Tarana Burke: “Lean into Joy”

Tarana Burke’s lecture was uplifting, informative, and engaging. She easily captured the audience's attention as she recounted personal narratives, gave historical background, and explained how she grew up to eventually create the biggest campaign against sexual assault and inspired millions to say “me too.”

Burke began her lecture by describing some of the racial incidents that happened in New York when she was growing up, beginning with the murder of Yusef Hawkins in 1989. Hawkins was one of three Black men killed by White mobs in New York in the 1980s. Burke also mentions the “Central Park Five” and the false and racist portrait of the case in the media. Reflecting on these events set the stage for the rest of the lecture and was important in understanding Burke’s worldview.

Burke then spoke of her experience of being sexually assaulted as a child and feelings of being completely alone. She referenced Maya Angelou’s work about sexual abuse and stated that she remembered thinking, “oh god, there’s two of us.” For me, this was shocking to hear. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up not only carrying this pain around, but thinking that no one else in the world would understand. This is why language is so important, as Burke talks about later in the speech. We need to give people the language to call “a thing a thing”, she says. Burke also spoke on Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” saying she believed every word Angelou said but couldn’t fully grasp the meaning— wrap her head around it. She recounts feeling completely perplexed about how “a person who holds so much pain can also hold joy?” This was a very impactful statement. As a Peace and Conflict Studies major, I have studied trauma and gender-based violence and have had the opportunity to be trained in the Healing Circles. From what I have learned, I believe the difficulty of holding both joy and pain would resonate with a lot of people. It is inspiring to hear that Burke now knows that “wholeness is possible.” And she encourages people to “lean into joy,” saying that “you are not a sum total of what has happened to you.” I will keep this narrative in mind as I enter the social justice field myself. I believe that doing so will help me to hold others with understanding and to encourage them to find in themselves the counterbalancing beliefs that will fend off the remnants of assault and serve to lift them up.

Burke’s story about the 12-year-old girl she calls Heaven was also incredibly powerful. As a camp counselor and mentor figure, Burke was approached by Heaven, who confided in her about her story of sexual assault. Burke didn’t have the space to help her, she said. All she could do was to think, “yeah, that happened to me too.” And Burke let the girl walk away. For a long time, she considered this her biggest failure. Years later, she realized that saying “me too” might have been just what Heaven needed at the time. This realization changed her life and, as a result, the lives of people worldwide.

During the Q&A session, Burke left students with the message that we don’t have to wait for change. I thought it was important to hear Burke’s take on last semester’s campus sexual assault map and “rapists exist at DePauw” signs across campus. She said that the university missed a great opportunity by not discussing these events and creating an action plan for change. She made a similar comment about her fear that people will not use the “me too” movement to open up conversations and brainstorm solutions. It is interesting to draw parallels between the “me too” movement and the campus map, but certainly it has value. Fundamentally, “me too” is about having the courage to not only stand up for yourself, but also to raise your voice on behalf of others. “Me too” is the manifestation of strength under control, a movement that seeks to break the silence of the victim and convert that silence to an authoritative voice of reason that calls upon the best in all of us. It is in these times of injustice and turmoil that it is most important that we realize that we are one. As such, we have a great deal to learn from courageous leaders like Burke. The silence of the majority is a disservice to women and men who have experienced sexual assault. We must come to their sides as a community to denounce this behavior among us. The “me too” movement has shown us how. It is now on us, on college campuses, and across the world, to follow suit. When we do, we will create the greatest defense against this form of violence ever known. Burke’s message to “lean into joy” is not only powerful for survivors, but also is encouraging advice when it comes to advocacy. In order to change, we must recognize all the good the “me too” movement has produced and use it to make the next step.