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Participants in a Hyde Square Task Force workshop to fight sexual harassment planned to highlight the problem today in Jamaica Plain.
Participants in a Hyde Square Task Force workshop to fight sexual harassment planned to highlight the problem today in Jamaica Plain. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

Teens in Jamaica Plain craft a new 'no' to sexual harassment

Yeslinette Burgos says she is asked for sexual favors by males almost every day.

In the 10 minutes it takes for her to walk from the Jackson Square MBTA station in Jamaica Plain to her summer job on Centre Street, Burgos is whistled at, followed, and often peppered with obscenities by groups of men, young and old, who hang out near the housing developments, barber shops, bodegas, and street corners along the way. She just turned 16.

''Every other block there's a guy saying things," said Burgos, a diminutive teen with dyed blonde hair, a pierced tongue, and sheepish smile. ''You walk by, you put your head down, and you walk faster."

It'll get worse when school starts and the crowds at the T station grow larger, Burgos said. But she and a dozen other girls her age who reside and work in the area have devised a plan to deal with their harassers.

They are going to hand the men cards that say ''Please Respect Me" and spell out definitions of sexual harassment. It's a move designed to educate the men and boost the girls' self-esteem, said community organizers who helped guide them -- but it also puts some Boston police officials on edge as they urge the girls to avoid confronting potentially threatening people.

Jackson Square has been the scene for rape and other violence against women.

Last year, 14-year-old Kelly Lee Johnson was stabbed in the abdomen after exchanging heated words with a 15-year-old boy as she waited to take the bus to school at the MBTA station. In November, a 17-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped by five teenage boys after she left the station and was forced into a basement inside the nearby Bromley-Heath Housing Development at gunpoint. Arrests were made in both cases.

''Personal safety comes first," said Boston Police Sergeant Gary Elban, of the girls' initiative to thwart sexual harassment.

The stretch of street between Jackson Square and Hyde Square can be a gantlet for women. On hot summer afternoons, commuters often emerge from the MBTA station confronted with bands of people lingering on the sidewalks. The sounds of car engines racing down the street compete with music blasting through car stereos.

The girls working in Hyde Square, who have worked and held meetings at the Hyde Square Task Force on the issue for much of the summer, want it to stop. Today, they will host an event at the Hyde Square Task Force with skits about their daily trials involving sexual harassment, and will introduce their cards.

''It's sad that I cannot walk down the street in my community because I'm afraid about what the guys might say about my body," said Catherine Medina, 16, who describes her walk to work as ''creepy."

Burgos said she's mastered the art of zigzagging down the street, bounding from one side of the street to the other to avoid the leering eyes and sneers. ''I'm walking up the street and the next thing you know, there's some guys following me, saying nasty things to me; they try to get close to you and touch you," she said.

''Sometimes they look at you in a way that makes you feel violated," said Cisnell Baez, 16, shaking her head.

Working with Hyde Square community organizer Chrismaldi Vasquez, two dozen of the teens completed a workshop on dealing with sexual harassment and devised a plan to hand out the cards; they hope to get local store owners to put up posters about harassment on their storefronts.

''Unfortunately, there's really no recourse for you if you are on the street and someone makes a comment about your breast or pinches your butt," said Abigail Ortiz, a health educator at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center who led the workshops. ''We are trying to get young men to be advocates and stand up for women's issues. We want them to step up to the plate and say to their friends who might be doing this, 'Hey, that's not cool.' "

Elban warns the girls to stay safe by trusting their gut instincts, walking in groups, and creating distance between them and the harassers if they feel scared.

''If there is something about a guy that is telling you not to confront him, handing him the card is probably not the right thing to do," said Elban, who works with the department's Youth Violence Task Force, an antiviolence initiative. If one of the girls wants to confront a harasser, Elban advises that she do it where there's plenty of lighting and many people around.

For Ashley Cotton, 16, it's the middle-aged oglers who especially make her feel uneasy. ''They'll be driving by in their cars, and slow down just to say something rude to you," she said.

Cotton hopes the cards will help the men see that what they are doing is wrong, she said.

''We want to them to get an awareness about how we feel."

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