Founder Tarana Burke speaks about what’s next in the revolution
“…And as she was telling me her story, I kept thinking, ‘that happened to me too.’” That was black activist Tarana Burke, speaking to hundreds of individuals in Coffman’s Great Hall on Friday, Feb. 16, sharing the story of the birth of the #MeToo movement.
Burke described her upbringing as being from a “liberal, activist family,” raised on black feminist books with influences from her grandfather and mother. By the time she was just 14, Burke had such a strong grasp on the problems facing African-Americans that she joined the 21st Century Leadership Movement to begin advocating for rights of people of color in her community and around the country.
“This is why you know me now,” Burke stated, explaining that the support she gained through 21st Century catalyzed her emergence into the field of activism. As a teenager, Burke played a key role in organizing protests in the 1989 Central Park jogger case. Burke’s involvement in the case solidified her desire to be an organizer, later narrowing her focus to addressing issues facing African-American women in her community.
After leaving college, Burke became a camp director at 21st Century Leadership Movement, where she eventually developed a curriculum to foster open discussions amongst campers. At this point, Burke heard instances of sexual violence from her campers on a regular basis yet failed to show her empathy after having experienced it herself. It wasn’t until speaking with a young girl at camp that Burke realized she needed to step up in the fight against sexual violence.
“I wanted that courage, I was looking for that courage,” Burke said, admiring the vulnerability and the trust the girl had placed in her. Another individual with a similar story once told her, “you were the second person I ever told, but the first person to believe me.” From then on, Burke was certain she would dedicate the coming years to the disruption of sexual violence.
Later, Burke ran an after-school program that focused on providing resources for African-American survivors of sexual violence. She explained it as a 21-week rite of passage program that she developed the course curriculum for in a single night. “It makes me tired just saying that,” Burke stated, laughing at her over-ambition for the program. Still, high school teachers were approaching her regularly, saying that the change they were seeing in the participants was remarkable.
Burke transformed the program by making it shorter and unique from other programs for girls. She centered it around the two words “just be,” signifying that they were worthy for existing, and that their self-worth has potential to become greater self-esteem. Burke encouraged girls to forget about media’s skewed representation of African individuals, and rather to remember their history and culture is only truly understood by themselves.
Burke reflected on the lack of resources in crisis centers that has remained unfortunately common throughout time. She shared an anecdote in which she went to a local center to gain more information on their services as a young adult and was disturbed when she was told “we don’t take walk-ins.” From then on, Burke devised a list of resources for young women based on what she wished she had access to at a young age: “I couldn’t find what they knew they needed, so I created it.” She devoted much of her time to establishing language surrounding sexual violence so girls could communicate their feelings after experiencing trauma in an effective manner.
On Oct. 15, 2017, the #MeToo movement took over the internet after Alyssa Milano tweeted, “if you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘#metoo’ as a reply to this tweet.” Immediately, thousands of responses poured in. Burke’s initial response was panic, worried that her activism behind the hashtag would be lost in the coming days. “I spent the entire day thinking I lost my work, but, this was my work.” Burke realized.
Finally, Burke cleared up the 3 most common misconceptions surrounding the movement:
- #MeToo is not about taking down powerful men
- #MeToo is not just about sexual violence in the workplace
- #MeToo is not just for women
Rather, #MeToo is a global movement of survivors working together to interrupt sexual violence wherever it lives and providing healing points to those who need it. Burke concluded the talk proclaiming, “You don’t say #MeToo and stop there, it’s where you start… So please, let’s work together, let’s heal together, let’s change the world together.”