We at Liberal Studies take quite seriously the notion that with every new class of students to pass through our halls, we are preparing the next set of leaders in building a better future. The origin stories of alumni like Sophie Sandberg, creator of Catcalls of NYC and Chalk Back—a platform for sharing stories and raising awareness of street harassment, remind us that each class session, every assignment or discussion, is an opportunity to formalize the seeds of inspiration already growing within our students' hearts and minds into concrete action. Having studied in the LS Core, transitioned to Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at CAS, and graduated in 2019, Sophie's meteoric rise as a young activist is a story of turning lived experience into academic exploration into grassroots movement.
But Sophie herself didn't always identify as an activist. In high school, she "thought activism meant something very specific—marching at the front of marches, leading rallies, speaking on the loudspeaker, etc. Being kind of shy, I didn’t always feel like I had an outlet to be vocal about the issues I cared about. Starting Catcalls of NYC, I was excited to find a way to raise awareness in a creative way that suited my personality."
As higher education does for many at its best, Sophie's college experience gave shape to her guiding principles and helped her find optimal ways to express herself. "LS Core classes gave me the space to think about the topics I was grappling with in a larger context. Throughout LS, I found myself writing essays about gender and catcalling in response to our readings. In Writing classes, Cultural Foundations, and even Life Science, I kept exploring gender as an overarching theme both in personal and analytical essays. My time at LS guided my decision to pursue gender studies."
Catcalls of NYC itself actually grew out of a Writing II project with LS Professor James Polchin. Providing just the right amount of encouragement, structure, and support Sophie needed, the course made way for the initiative to explode into the global network of empowered chalk artists it is today. With chapters all over the world making the news (Capetown, Cairo, Ottawa), Chalk Back is already making a difference in denormalizing street harassment in local communities and fostering international solidarity for and among victims.
Now focusing on establishing a non-profit to expand her work, Sophie is committed to "[building] the capacity of Chalk Back members to raise awareness and educate about gender-based harassment using digital media and chalk art. In addition to providing support to the young activists using Instagram, a large goal of Chalk Back is to develop anti-harassment workshops for students at the middle, high school, and university level and plan anti-harassment events both online and in-person."
Even amidst success and lofty goals, Sophie remains humble and offers sage advice for current LS students looking to follow in her activist footsteps:
"It’s so important to start by doing research. If you’re passionate about a certain issue and you want to get involved with activism, you should start to look at what’s already happening around you. Join forces with an organization or group and ask how you can help. Activism and organizing is always about collaboration and connection and uplifting each other's efforts. Sometimes new activists want to go out and do something by themselves. It’s great to be enthusiastic but important not to repeat work that is already being done. Think about your skills and what you can offer.
Beyond that, trust yourself and know that your lived experience is powerful. I never thought I would be able to turn the negative and uncomfortable experience of street harassment into something that makes me feel empowered and joyful. Now I have an amazing community organizing against it. Being able to speak back and find shared experience is a rewarding part of activism.
Finally, accept that you’re always listening and learning and growing. As an activist you may take on the role of an advocate or an educator. But as activists and organizers, we’re always learning and growing too. It’s important to take constructive criticism and continue to grow."
Currently, Sophie continues to give back to the LS community as an alumni representative on the planning committee for LS NYUWomxn100, a year-long series of programming, events, and creative production to honor and celebrate the lives, pursuits, innovations, and achievements of womxn of transgender, non-binary, and cisgender experiences—including those who have been historically overlooked across our global communities.