Urban Freedom Fighter, Audrey Noeltner

My latest interview for The Antidote


Audrey Noeltner, Franco-American social entrepreneur with degrees in Urban Planning from Concordia University, Montreal, and Sciences Po, Paris, co-created One, Two, Three…Rap! to make English accessible for underprivileged youth through Hip Hop, organized forums for grass roots activists in Paris suburbs to exchange best practices with NYC community organizers, and co-founded the NGO Womenability in 2016 to promote gender equality in world cities.

 As an activist, urban planning guru, and a dual US-French citizen of the “Millennial” generation, what’s your perspective on the election of Donald Trump?

 The election was traumatic, devastating, but it was also a great wake up call. It’s America! We can’t give up without a fight! I think this is the last time WASP males will control the government because more women and minorities will demand their rights.

What differences and parallels do you see between your two countries?

Our generation, the Millennial generation, is finding out democracy comes not only with rights but with duties. It requires engagement. For most of human history, we’ve had autocracy, monarchies, or oligarchies. Democracy’s very young and to make it work, we have to invest time and energy. Obama’s election motivated young people, gave them faith in the system, made politics sexy. Unfortunately, Hillary wasn’t able to do that.

What makes me optimistic about the coming French elections is that people here love politics, much more than Americans. Everyone’s talking politics at family dinners and parties. We still have to be extremely cautious. What happened with Trump can happen with Le Pen.

In the US everyone was sure Hillary would win, but they didn’t realize voters in the central states were angry, surviving on the minimum wage or unemployed, denied the American Dream they were promised.

In France we have a similar situation. Unemployment among young people is 24.7%, compared to 11.5% in the US. French young people are angry that so many jobs have been outsourced because of globalization. In the north, most of the factories have closed; people have been out of work for years. Last week I spoke to the mayor of a village near the Belgian border. He said 60% of the electorate voted for Le Pen 5 years ago and he’s afraid the number will be even higher this time. Here in Paris most people are liberals, more like American Democrats, but we can’t just focus on our own social circle.

The problem for our generation, the Millennials, is that we don’t really know how to fight. In France, we’ve never had to fight for anything–abortion rights, health care or free education. Most of us have had access to all that since we were born, but now we see how the system is excluding others. What happened with Trump might scare people enough to create a movement that reinvents democracy to include everyone: Democracy 2.0.

How will a Trump presidency impact women and minorities?

 We’re going to regress on women’s rights and abortion. Without qualified women in top leadership positions, young women won’t have role models like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. And as Meryl Streep said, bullying and negativity don’t create peace. Whether you like Obama or not, his image promoted peace. Trump is promoting hatred of women and minorities.

In this context your work is vitally important. How did Womenability come to be?

In 2015 I was working out in the suburbs at an urban development firm that organized participative town hall meetings. In that area, there were no women in cafés, I had to be careful about what I wore, very few women were taking part in our meetings about how to design the cities of the future. One morning I was biking to work on my pink bicycle and a man assaulted me verbally, using the language of violent rape culture. I was so shocked I told my colleagues, Charlene Ourraki and Julien Fernandez. We agreed it’s not normal that women still don’t have the same freedoms as men. Women get harassed on their way to work, men don’t. If a woman sits on a bench to eat lunch, guys hit on her, as if sitting on a bench is an invitation. Men don’t have to worry about it. It’s not right. I’m an urban planner, I work for cities and I want equal rights there.

So Charlene, Julien, and I went to several NGO’s in Paris, we approached the city government and the ministries. They all said, “We know there’s a problem but we don’t have solutions.” So the three of us founded Womenability to travel the world, see if this was a problem everywhere, look for inspiration and solutions. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”

How did you develop the methodology?

Womenability methodology is based on a Canadian tool called Exploratory Walks. In the 1990’s, there was a lot of crime targeting women in downtown Montreal. The city and local NGO’s were studying ways to make the area safer. They took two-hour walks with different groups, young, old, disabled, and filled out a questionnaire. I worked for the project when I was studying in Montreal. The questionnaire focused on security: Could you hear if someone was chasing you? Would someone hear if you called for help? Would someone see if you got raped? Would you see your aggressor?

For Womenability, the NGO Genre et Ville helped us change the questionnaire to focus more on what makes a place more welcoming for women, what makes women want to be there. We were inspired by the work of Jane Jacobs, in my opinion the most influential urban visionary of our time. To create safe communities, she said we need “more eyes on the street,” more people have to be there. To go a step further, if women feel welcome, they’ll be visible day and night and the better the city will be for everyone.

