How Trinity students are making history with chalk, a conversation with Empower The Voice

Trinity students Esme Dunne and Grace O’Sullivan talk Empower The Voice, sexual harassment in Dublin, and how they are advocating for change

Dublin is a city rich with history, and Empower The Voice Dublin is making it so. Sitting down with Esme Dunne and Grace O’Sullivan, Trinity students and founding members of Empower The Voice, their passion for the organisation and dedication to sexual harassment awareness was palpable. 

Originally Empower Her Voice, Empower The Voice is a non-profit group that prides itself on community building and raising awareness on the effects of living under patriarchy. On January 8, the Dublin branch officially changed its name to Empower The Voice as a step towards inclusivity for people of marginalised genders.  

Originally from England, Dunne shared how the organisation was conceived at her secondary school and was “passed down from year to year”. During her final year, Dunne describes how she ran the group, which, at the time, primarily involved selling t-shirts, charity fundraising, and posting a “Talk series” where “we would have teachers and students talk on a theme … like short TED Talks chatting about your past experiences”.

When she moved to Dublin, Dunne recalls that she deeply missed the community and organisation, and “was telling all my friends about it, and everyone was interested”. 

In November 2021, Empower The Voice held a launch event in the Workman’s Cellar to celebrate the establishment of the new Dublin branch. Dunne explains that Empower The Voice, following its inception at her secondary school, has spread across the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, also holding virtual classes and events in other countries.

Dunne said: “Now, it is based in London, although I would say that our community in Dublin is a lot more local and grassroots than it is in London.”

Speaking on the Dublin branch, Dunne detailed the “events are what we do, it’s our bread and butter”.

Although community-building events are central to the Dublin branch, their #ChalkBack series is what put them on the map

The group hosts events like painting classes, exhibitions, meet-ups, and more. “It’s a space for creating, getting out of your head, where people have the same experiences as you and you don’t need to speak about them but you just feel understood,” Dunne stated. 

Although community-building events are central to the Dublin branch, their #ChalkBack series is what put them on the map. 

On 3 November 2023, the group made a post on Instagram describing O’Sullivan’s experience during a Trinity Fashion Society (FashionSoc) and Trinity Ents’ Freshers’ Week Pink Party event at Wigwam. On the ground outside the Wigwam entrance, she wrote in chalk: “I was groped here. The bouncer said ‘What did you do to instigate it?’”. Along with the post, they invited others to share their story, unknowingly starting a movement.

Discussing that night and the #ChalkBack series, O’Sullivan said: “The idea was never to boycott the club, it was to draw attention and see that changes have to be made.”

O’Sullivan notes that education on sexual assault and violence is the key to making change: “If people are aware from a young age, it’s all it takes to make change. And that’s just what we are doing: raising awareness.”

Following the post going viral, the group was contacted by Bodytonic, the company of promoters that runs events for Wigwam and other clubs around Dublin. Dunne and O’Sullivan detail that they met with Bodytonic and Wigwam representatives and were able to collaborate on modifications to their code of conduct for bouncers.

“They sent over their code of conduct for review and it included the implementation of a ‘late-night safety officer’ which was great because if you think about it, if you’re in trouble in the club, who is protecting you?” O’Sullivan explained. 

She confided: “I think every single one of my friends has been groped in a club before. It’s very prevalent, it’s everywhere.”

“Molly Malone represents the way we allow women and people of marginalised genders to be sexualised and treated in our society”

Dunne and O’Sullivan noted the Wigwam situation was their “final straw”, prompting them to boost their activism in other areas. They share that for years, the persistent violation of the Molly Malone statue was something they wanted to take action on but did not know how to approach the problem. 

Dunne commented: “Molly Malone represents the way we allow women and people of marginalised genders to be sexualised and treated in our society.”

“As we continue to talk about it, we get feedback from people saying, ‘She’s just a statue’. But if we’re treating statues this way, how are we treating real people? It’s indicative of how we treat women and marginalised genders, and how we allow them to be treated,” she explained.

Largely inspired by the Instagram account @catcallsofNYC, Dunne shared how she had been a fan of their work for years and was surprised that nothing of the sort had made its way to Dublin. The account takes follower submissions sharing catcalls they have experienced walking through New York City, writes them in chalk on the sidewalk, and posts them.

With Molly Malone and Wigwam as fuel, Empower The Voice opened a Google Form, inviting victims of catcalling and sexual harassment in Dublin to share their stories to be written in chalk across Dublin pavements. Thus, the #ChalkBack series was born. 

In the weeks that followed the Wigwam post, Dunne and O’Sullivan detail how hundreds, if not thousands, of messages began to flood in. 

“It’s a lot more attention than we were expecting. But just seeing the attention that it got, it just shows how much of a universal experience it actually is,” Dunne remarked. 

“In Dublin, our culture is yearning for change and looking to make that happen. We’ve come in at a time where Dublin wants to change, and I guess we just accidentally timed it really well.” 

Dunne and O’Sullivan shared how they were recently contacted by Barry Andrews, an Irish politician and Member of the European Parliament to discuss Wigwam, late-night safety officers, and improvement of safety measures across Dublin. 

Dunne detailed: “[Andrews] was looking at Vienna and how they’ve done great work in city planning, widening pavements, and putting mirrors up on street corners to make people feel safer walking home.” 

“He is sending out a letter to Dublin municipalities to see what they have to say and what they are doing in terms of safety. He put us [Empower The Voice] in that letter and the relationship is interesting to see how we can support each other’s work; for him to see what is being done on the ground and for us to see what work has been done institutionally,” she explained. 

In terms of goals specific to the growth of Empower The Voice, Dunne and O’Sullivan agree that inclusivity is at the top of their agenda. The same week that they changed the name of the Dublin branch, Empower The Voice merged with Mind The Gap Ireland (MTGI), a charity organisation dedicated to victim support and awareness of sexual abuse in Ireland. 

On the merge, Dunne said: “I was talking to Destiny who runs Mind The Gap and said I feel like this is really great because we want to be intersectional, it’s my top priority for the year. There is no way we can say we are a community for all people of marginalised genders and only have white people coming along.”

“Then she [Destiny] said we are for black women and we don’t feel we have very many white people or a queer community following us. So there is a space for us to help each other build that and collaborate on community diversity,” she continued. 

Empower The Voice also plans to continue fighting for the implementation of late-night safety officers throughout Dublin, making it a goal for this year. 

In just a few short months, Empower The Voice has already made strides in the treatment of sexual harassment in Dublin. As for what they have in store for the #ChalkBack series, Dunne and O’Sullivan hope to have others join them while chalking in Dublin. 

Dunne shared: “I’d love to start going with the people whose story it is because I think there’s something really beautiful in that.” 

Gabriela Gazaniga

Gabriela Gazaniga is the Deputy Editor of News Analysis and is currently in her Junior Sophister year earning a degree in Law.