If you’ve ever had an uncomfortable situation on TransLink and didn’t know what to do, there’s now a website for that. “Harassment on Translink” was started by SFU students Katie Nordgren and Alexa Dredge as a project for their GSWS course, and aims to raise awareness of unwanted attention on local transit — attention that is mostly gender-based — by posting anonymous stories of harassment on TransLink services.
Nordgren and Dredge launched the blog on Oct. 21 with the mandate to “compile stories of these experiences to demonstrate the reality and severity of this particular issue to TransLink and the City of Vancouver.” Since then, the project has been covered by various local media outlets, including CBC, Huffington Post, and The Province.
Since starting to gather personal stories, the duo has defined three categories of perpetrators of harassment: the drunk or disorderly, the criminally aggressive, and the “nominally ‘well-intentioned’ romantic,” as they put it. The latter refers to the everyday instigator of conversation who does not intend malice, but who will not respond to social cues that indicate discomfort or disinterest.
“Public transit straddles the territory between a private and public space and is therefore difficult to moderate.”
– Alexa Dredge, SFU student
The creators have posted a disclaimer on the website to address the misconception that they are in some way pinpointing individuals who were perpetrating this harassment, specifically the mentally ill. Nordgren and Dredge expressed that they are not pointing fingers at any one group, including TransLink, and stated that the issue goes much deeper than that.
“We’d like to facilitate discussion in a manner which neither blames TransLink nor individualizes the problem by placing the responsibility for intervention solely on those who are being harassed,” said Dredge.
“We think that gender socialization is a real culprit here,” added Nordgren, who went on to discuss how learned gender roles play into this scenario, stating that in its simplest form, men are taught to be assertive and to go after what they want; conversely, women often feel like they must be polite and engage in conversations they may not want to have.
Nordgren and Dredge were careful to stress that blame should not fall on victims of harassment. “We want to be careful not the put the burden of protection on the victims of harassment and assault,” said Nordgren. “We truly believe that nobody deserves to be violated, whether that’s physically or socially, and that when people are victimized, we do them no services by asking what they could’ve done differently to avoid being hurt.”
This being said, in the moment that the incident is happening, there are a number of ways to de-escalate the situation (see sidebar).
“In order to promote equal engagement in our communities, public services must be equally accommodating and inviting,” said Dredge. “Additionally, it may be women who disproportionately need transit because of economic reasons.”
She continued, “Public transit straddles the territory between a private and public space and is therefore difficult to moderate.”
“Much like the anti-rape slogan of ‘no means no,’ no still means no outside of a bedroom context,” stressed Nordgren. Some argue that it is already difficult to address strangers in this city and that this attitude would serve to further alienate people from one another. Not so, said Dredge.
“We don’t necessarily want to promote antisociality or vilify someone for trying to strike up a conversation, but to be conscious of the line between acceptable and unwanted attention,” she explained. “Disregarding a refusal . . . indicates a lack of respect for personal limits and is threatening — even if the person transgressing them intends to be complimentary.”
The dynamic duo see their biggest priority being getting their mandate out to more people to collect their stories, but would love to eventually partner with TransLink in order to develop tangible solutions.
In fact, they are well on their way: since their unexpected media spotlight, the women have been in touch with Transit Police through media relations person, Anne Drennan. Nordgren lauded their support, as the media pressure has led TransLink to reveal ahead of schedule the strategies they had been planning to implement addressing this issue, which include an app, a text alert system, and a system-wide anti-harassment campaign.
Nordgren and Dredge have experienced some negative attention, but responses have generally been supportive, an encouraging sign that as a community, it is possible to address even those issues that are embedded in our everyday as we vie for greater change.