Tarana Burke is an African-American civil rights activist. She’s most well-known as the founder of the “Me Too” movement in 2006 which has turned into a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in society.
Born in 1973, in The Bronx, NY, she grew up in a low-income, working-class family in a housing project. Tarana experienced sexual abuse very early. She was raped and sexually assaulted several times during her childhood and adolescence. Her mother supported her recovery from these violent acts and encouraged her to be involved in the community. These experiences inspired her life-long passion to help girls who had extreme hardships.
In 1997, Tarana was talking with a 13-year-old girl when she told her she had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. The young girl was explaining her trauma, and it left Tarana speechless. “I didn’t have a response or a way to help her in that moment, and I couldn’t even say ‘me too’. It really bothered me, and it sat in my spirit for a long time,” she said. Since then, Tarana has shared the message with survivors everywhere: “You’re not alone. This happened to me too.” “Me Too” helped Tarana shape her life-long campaign for activism to help girls and women who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse, or assault.
Ten years after that conversation, Tarana Burke created Just Be Inc., a non-profit organization that supports victims of sexual harassment and assault, with a particular focus on young girls of colour. She committed herself to being there for people who had been abused.
In 2006, Tarana began “Me Too” with black women and girls from low wealth communities. The aim was to address both the lack of resources for survivors of sexual violence and to build a community of advocates, driven by survivors, creating solutions to interrupt sexual violence in their communities. She developed a culturally-informed curriculum to discuss sexual violence within the Black community and in society at large.
It was October 2017. Just after the allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault, the lockout of the actress Rose McGowan from her Twitter account where she spoke out against sexual harassment in Hollywood and accused Weinstein of sexual harassment, actress Alyssa Milano, unaware of the origins of #MeToo at first, tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” More than 66,000 users replied and #MeToo went viral all over social media with millions of people sharing their own stories of sexual violence and standing in solidarity with other survivors. In few days, more than 12 million people had used the hashtag across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The Me Too Movement was now global, survivors everywhere had the words, the platform, and a voice to tell their stories.
Tarana was surprised to see her phrase “MeToo” in a tweet by Milano and even more shocked by the enormous overnight following it received. She never thought that her work from over a decade ago would help millions of survivors worldwide. All she knew that night was that someone was using her slogan and this wasn’t good. “Social media,” she said, “is not a safe space. I thought: this is going to be a disaster.”
In particular, the Me Too movement deals with sexual violence and it is a framework for ending sexual violence. It aims to expand the global conversation around sexual violence to speak to the needs of a broader spectrum of survivors, to ask for the accountability of perpetrators, to implement strategies to sustain long term change, to provide leadership training and development, and guidance for the community around community action. Its ultimate goal is disrupting all systems that allow sexual violence to flourish. “Sexual violence happens on a spectrum so accountability has to happen on a spectrum,” she says. “I don’t think that every single case of sexual harassment has to result in someone being fired; the consequences should vary. But we need a shift in culture so that every single instance of sexual harassment is investigated and dealt with. That’s just basic common sense.”
Tarana wants people to understand that the Me Too movement is more than just a hashtag, it is “the start of a larger conversation” and a space for “community healing” for all. #MeToo wants to give to people a voice, to achieve a cultural transformation by “encouraging millions to speak out about sexual violence and harassment”. Its motto is “empowerment through empathy,” because it is crucial for survivors of sexual abuse to understand that they are not alone. “On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed’ and ‘I’m not alone.’ On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.’ Me Too wasn´t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. As Tarana said “It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible. – We want to build your self-esteem by telling you that you’re beautiful, and asking you to tell yourself you’re beautiful every single day! – That rang false to me. Because I can tell you that if you live in a world that devalues you, there is nothing to support that message. I want girls to feel worthy just for existing, because for black and brown girls – and actually just for girls – it’s ‘You’re worthy if’; so, if you’re the smartest girl, or if you’re the prettiest girl, or if you run the fastest. There has to be something attached to it to add value to your life and that can become something you become consumed with – ‘I have to have this thing; I have to be beautiful’. So, for me, it was like, ‘Let me teach you what the world thinks about us, and let me teach you what we’ve seen the world do to girls who look like us. And let me teach you why they’re wrong’.
Currently, Tarana Burke is Senior Director at Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn and engages in public speaking events across the country promoting support for sexual assault survivors. She plans to continue to expand the #MeToo movement by crafting its current website (https://metoomvmt.org/) into a comprehensive resource tool for survivors.
“Having privilege – the privilege of an extremely large audience- isn’t bad, but it’s how you use it, and you have to use it in service of other people.”
By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern