As #MeToo hit a fever pitch late last year, Karen Leibowitz, the co-founder and director of communications at the Perennial in San Francisco, found herself speaking with other women in the restaurant industry about how to address sexual harassment. With a little inspiration from the well-known choking-victim sign created for New York City restaurants in 1989, and the help of New York–based designer Kelli Anderson as well as Cherry Bombe co-founder Kerry Diamond, Leibowitz created a poster that instructs restaurant workers on how to document and report sexual harassment in the workplace. Available for purchase via Cherry Bombe, the poster has already been translated into Spanish, with a Chinese version currently in the works. Grub spoke with Leibowitz and Anderson about how they came up with the idea for the poster and their hope that it will make its way into every kind of workplace.
Karen, you came up with the concept. How did you arrive at the idea of a sexual-harassment poster?
Karen Leibowitz: I’m half in the restaurant world and half in the writing world. I’m based in the Bay Area, and I was on a conference call with a bunch of other women in the food world, mostly women who run their own businesses, and we were trying to strategize around how to support the restaurant workers who were at businesses where these allegations had come up. I just kept saying, like, ‘What kind of steps do we want to take to make the world that we want to see?’ You know? As opposed to punishing people that have done wrong or expressing solidarity. I was like, ‘Let’s get into the nitty gritty of how we can do better.’ Then, not long after, I was a different gathering of women in the food world and I was sitting across the table from Kerry Diamond from Cherry Bombe. And I was like, ‘Kerry, you should just publish the poster that says what you should do if you experience this.’ Just straight to the restaurant workers because she had this #86This project and she was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
How did you get connected with Kelli, the designer behind the poster?
KL: When I first imagined it, it said, like, if you experience sexual harrassment, you are not powerless. That was my main message. And then when I imagined the poster in the restaurant, what popped into my head was the choking posters I used to see when I was in New York. So, that was sort of the concept and then I called my friend Wendy MacNaughton, who in addition to being a great illustrator in her own right has been involved in this project, Women Who Draw. I asked her for recommendations and she was like, ‘I know who to set you up with.’ So, Wendy set us up and it was a match made in heaven.
Kelli Anderson: When I heard about this project, it was a total no-brainer. The truth of the matter is it doesn’t do anyone any good for people to feel unsafe where they work. The employers don’t want that. Your co-workers don’t want to work in an environment with a crappy culture. And there’s existing legislation that protects people from it, but people don’t seem to know about it. It really was like, we need to get a physical reminder in the space that people have the right to feel safe. If you don’t, you can speak up. Your manager wants to hear about this, your employer wants to hear about this, and it’s illegal.
KL: Yeah, and I think that it’s also important that it look good, because no one wants to be the party pooper who’s like breaking up the jokes or something. But if you can create a new culture where it’s cool to be standing up for your rights and your co-workers’ rights, that is what we want. We’re not taking as a baseline that it sucks. We’re taking as a baseline that there are these laws in place to protect workers, just like we have minimum-wage requirements and we have a poster outlining it so that everybody knows it. No one looks at that poster because it’s poorly designed. I wanted to make a poster that everyone’s like, ‘Oh, what is this?’ So, Kelli had the idea of using the colors that we used, that would be eye-catching and cool. And kind of the way how it’s a joke on the choking [hazard sign] makes it something that’s more appealing to have in your space.
What changes did you make for your version?
KA: We changed the colors. I had originally mocked it up in the choking-hazard colors and we’re like, ‘Do we really want people who are choking to run towards this poster and possibly derail a Heimlich maneuver effort?’ But then I realized it would be cool to do this totally inverted wild-color, alternate-reality version of the poster just to really bring home that message that this is subversive. We are being playful and it’s cool, but it doesn’t make anyone a victim. It empowers people.
Kelli, on your Instagram you said that creating this poster made you revisit a Susan Sontag essay about posters versus public notices.
KA: Yeah, there’s a great Susan Sontag essay about posters versus public notices. In this essay, she makes the distinction between signs in our shared public space that are intended to sort of control. Like advertising is intended to create desire for things that didn’t exist yet and manipulate. Versus things that are meant to empower the citizenry and get people active whether it’s watching out for rat bait or not crossing the street in this place because it’s dangerous. It was written in the ’60s, I think, but it’s still relevant today.
KL: And just to bring it full circle, Wendy’s dog is named Susan Sontag.
Have you seen this in any restaurants yet? Do you know of any restaurants that it’s popped up in yet?
KL: Well, mine. And then there’s a full-size poster available through Cherry Bombe, but we also printed 5x7 cards, and we have them available for free at the Perennial in our bar. So, you can just come in and say, I want to hang this up and hopefully have a conversation as well. I’ve heard from restaurateurs and also a butcher. And frankly, it’s not specific to the restaurant world. The image that we used is evocative of the restaurant industry, but all the advice is applicable to any industry. So, what I really want to hear about is places where it’s up in an office.
Have you thought about how, in a way, you’re equating being sexual harassed with choking. The poster plays with the idea that it’s as important to know how to deal with sexual harassment as it is to know how to save a life. Am I reading too much into that?
KL: No. I think when we first started emailing images back and forth, I sent Kelli an image of a woman holding her neck like she was choking. And I was like, that’s the feeling. That image of ‘I can’t breathe’ is sort of the feeling of sexual harassment in the workplace and the way that she looked like she couldn’t talk, you know, really felt like the right fit to me. So, that sense of helping people thrive, like breathe easily [is part of it].
KA: I mean, Karen said thriving. That really resonates with me, too, because I’ve just had so many friends over the years who complain about this stuff happening in their workplace, and it really does make life hard to live. It’s hard to get up and go to work if you know that you’re going to have to deal with bullshit all day. So, if we can fight that, it really helps people have lives and careers that are sustainable in terms of mental health and helps make a life worth living.
KL: And I’ll say this: When I was younger and experienced sexual harassment, I didn’t know what to do. And now that I am older and a boss, I want to make sure that people know what to do if they are experiencing this.