Our strategy worked on three levels: first, identify world cities with female mayors to raise awareness about gender issues and inspire more young women to go into local politics. Second, collect data on exploratory walks, to see if women feel more welcome in some places, if they are harassed more in others. Third, find solutions by interviewing change makers who innovate for better cities.

How did you finance the Womenability World Tour?

 We were funded by a Swiss foundation, called Pro Victimis, 30,000€, crowd sourcing 7,000€, City of Paris, 3,000€, Ministry of Women, 5000€, in partnership with UN Women France. To continue, we’re looking into consulting for cities. Finding funding takes 30% of your time when you run an NGO.

Where is Womenability on the gender spectrum?

 When we designed the questionnaire, we wanted to include everyone. We asked an LGBTQ NGO for assistance to make sure we included the whole spectrum of identity and sexual orientation represented today. We wanted to challenge gender stereotypes. For example, one question was about street cleaners, police officers, bus drivers, postal workers… are they men or women? Is it 50-50? Reactions were revealing: “Oh my God, only men are doing construction work, only men driving buses, most police officers are men.” Not everywhere of course. For example, in Montreal, you do see women in these jobs.

How do women experience the city differently?

 There are two main areas—accessibility and attractability. Cities are much less accessible and comfortable for women than for men.

Some examples, without getting into stereotypes: Here in France the percentage of women and men taking their kids to school and daycare is really different. It’s still at least 70% women. To drop off your kids in the morning, you need a stroller and few sidewalks, stairs or escalators are adapted for strollers, so it becomes a nightmare. In other countries, Sweden or Bulgaria, there are rails on all the stairs everywhere, so transportation is easy. In addition, women are left out of public meetings and politics. As for sports in France, depending on the area, 70, 80 and even 90% of public recreation facilities, skate parks, soccer fields, basketball courts, are mostly used by guys.

To evaluate attractability, we based our questionnaire on the five senses.

In terms of sight, when you walk down the street, what do you see–groups of men standing around, sexist advertising, women with big breasts selling underwear, sexist graffiti with penises.

In Paris 74% of the streets are named after men. The vast majority of monuments are to men. There are only two metro stops named after women. All the statistics are on our website: it’s a male-oriented décor and this really has to change.

Next, 77% of us don’t like the way cities smell. What do we smell? Often it’s urine, which doesn’t just stink, it reminds us that a few hours earlier, men were urinating, exposing their genitals, marking their territory. Women interiorize this and it makes them feel unwelcome.

Women think twice about taking kids outside with strollers or bikes because it exposes them to pollution, especially in Chinese cities, and in Paris, there’s a lot of asthma when air pollution peaks.

Next, hearing: cities are very stressful due to traffic engines and honking, but even worse, street harassment. Here are some figures:

 According to our data, an average of 58% of women report being catcalled more than once a month. That’s huge: more than half the female population being verbally harassed at least once a month. For 30%, it’s once a week. It’s a real issue. In Montevideo, Uruguay 72% of women are harassed more than once a week. In Zurich 40% are harassed monthly.

In terms of taste, the reactions were more positive because cities offer a variety of foods. 75% of women like the tastes of the city, but hesitate to eat outdoors because of pollution, noise, and harassment.

For the sense of touch, 57% of women don’t like cities because they’re dirty. They don’t want to sit on benches or hold handrails in the subway. So cleanliness is a problem. In this category you can also count physical harassment. 25% of women are physically harassed at least once a month. That’s huge. It varies from place to place: in Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, it’s 69% once a week, in Mumbai, 15% once a month, and in Malmö, it’s 16%, monthly.

Which groups are particularly vulnerable and why? 

The LGBTQ community is by far the most vulnerable to street harassment. When we asked, “Can you express your sexual orientation in public?” 52 % said no, so that’s something we really have to work on. Cities can play a big part in public education campaigns.

Next come women living in poor areas of metropolitan suburbs traveling long distances to work, so more subject to assault. In enclaves of extreme poverty, such as Khayelitsha Township, women have to use outdoor toilets, near bars, where there’s no lighting and a high rape and murder rate. These women don’t have access to the most basic need, sanitation, because they’re afraid for their lives if they go to the bathroom.

