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How a simple clipboard can impact safety on the street

When I worked as a door-to-door canvasser in the greater Los Angeles area, I was repeatedly amazed by the power that a simple prop like a clipboard conferred upon me when I approached strangers. And others' perception of me possessing some sort of unknown power or authority over them often kept me safe in situations that might otherwise have looked like an opportunity to victimize me.

Photo of Anastacia Gutierrez
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I worked for several months as a door-to-door canvasser in the greater Los Angeles area in 2005.  It was a fascinating (if unintended) social research experiment, giving me a totally new perspective into communities, neighborhoods and households that would be difficult to obtain in other ways.  But as a young woman walking on streets after dark and approaching strangers to discuss issues/fundraising, I did take note of the impact that holding a simple clipboard had on my perceived and/or real safety.

I felt fairly confident and secure in my work, so I am sure that that was the most powerful deterrent to abuse in my case.  However, there were a few times, in sketchy neighborhoods (for instance one in which gun fire was heard and then none of the residents were willing to open their doors due to their own fears) where I noticed that the difference between having a clipboard in my hands and not having one was significant.  This I believe was for the following reasons: to others, that clipboard signified and conferred upon me a certain level of authority and purpose.  Of course, in reality, it did no such thing!  But the image it created for people passing me on the street caused them to wonder who I was, what I was doing and if I was a threat to them.  Was I a government official, someone important, etc?  It was such a simple prop and yet it held a surprising amount of power when I was out there meeting people face to face.

I believe that finding ways to create that kind of social response, to tip the balance in favor of women in a way that makes them perceived as powerful and/or capable of enacting consequences when faced with injustice, rather than powerless and easily victimized, has to be a central part of making communities safer.

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Photo of Amanda Steutel

This is a very simple and possibly effective concept! It is just a matter of finding something that is a cultural 'signifier' of authority in each of these specific developing countries and then to find a way to use them where the authority is passed over onto the female subject (instead of contrast effect, and the object or measure loosing the authoritative effect because it is possessed by a female/ i.e. a baby holding a clipboard)

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Really interesting share, which points at how it might send a signal to others, but also made you feel more confident and thus sending another type of signal to others.
It reminds me of traveling in a very Muslim area of Indonesia with my 3 years-old son and a friend of mine. We were two Caucasian women and in some villages, we felt quite awkward. However, having with us a little boy made us felt safe... and while there were unfriendly looks, things said (which we did not understand but did not seem friendly), nothing ever happened. Walking holding his hand made me feel secure; I also felt responsible of him.

It's an interesting version at the personal level of the broken window theory:
http://www.openideo.com/challenge/womens-safety/research/how-details-might-influence-safety-in-urban-areas-what-can-we-learn-from-broken-windows-theory

To Amanda's point, we need to figure out the cultural interpretations .

Photo of Anastacia Gutierrez

Ah, yes, the broken window theory you've outlined, Anne-Laure is very appropriate! It ties as well to another idea/discussion I was having on the following contribution: http://www.openideo.com/challenge/womens-safety/research/low-cost-low-tech-alerts-to-the-community
Both ideas center around the premise of introducing simple and cost-effective improvements to the environment which signal on-going monitoring (and thus consequences to criminal activity).

Photo of Anastacia Gutierrez

Also, can you elaborate at all on why you felt more secure with a young child with you? I do think having the responsibility for the safety of another (especially children) can help to shift one's perspective away from fear and more towards proactive protection, but was there another element to it for you and your travel companion? Was it tied to the cultural protections extended to children in the area? And did it being a boy specifically make a difference for you?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

I think having a young child gave me the sense that people would not dare bothering us. I felt that people won't harass a mother. They never did. Yet, I can't say if they would have if my son had not been with us.

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Wow, what an unique observation. This makes me wonder how, if at all, the various props I have in hand—phone, notebook, or book usually—affect others' perception differently than if I were carrying nothing.

On the topic of safety, a friend told me that in the rare occasions he feels unsafe, his instinct is to pull out his phone, but thinking on it, he became unsure if that would deter potential wrongdoers or make him more of a target for theft.

Photo of Anastacia Gutierrez

I would think that a phone would deter wrongdoers unless it is theft (of the phone or other valuables) that is being targeted. But in cases where a stranger is threatening a person bodily or verbally, having a phone out seems like a reasonably good counter-response...of course, I guess that would also depend on how responsive the police force or surrounding community is perceived as being? If your call to someone to report a problem or ask for help is likely to be dismissed then calling someone wouldn't seem like a very big deterrent to criminal activity.