Tarana Burke, founder and executive director of the “Me Too” Movement, will always remember the morning of Oct. 15, 2017. It was the day she woke up to discover that the work and words she had put together to talk about sexual violence had turned into a viral Twitter hashtag, survivors sharing their stories and experiences of sexual violence with “#metoo.”
Burke, a survivor herself, attended a virtual Q&A hosted by the University of Tennessee on Wednesday night to discuss her journey and work in assisting individuals who have faced sexual violence, as well as her work as an activist and community organizer. The event included moderated questions as well as questions asked by students eager to hear Burke speak.
Years before the “Me Too” Movement reached millions and became one of the most used hashtags in the history of Twitter, and years before Burke accumulated accolades such as 2017 TIME Person of the Year and the 2019 Sydney Peace Prize, her professional beginnings started over a decade before her work reached a stage spotlight.
Emily Medford, moderator of the event and vice president of the VOLS 2 VOLS Peer Education Program, emphasized the background of the movement.
“I think a lot of people did not know that this work started all the way back in 2006,” Medford said, “and all the time that’s been put into it up until 2017 whenever it went viral.”
Burke’s beginnings in Selma, Alabama, as a community organizer and youth leadership developer opened up the doors to passions of social justice work instilled in her at age 14. Just Be Inc., an organization Burke started to support the development of black and brown girls, was about showing them the importance of self worth.
“I was really focused on what tools they needed to go out into this world that was going to constantly bombard them with messages that they weren’t worthy,” Burke said.
“The work was successful, but in doing that work, I also uncovered this other thing, which was that most of my girls were survivors in one form or another.”
After discovering that the girls she worked with had been experiencing sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of people they should be able to trust, Burke switched her focus into sharing parts of her sexual violence survivor story with junior high school students. She created workshops that combined her own healing with her organizing skills.
“I could tell my story to some degree and share the stories of other folks in pop culture who they looked up to and admired,” Burke said. "And the whole point was to say, you see these people as perfect and invincible, and some of them dealt with the same traumas as you and still went on to have full lives.”
It was in 2006 that Burke shared her work to MySpace, and in 2006 that the hashtag “#metoo” was first created. Burke noted that this moment was the first opportunity she got to share her work with the world in what she calls “[their] first viral moment.”
As Burke continues to be the leader of the “Me Too” Movement, a large part of her work focuses on how sexual violence disproportionately impacts marginalized groups and people of color.
“If you are supporting survivors of color, you need to be aware that we face different challenges and cultural challenges,” Burke said. “There’s a culture of silence that runs through all communities of color, but for different reasons.”
Burke mentioned the challenges Latinx students face staying silent due to fear of law enforcement jeopardizing their families, Caribbean Black communities raised to say “our business is our business,” Southeast Asian communities raised to believe sharing their experiences would bring shame upon their families.
She also spoke of how Black women have the second highest rate of sexual violence in the country, behind Indigenous women who are often erased from the conversation.
“The truth of the matter is, if you look at me as the leader of the movement, then you have to know that everybody comes with us,” Burke said when thinking about survivors who are not always put in the spotlight of the movement.
“... That our work centers around the most marginalized group and people who are often left out.”
While the movement has primarily placed men as perpetrators, Burke emphasized that men are survivors, too, and largely missing from a survivor’s perspective.
She also noted that trans individuals can get left out of the conversation, as well as sexual violence inside of prison systems. Burke’s hopes for the future of her movement include a narrative shift.
“When people think about survivors in general, they see the spectrum of who we are because we are really clear that sexual violence does not discriminate. There is not demographic that is not impacted by sexual violence,” Burke said.
“The issue is that the response to it does. The violence doesn’t discriminate, but our response to it does and we have to be acutely aware of the differences of the response based on who is the survivor. You and I define this movement. If you identify as a survivor and with the values of this movement, it’s yours.”
Medford added on to the importance of response to harmful behavior, noting that it is necessary for behaviors to be corrected as individuals grow up.
“Nobody is a perfect person. We’ve all said something out of ignorance. We weren’t informed and made a comment that wasn’t okay. It’s a part of growing up,” Medford said. “I think, with everyone, what sticks with you is the first time that behavior is corrected.”
A second part of Burke’s vision for the future includes survivors being the voice, vision and leadership in the fight to ending sexual violence — leaders who understand that healing is not linear and survivors are powerful.
“If I could wish that people knew anything, it’s that survivors are not weak. People look at us from a place of pity all the time, and what you really are looking at are some of the most powerful people you’ll ever meet because we survived that thing,” Burke said.
“We get up every day and we decide to survive, so if you see a walking, breathing, living survivor, you are looking at a hero. Engaging them from a place of pity is a mistake as opposed to looking at them as an expert -- an expert in their own healing, their own self and their own experience.”
For people who share similar passions of social justice and desire to make change, Burke shared some of her advice.
“Your contribution, as long as you are invested in the end of sexual violence, is extremely important. Do not let anyone tell you that your passion isn’t a worthy cause, a worthy journey, a worthy anything,” Burke said. “I am not who I was at 14, even though I knew I wanted to do this work. I never saw myself in this capacity and yet, here I am.”