Minority women are targets. In France veiled women were harassed after 9-11 and the recent terrorist attacks. In some places there are very rigid patriarchal communities where it’s harder for women to go to cafés because of their culture. Of course, we have to avoid generalizations that discriminate against these minorities. When women were attacked on New Year’s Eve last year in Cologne, Germany, both the Media and the Extreme Right in France used the word “refugees” when it was actually North African migrant workers who had been there more than 5 years. It’s a sensitive issue.

What makes for a gender equitable city?

That’s a great question. It’s important to discuss what’s wrong, but it’s even better to consider solutions. There are three things we can do. First, raise awareness, recognize the problems, collect data about how public facilities are shared between genders. Second, educate municipal employees and teachers about stereotyping, train city planners to create gender equitable cities. Third–gender mainstreaming. We’re collecting best practices around the world, such as changing the way facilities are designed, opening specific time slots for women to practice sports, and providing lighting where needed. Action is possible at all levels, citizens, NGO’s, public authorities, local governments. Of course, to act you need political will and money.

How many countries did Womenability visit?

We traveled for seven months, to 20 cities in 16 countries (France, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Switzerland, USA, Argentina, Uruguay, New Zealand, Japan, China, India, Botswana, South Africa)

Were you in contact with female mayors in the US?

Yes, the most inspiring was Annise Parker, mayor of Houston. She invited us to breakfast, walked to meet us, and walked us to her home. Among other things, Parker spearheaded a campaign to eradicate human trafficking through Houston’s waterfront. It was very refreshing to meet a gay mayor, who adopted four African American children in conservative Texas. She’s living proof you can be anyone you want, whatever your race and sexual orientation. Her love for the city and her dedication to women’s rights were memorable.

What impressed you most on your world tour?

The worse conditions are for women, the harder feminists battle on the ground. That blew me away. For example in Argentina, abortion is illegal, femicide is prevalent and still considered a crime of passion, so men don’t go to jail for killing their wives because it’s “passion”! There’s so much outrage, many women and men are completely engaged and determined to change things. We were fortunate to participate in a walk for Ni Una Mas (Not One More), thousands of women and men in the streets, marching together, Ni Una Mas graffiti everywhere. Old and young, so strong in their feminism, gave me hope.

In India, the situation is horrible for women in public spaces. In Delhi and Mumbai, women can’t go out after 6pm. They have to be with men. There’s a movement called Why Loiter, a group of women who go out on Saturdays between midnight and 2am, without men. They’re just as deeply committed and brave as African Americans who sat at segregated lunch counters and Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus during the Civil Rights movement. When we walked with them, all the men, rickshaw drivers, and even police were threatening them: “You’re asking for trouble, go home!” The women answered, “No, we want to show it’s possible, so men accept women being outside!” Being a feminist there is completely different from being a feminist in Paris. Here people may joke about it, but there, you’re betraying your family’s values. Young women there take risks to change things. People say you’ll never find a husband, or a job. Yet 40 people participated in our walk; it was our biggest one.

When we did the walk in South Africa, men and women chanted, “No more murders, no more rapes!” In the face of tragedy, they were joyful and empowered. Their movement gave me hope, too.

In China, you can go to prison for being a feminist. We spoke with activists there whose lesbian friends kissed at their graduation and had to go into hiding for months because the police were after them. Public toilets there are reserved for men and when women demonstrated, they were arrested. Feminism is dangerous in China. It’s quite a reality check.

We also observed good practices, like positive discrimination. In Malmo, Sweden, we visited a huge indoor skate park, owned by a woman who started “girls only” Monday nights to help girls can catch up with guys on their skills and confidence. There were girls everywhere, fathers teaching little daughters. For soccer, the city ruled that to use public playing fields, every team had to have at least one girl. Certain time slots were reserved for female teams. By comparison, you mostly see guys at skate parks in Paris and New York.

In Wellington, NZ, instead of little green men on the pedestrian crossing signals, they put a woman’s silhouette, and not just any woman. It’s Kate Sheppard, the country’s most influential suffragette. Thanks to her, New Zealand was one of the first countries to legalize women’s suffrage. So now you see the silhouette of a beautiful woman with a big hat at pedestrian crossings there. It’s a small thing but it says a lot. Walking around the Wellington city center is empowering. Next they plan to install a signal representing a famous Cuban transsexual, whose trademark is also a big hat. Cities can do a lot for tolerance on the gender spectrum.

A cool example of ways to discourage public urination: In India, they put tiled images of Hindu gods in problem corners and men stopped peeing there so they wouldn’t get bad karma for committing sacrilege.

