On April 17th, the Women’s Studies program at my university brought the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, to speak to students, faculty, and the community of Akron. Burke has been named one of Time’s top 100 influential people of the year, as well as one of the Silence Breakers named as Time’s Person of the Year for 2017. An impassioned speaker, Burke captivated the attention of a full room. Conversational and unrehearsed, she shared her story and and the story of her movement—two things inseparable and intertwined by the nature of human experience.
Burke begins by declaring she “doesn’t do speeches.” When she begins speaking, it becomes evident what she means: she doesn’t do speeches—she has a dialogue with the room. First, Burke explains her youth. She makes a point to emphasize her being born and raised in the Bronx because the media has repeatedly gotten this wrong about her—an example of the unreliability of news in the age of Facebook. Burke jokes, “I now understand why professors don’t let students use Wikipedia.” Beyond this, Burke tells us she felt activism in her blood, perhaps growing a taste for it from her historian grandfather and literary mother.
Years before the #MeToo movement, Burke was involved in advocating for the Central Park Five. She asks the sea of people before her if they recall the central park jogger case. The majority of us young college students, there were few hands risen to affirm their knowledge of the case. She explains the nature of the case, the horrible misrepresentation of the young men, and our current president’s involvement in the slandering of these boys. (Side-note: award-winning director Ava Duvernay has confirmed the production of a Netflix mini-series based on the Central Park Five).
To much of America and the rest of the world, the #MeToo movement seemed to have started in the fall of 2017. Tarana Burke wastes no time negating this assumption. She explains that she was involved in an activism group from her youth and through her 20s. In 1996, she was a counselor at this group’s leadership camp when a camper had come forth about her experience of sexual violence. Publicly, Burke refers to the camper as “Heaven.” This is the first time in the night Burke becomes emotional. She described the feeling of deja vu, of knowing this occurrence of a camper opening up about her experience had happened before and would happen again. Burke recalls young girls at the camp telling their stories year after year without anything being done.
Tarana described Heaven as her favorite camper, having developed a closer relationship with her compared to the other campers, but when Heaven shared her story with Tarana, Burke was at a loss for words. She recalled holding back the words, “Me too.”
And that was the seed that grew into years of volunteer work and activism on behalf of survivors.
As Burke took us along the long and emotional journey of her life’s work, she captured the essence of her movement. First, she said, they worked on providing survivors with language to discuss what had happened to them and providing them with the resources they need. She recalls the first time she went out looking for help for these young women: arriving at a rape crisis center, she was turned away because they “don’t take walk-ins.”
Burke proclaims that the heart of her movement relies on “deep empathy” for survivors. She realized that when she was learning to cope with her own experience with sexual violence, this sort of deep empathy from other survivors was the only thing that made her feel powerful again—the only thing that could catalyze her healing process.
At one point in the presentation, Burke told the audience, “Me Too is not a women’s movement, it’s a survivors’ movement. We know that women are largely the faces we see when we speak about sexual violence…but this is a movement that is definitely not just for women, not just for cis people, it’s not just for straight people, it’s not just for able bodied people,” she paused, “It is a survivor’s movement.”
When it came time to discuss with us the movement’s global success last year, Burke became emotional. She said, “Why do I still cry? It’s been six months,” and breathless as she spoke, I could feel the room draw in closer to her. “I had spent my entire life, at that point in service,” she said, collecting herself, “and these women, who were unknown all over the world were doing this bold, brave thing and had nobody to hold them. And I thought, I can’t save everybody… although you can’t tell me that, but…I think of…those first days of these people finding their freedom. This was a freedom that I had watched people revel in for over a decade—this was a freedom that I had seen people take advantage of individually and could never imagine a time that it would become widespread. I could never imagine a world where shame was lifted enough that people could stand up and say ‘Me too!’”
“It was incredible,” she said, “It’s still incredible.”
At this point in the evening, Burke shifted her tone. She wanted to us to know that she was not just there to tell a story, but to provide us the means to continue it. “We have an opportunity right now,” she told us, “that we are going to squander if we don’t change this conversation…Everybody said, ‘watch out for the backlash,’ and we knew the backlash was coming.” Burke looked at the audience, about to confide in us a truth she did not want us to miss. “Well, it is here. Now when we talk about Me Too, the thing you never hear is about survivors. We hear the name Weinstein ad nauseum. We hear men’s names, we hear perpetrators names, we hear accused names. We don’t hear about services for survivors…we don’t hear about that.”
“This is important,” Burke continued, “because if you take nothing else away from this talk, I need you to walk out of this room thinking about the Me Too movement in a different way… When you leave here, you need to know a few things. You need to know that this is not a movement about taking down powerful men…That is not what this is about. This is not about putting targets on people’s backs and taking them down.”
“These women who have spoke up, they are not looking for significance. We are looking for ways to survive. And if we don’t start talking about this movement from a place of supporting survivors, we are having a wrong conversation and we are going to miss a golden opportunity to be different. Right now the thing we need to do most in this country is be different…We can set an example.”
Tarana is compelling us to realize our responsibility in this issue. We must collectively change this conversation from the assailants and perpetrators to the stories of the survivors. We must promote resources and services, and always come from a place of compassion.
At the end of the night, there was time for questions and answers. One woman asked Burke how she had the ability to keep going, to keep working and advocating when times seem discouraging.
Burke responded, “I cannot not have hope.”
You can find our university’s resources related to sexual violence here.