 7th week of my mom having COVID. Despite the relatively moderate nature of her symptoms, the illness has been a marathon.
Inside the house, COVID is in every conversation. How is she feeling? What can I do? How can I take care of her? How can I protect myself? I can’t hug her when she feels scared or upset. The mental and emotional impacts are as hard as the physical ones. During this time, I’ve taken on the unexpected role of care-taking for my mother. Providing care, both tangibly by cooking meals and doing dishes, and less tangibly with tenderness, empathy, and strength (not letting her see my fear or concern and staying positive), has given me a greater first-hand appreciation of the mental, emotional, and physical impacts of care-taking.
As I continue to face harassment and deal with my mom’s illness, I feel scared and vulnerable. This was true on my walk to the pharmacy but also in the online public space. As our work telling stories of harassment is relegated online, the harassment that exists there feels louder and more concentrated. Even as we fight back against it, it continues to happen– a cyclical reality that evokes a sense of powerlessness. Most obviously, when I did a live chat on Instagram about online harassment, there were harassing comments coming in live too, sexualizing and insulting me.
Moments of powerlessness will no doubt continue. COVID is a particularly extreme example. This experience has made me realize that I will always look -at the Chalk Back community as a family of support.
Growing Chalk Back, I do my best to foster a sense of joy and belonging in our collective work. This work isn’t easy. Both writing on the streets and listening to stories of sexual harassment require immense bravery. I care for each activist in the movement as individuals and encourage them to speak about their thoughts, dreams, feelings, fears, struggles. The level of care present in our community has made Chalk Back what it is.
The Chalk Back movement has taken care of me in two respects. While dealing with my mom’s illness, I have continued to fight and feel the power of my own activism, not instead of but alongside feeling vulnerable and worried. The wonderful people in the movement have taken care of me. Some explicitly by checking in every day and others just in continuing their work. They’ve shown me that however upended things may be by the pandemic, we will keep on keeping on. In our resilience, we lift each other up and nourish each other with our friendship and activism. The vulnerability, fear, and anger we all feel continue to be fuel going forward.
Image credits: REUTERS/Mike Segar
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