Another fun one: In the squares and neighborhoods of Kaifeng, China, every night at 7pm, hundreds of women gather around boom boxes to practice their line dancing with choreographers. Imagine that Place de la République or in Times Square. It’s great seeing women who appropriate public spaces and take ownership of their rights with music and dancing. The city government encourages it with an annual contest to select the best choreography. Women are visible and there seems to be zero street harassment.

I could also mention the breastfeeding booths in New York airports and free Jujitsu classes for women in Japan…

Do you think the US election has awakened dormant feminism and gender awareness?

 The Women’s March got more press coverage than the inauguration. It sent a very positive message to the media and people all over the world. “We fucked up but we’re not going to let women and minorities down.” Seeing millions of women and men, old and young, marching energized me. We’re stronger than ever, united against sexism, misogyny, and racism. Now we all have to return to our communities and organize.

Before, a lot of people in France, particularly young people, saw feminism as something negative, superfluous, “We’re all equal today, it’s only for women who hate men.” The election revealed the truth. America is still sexist and racist. So is France. Male politicians don’t always respect women. To stop Trump, local movements and NGO’s have to work together. To quote my friend Milan Taylor from the Rockaway Youth Task Force in New York, “We have to organize, organize, organize.”

How can we best act for gender equality?

We have to keep speaking out and be proud of being feminists. Raise our voices when we see discrimination. Parents have a huge responsibility to eliminate stereotypes on the whole gender spectrum. If you work in marketing and you see a sexist ad, if you’re in education and you see something sexist in a book, it’s really important to say so.

This was a theme at the 2016 World Women’s Forum where I co-led a panel. Norma Bastidas, World Champion Triathlete and survivor of human trafficking said, “It’s easy, don’t buy sex and don’t buy cheap stuff.” Who makes the cheap stuff? Mostly women and kids, paid nothing. In France, it’s sale season and everyone’s rushing to H&M, Mango, Zara, to buy fucking cheap stuff that isn’t ethical.

I agree with Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy that “Feminism is about solidarity among women.” So don’t buy stuff from Pakistan, where women are practically slaves.

A great quote from DNC CEO Leah Daughtry: “One woman can do everything. All women can do anything.” We have to stick together.

There’s a lot of anger because a majority of white women voters didn’t support Hillary whereas a higher percentage of Black women did. We have to celebrate each other’s efforts. The more successful women there are the better it is for everyone.

What other insights have emerged from your collaborations and conversations since the election?

 At the World Women’s Forum, the consensus was “to build bridges not raise walls.” That’s what we’re doing right now. Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, has launched a campaign to stop street harassment. It’s now illegal to harass women in the street and the fines are quite steep. This sets a new standard. The transit authorities in NYC and Paris have followed suit, so things are moving in the right direction.

Two words have stood out in my recent conversations with women activists: Trust and Care. From now on, they’ll be the focus of my work.

We have to create more trust between ourselves as citizens. In Paris, more than 80% of women think that if they’re raped on the Metro, no one will help them. Rape is rare in the subways here, but women are afraid. We have to restore trust between people, elect trustworthy politicians, restore transparency, find accurate news sources. Society will be better for it.

We need to care for each other and for other women. If we see a woman in trouble in the street, we have to do something. As men and women, we have to care for children and refugees. At the Women’s Forum, I learned that in Saudi Arabia, the word for refugee is “guest.” We need a shift in perspective.

Trust and care must become priorities for our generation.

I do see some positive changes in the business sphere. For example, Shiseido, the Japanese cosmetics giant, is reducing working hours so their employees spend more time with their families. Japanese culture places great emphasis on working long hours for social status and the country has the lowest birth rate in the world. Shiseido is literally turning off the lights in all their buildings at 7pm to make sure employees leave work. The head of Coca Cola just made a statement about being a feminist and committed to making the board of directors 50% female. Even if Trump is president, local communities, cities, and businesses will move forward. We don’t have to wait for politicians.

Deep divisions have come to light in the US, France. The meme is “cities vs. the country.” How can we best heal the divide?

 This is a consequence of urbanization; rural areas have been left behind. I think it can be partly resolved with movements to eat local and produce local, bringing more jobs and artisanal activity back to the countryside. We need journalists to cover what’s happening there, not just the cities, so the public grasps that reality. Life is harder in the country, the standard of living is lower, there are fewer options and facilities.

