Tarana Burke Speaks At UI: "I Cannot Not Stop Working For Justice"

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a free public lecture given on campus by Tarana Burke, who you may know as the founder of #MeToo. I was also able to be present for a small, student-led discussion held earlier that day. To say that both experiences were amazing would be an understatement.

At the beginning of the evening, she said what she was about to deliver wasn’t a speech as much as it was a loose collection of notes she’d made because she “wasn’t any good” at public speaking. I have to respectfully disagree: She has an incredible presence in a room. Whether speaking to several hundred people or sitting with a couple dozen students, the passion driving her to work hard to put an end to sexual violence shines through. Her observations demonstrated the amount of thought that goes into her activism.

For instance, she freely admitted that she doesn’t have all of the answers, and that someday she will most certainly pass the baton to a younger activist. She also stressed the importance of listening to the most marginalized voices in any given situation because any solutions that help them will naturally help those with more privilege in this world.

During the student discussion Q&A session, I asked her how she deals with activist burnout and she told me when she’s starting to feel overwhelmed, she takes stock of the situation and finds something different she can do to help the cause. It was one of those answers that seems so obvious in retrospect, but sometimes you just need to hear it said out loud for the message to really sink in. If what you’ve been doing isn’t really working for you any longer, it makes so much sense to try something new.

She also spoke about the need to have more discussions about how healing is possible. Without saying that we have to forgive our abusers, without pretending that healing is easy or even linear, she reminded us that it is possible to find happiness, peace, purpose and solidarity.

Toward the middle of her lecture, she said something I can't stop thinking about: “I have a heart that cannot not work for justice.” I wish I’d been able to go up afterward and thank her personally, because she just put into words why I care so much – why I can’t stop caring. I’m stubborn and passionate and fiery when it comes to issues of human rights and social justice… and here she was, so concisely and elegantly putting words to that feeling.

Since coming to Iowa in 2015, I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of activists, writers, and other people I admire. While I’m grateful for each and every such opportunity, I have to say that Ms. Burke’s lecture was by far the best. Her remarks will stay with me for a long time, urging me to stay the course no matter how hard it gets.

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