New Orleans A couple of years ago in Oakland, I ran into Rhoda Linton, who I’ve known since the late 60’s when both of us were welfare rights organizers with the National Welfare Rights Organization, she in Brooklyn and me in Massachusetts. She had been working on a brief documentary on an interesting campaign she was helping out on in Myanmar. Turns out before welfare rights and her participation in the famed Syracuse University community action training program featuring Saul Alinksy, Warren Haggstrom, and Fred Ross, she had been a Peace Corp volunteer in a rural area of what was then called Burma. Now having retired, she had gone back there and reconnected to that time in a new century.
She was talking about an interesting campaign. I tried, unsuccessfully to get her to write something about it for Social Policy, and to lure her into participating or helping when the Organizers’ Forum had its international dialogue in Yangon in 2013. Stumbling around though the other day, I found a copy of her film “Whistle Help” (see below) describing the campaign, and coincidentally, though she had only posted the film on YouTube less than six months ago, the film was finished around the same time we were in Myanmar. I wish we could have seen it in action! Rhoda may be reticent, but no reason for me to be, and it was an interesting mini-campaign of sorts and one that could roll a lot farther than Yangon and Myanmar.
The issue was simple. Women, as one interviewee said, “young, old, and middle-aged” in the sardine-packed bus system of Yangon often were groped, touched, and generally sexually harassed by men on a regular, everyday basis. They mostly endured it with some “shame” as another said, but it was all so common that most every woman interviewed seemed to have some experience with the problem, some as recently as last week, and all kept vivid memories of it.
Women started talking to women, no doubt with Rhoda’s help, support, and organizing, and over time an organizing committee of fifteen women, mostly young, started meeting directly and talking about the issue and eventually what could be done about it. From some of the camera shots the unmistakable footprints of her organizing workshops were everywhere, so it was easy to see Rhoda’s fine hand behind the scenes with flip charts here and there and diagrams of actions with targeted pressure.
What they decided to do was get on the streets at early morning bus stops, wearing their campaign t-shirts for Whistle Help, pass out leaflets, and, mainly, pass out whistles. Yes, whistles. The whole point was to encourage women to wear the whistles and keep them handy, and of course to use them liberally on the bus and let out as shrill a sound as they could to shame any man who messed with them again. The women on the film said this went well. One commented that some of the male hawkers even helped them unravel the whistles and distribute on their busses. This is an example of trying to use film as an organizing tool, so it was meant to agitate and promote, obviously and appropriately. A cut-line at the end of the film said that the campaign distributed 30,000 whistles. The campaign was trying for a culture shift, so here’s hoping!
Whistles are easily obtainable and cheap. This problem of sexual harassment on public transportation is also ubiquitous on jammed trains in Mumbai, Buenos Aires, London, and New York. Action is needed and women everywhere can identify with this and participate.
It’s too much to hope for a hula hoop kind of fad here, but it’s not hard to imagine women picking up whistles everywhere in the world where this is an issue, and letting their lungs blow loudly for help whenever and wherever this happens. That’s what Whistle Help could be about.