Me Too Creator Tarana Burke Speaks to AU
a phaze magazine exclusive
By Sophie Austin
Tarana Burke, creator of the #MeToo movement, came to American University on Saturday, February 10th, 2017 to speak to students and faculty about fighting sexual violence through activism. Burke shared her own experiences as well as empowered students to actively combat sexual violence.
American University’s Student Government Group: Women’s Initiative brought Burke to Campus. Women’s Initiative “helps coordinate and advise campus departments and committees on programming and policy decisions that affect marginalized students, faculty, and staff,” according to its website. The organization also helped bring Malala Yousafzai to campus in September.
Before Me Too
Burke began the talk by informing the audience about how her background has helped her become the activist she is today. Burke mentioned that she is from the Bronx, correcting the detail of her Wikipedia page which cites her hometown as Queens. She described growing up with a “radical black family” who was very left-leaning. She said that her childhood experiences offered her “a rich understanding of (her) history and culture.”
“We were the kind of family that had a birthday cake on both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s birthday,” Burke said.
When Burke was 14, she came across the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement. 21st Century’s mission is to inspire high school students to “take on leadership positions” and “give back to their communities,” according to its website. Burke became a member of 21st Century four years after its 1985 inauguration. “Youth development was sort of a new thing happening around the country and so we were at the forefront of that work,” she said.
One of her first experiences at 21st Century involved organizing an “anti-Trump” protest in 1989, according to Burke. The protest was in reaction to Donald Trump making insults about the men convicted in the Central Park jogger case. She said that his comments doubled-down “on the stereotype of the scary black man who was running through New York raping white women”. The Central Park jogger case involved five teenagers of color who were falsely accused and later convicted of raping and murdering a white woman while she was jogging in New York’s Central Park in April of 1989. In May of 1989, Trump called for the death penalty to be utilized in order to bring to justice the five teenagers accused. Matias Reyes confessed to committing the crimes against the woman in September of 2002.
In later years, Burke’s activism took the form of providing empowering women and girls to develop their self-esteem. During the talk, Burke recalled a time when a young woman confronted her and told her about her experience of being sexually assaulted. Burke said that she was unable to verbally show her support for the woman in the moment. Afterwards, Burke realized that all she wanted to say was: ‘Me Too’. Burke wanted to let her know that she was not alone.
Burke founded the Me Too movement in 2006 in order to aide survivors of sexual violence, according to a feature Burke had in Business Insider. In its beginnings, the movement specifically focused on the experiences of “black and brown girls,” Burke said. She then went on to say that the movement has expanded its support to survivors of various racial and gender backgrounds.
Seeing the First Hashtag
In October of 2017, Burke’s friends began notifying her that ‘#MeToo’ was becoming increasingly popular on Twitter. Burke then examined the pervasiveness of the hashtag with the assistance of her daughter.
“I’ve seen what happens when a black woman’s work gets too popular,” Burke said. “I was terrified when I first saw it. And I thought: what is going to happen if this thing gets really popular? Will I get erased?”
Burke said that after reading survivor’s stories on Twitter, something shifted for her. “It went from sort of panic that I had around my work being erased to realizing that this was my work happening right in front of me,” she said. The Me Too movement strongly advocates for “empowerment through empathy” Burke said. She clarified that its purpose is not to destroy the legacies and careers of men in powerful positions. Instead, it focuses on forming a bond between survivors of sexual violence and making them realize they are not surviving in isolation.
Sexual Violence on College Campuses
“How can you heal in a community where you were hurt? Right? We get hurt in our communities and we stay in those same places and nothing changes. This college campus is a community. People get hurt on this college campus, that means something has to change,” Burke said to the audience.
Burke spoke about her experience visiting and speaking at college campuses. Most recently before visiting AU, Burke spoke to students at Cornell University. A survey taken by Cornell students revealed the three most common reasons people do not report sexual violence, Burke said. People chose not to report because they are focusing on other tasks, they do not believe their case is serious enough or they want to forget that the occurrence took place. Burke also recognized the work of AU’s Sexual Assault Working Group. The Sexual Assault Working Group is in place to ensure “continuity in sexual assault prevention commitments” and helps “shape AU's intervention strategies” in dealing with sexual violence. Burke also mentioned her appreciation for the signs from OASIS that hang in the bathroom stalls to advise survivors on what steps they can take after they have been victimized.
What’s Next for Me Too?
“It’s not enough to celebrate me as an individual if we are not going to interrogate the reasons why I started doing this work,” Burke said.
Burke reiterated the importance of supporting survivors rather than focusing on perpetrators of sexual violence in order to serve Me Too’s mission. She said that this involves “changing the narrative” surrounding sexual harassment and assault and paying attention to “what survivors need.”
“We have a lot of work to do. All of us. Not just me,” Burke said.
Burke told the audience that she was committed to continue to develop the movement as time progresses. She remains motivated to do so because “part of (her) heart” is “really steeped in justice” so she can not ignore this issue. Burke ended the talk with a call to action. “Let’s heal together. Let’s heal ourselves and let’s heal our communities. And if y’all are ready to do that, I can only leave you with these two words: You too.”
Prof. Sybil Williams of AU’s Department of Performing Arts sat down with Burke after the talk to conduct a Q&A session. After being asked about how allies can help support survivors of sexual violence, Burke responded by advising allies to wait for survivors to give them entry before interjecting themselves into their healing process. Burke warned against trying to help survivors when that is not what they have requested.“It’s that colonized kind of thinking where people feel like they have all the answers for helping a survivor," Burke said.
“You have to listen to the people who have the experience and let them guide you.”
One of the pressing issues in culture that Burke commented on was the R. Kelly allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Burke referred to Kelly as a “predator” who is “very smart” because he goes after girls who are very vulnerable. She also told a story about how she and others recently protested his alleged behavior outside of an R. Kelly concert. “Y’all are gonna see; there’s lots of stuff coming out about R. Kelly soon,” Burke said. Burke then addressed ways in which students can become active participants in combating sexual violence. She advised students to get creative with their protesting and “do something different” that might catch more attention than a predictable protest.
Before the conclusion of the event, Burke responded to five questions from students in the audience. She re-emphasized the role of colleges in keeping students safe from sexual violence in particular. She said, “That’s not a safe place if you’re in an institution that’s enabling your survivor.”
Edited by Danielle Germain