Me Too Founder Tarana Burke Inspires During Visit to SMC Campus

Tarana BurkeOn Tuesday, Feb. 27, Saint Mary’s hosted an appearance by Tarana Burke, social justice activist and original founder of the Me Too movement, to culminate the events and activities of the College’s inaugural 44 Days Honoring Black History celebration. The event was presented by multiple SMC entities, including the 44 Days Honoring Black History committee, which is part of the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence.

Burke, one of the sexual-assault silence-breakers collectively honored by Time magazine as 2017 Person of the Year, opened her talk by describing her history as an activist and community organizer. Raised in the Bronx, New York, she recalled that one of her earliest acts of activism was organizing a press conference to counter the stereotypes of black youth in New York. Although the conference was not well attended, she said, it inspired her to further activism. “It was the first time I realized I had a power,” she said. “That my voice had some power, that I could influence people, that I could do something about the things that I saw in my community.”

Intent on becoming a community organizer, Burke began working for the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, founded by civil rights leaders to cultivate young leaders of the next generations. In the 1990s, as a youth-camp director for the organization, Burke said she noticed that the conversations of the young black female campers often turned to their experiences of sexual violence. Such stories, she knew from personal experience, were not new. But when one camper cornered Burke and spoke to her about a sexual assault, Burke found herself unable to deal with the situation, and cut the girl off.

“The thing I wanted to say was, ‘This happened to me, too. I see you. I hear you. I believe you,’” Burke said. “But I couldn’t find it, and so that moment stayed with me for a very long time.”

Burke went on to try to find assistance for the campers, but encountered apathy from potential resources like rape crisis centers and therapists, she said. Eventually, she started her own program of workshops and healing circles for girls of color, centering on “empowerment through empathy.” In 2006, Burke and her colleagues created a Myspace page for the initiative that Burke had decided to call Me Too, and adult women began to contact them almost immediately. The movement could expand beyond youth, she realized.

“The power of empathy between two survivors is really what Me Too is about,” Burke said. “What survivors of sexual violence will tell you is that it is such an isolating thing. It makes you feel alone. When you get into a room with people and one person says, ‘me, too,’ it gives permission to everyone else to open up.”

In her talk at Saint Mary’s, Burke focused on several misconceptions about the Me Too movement. She was taken by surprise, she said, by the viral spread of the #metoo hashtag in October 2017, after its use by actress Alyssa Milano. The Me Too movement is not only for rich, cisgender, white women, Burke emphasized, and she said her supporters rallied to make sure her work on behalf of black woman would not be erased. “It is critical that I create ambassadors who understand what this work is about, which is why I go into detail about the origins of the movement,” she said.

Burke also addressed the misconception that the Me Too movement is about taking down powerful men, or only concerned with sexual harassment in the workplace. “Gender violence happens on a spectrum,” she said. “Not just in the workplace—everywhere.”

Finally, Burke said, if a woman feels uncomfortable saying “me too,” it is not necessary for her to do so. “It’s important to control our decisions,” she said. “Not telling your story is your decision, and you should own that. It’s your journey. Be gentle with yourself, don’t force yourself into this.”

Burke closed her speech with a call for inclusiveness. “Our work is about creating space, both online and offline, for survivors,” she said. “The Me Too movement is about supporting survivors of sexual violence, making sure the most marginalized of that group have access to craft a healing journey, and it’s about interrupting sexual violence wherever it lives.”