Here’s an idea: The European Erasmus program is the greatest success the EU has implemented thus far. Americans probably haven’t heard of it, but all EU university students can spend an academic year at another EU university, anywhere they want, Spain, Italy, Germany, 28 nations. It creates unity and pride in European identity. Perhaps we could set up an Erasmus program between rural and urban areas? Outside the cities, most people have no contact with minorities; they have no idea who they are. Racism comes from fear of what we don’t know, so if city people spend time in the country and vice versa, it could change things. If we can reinforce the idea of unity, we can solve many problems.

What do you see as the next step for gender equality, in the US, Europe? 

Mentoring is vital. Women must encourage other women to believe in themselves. Role models like Michelle Obama or Angela Merkel set a precedent, but there remains a great need for mentors, men or women, who stand beside us throughout our careers.

Rumor has it Hillary Clinton may run for Mayor of New York. How much impact could she have?

 As Mayor, she’d be the type of role model we need in New York and across the US, just as Anne Hidalgo is a great inspiration for woman entering politics in France. Hillary would be sensitive to discrimination issues; she could raise money and create programs in favor of girls and women. Most importantly, I believe mayors and local government are the ones who can bring about the greatest social progress. They have leverage that even presidents don’t have. In the US, a mayor can raise the minimum wage, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, educate and create awareness campaigns, establish a sanctuary zone. They can demonstrate and lead by example. Wellington, NZ, Mayor Cecilia Brown rode her bicycle to kick off Hillary Clinton’s official visit as Secretary of State. That was a strong statement.

Mayors are more like CEO’s than politicians. They can move faster than national governments. Mayors of the 40 largest cities in the world are acting locally with global impact through the C40 organization. They’re doing amazing things: reducing greenhouse gas emissions more than the COP21. So I think Hillary could have major impact as mayor of New York.

Where are you in your work right now?

I’m no longer president of One, Two, Three…Rap! My good friend Hatoumata Magassa has taken the helm and is opening an office near Paris, in the first ever Hip Hop cultural center in France. Our MOOC, “PimpMonAnglais,” was just selected as the “Most Original MOOC” at the Google France My MOOC Awards. It’s exciting to see my first venture growing up.

Charlene Ouarraki, Julien Fernandez, Gabriel Odin and sixteen Womenability volunteers are analyzing data from the World Tour for our final report, to be published on March 8th for International Women’s Day. Julien Fernandandez, Marguerite Carlo, and Ilona Mitrecey are editing our videos of outstanding activists and inspirational female mayors for a webdocumentary. Also in the works: exhibits and an international forum with the mayors and our partners, to expand awareness and share solutions.

Everything is on womenability.org

How do you see the world of tomorrow?

The future lies in the cities; they’re the solution, not the problem. They’ll reduce climate change, create less waste, recycle more. More people will be biking. Women will be safer. Women, minorities, and youth will be involved. Mayors, planners, all those creating cities of tomorrow, will include all ages and their visions. We’ll learn to trust and care for each other.

I’m very optimistic. Thomas Friedman said pessimists are often right and optimists are often wrong, but optimists are the only ones who change the world. I believe in my generation. We’re going to wake up and take action, get off social media, go out, be part of a movement, get our candidates elected, or become candidates ourselves.









Float Us


Sometimes I want to fly away…from the news, from my daily routines, my endless thought loops… Had a fantasy of total unplugging for a while this summer but of course that’s not possible and perhaps not advisable…History is in the making and luckily I saw FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. There is hope for our country if such a human being is in the arena. What a heart, what intelligence, what a beacon for our children and the future. And there are others… If you haven’t seen it yet, here is a link to Meryl Streep’s tribute to Hillary Clinton at the Women of the World Conference 2012, please watch it:

I’ve been following Hillary’s career for a long time. As Chairman of the Children’s Defense Fund, she came to France in the early 90’s, before she was FLOTUS, to study the French Pre-K and Kindergarten program (one of the best in the world) and make recommendations for the US.

In France, Day Care Is Every Child’s Right – NYTimes.com

When I was looking into pre-schools for my daughter in Paris, my friend Janet sent me a copy of the commission’s glowing report.I enrolled my little one at the local maternelle and we were delighted with the experience. That’s another story… Meanwhile these women float us above the heaviness and temptation to despair. Let us set intentions full of light for the future, let our hearts float on enlightenment… To be continued… xxxxx  Aliss