Me Too: Movement Founder Tarana Burke Speaks Up to Help Others

The survivor who started the Me Too movement more than 10 years ago now has an international stage to advocate for other survivors of sexual violence.

Posted in , Jan 20, 2018

Tarana Burke, Me Too Founder, Getty Images

Many became aware of the Me Too movement in October 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano asked followers on Twitter to tweet #MeToo if they’d been victims of sexual assault. The hashtag quickly went viral, but those familiar with the history of the phrase in relation to sexual assault knew that it was started more than a decade ago by Tarana Burke. A survivor herself, she created this rallying cry in conjunction with her non-profit organization for girls, Just Be, Inc. to showcase the prevalence of sexual violence in our country and to amplify the voices of survivors.

The rise of the movement, and subsequent efforts by Burke's supporters for her to get appropriate credit for her work, have enabled her to share her message on an international stage. She was on the Red Carpet at the Golden Globes in January sharing her message of hope and healing for survivors of sexual violence. In Times Square, Burke and her Me Too message received a global spotlight when she led the countdown and ball drop on New Year's Eve. Time Magazine chose Burke as one of the "Silence Breakers," named Person of the Year for 2017, though they opted for celebrities and others on the cover. Still, the media coverage has helped catapult her message of support for victims and the creation of a new culture that listens to and protects victims and eradicates sexual violence. 

Her commitment to speaking out and helping others grew out of her own experience, but Burke didn’t always have the words or a feeling of safety to describe her own trauma.

“I couldn't even identify why I felt the way I felt or where these feelings were coming from,” she tells of her years following abuse. “In a lot of ways, I didn't know some of the things that happened were bad.”   

When she was in her twenties and not yet ready to face her own childhood abuse, a young girl at the youth camp where Burke worked came up to her privately to share a harrowing experience.  

Before the girl could speak, Burke knew from the look on her face that the girl would share a trauma that would trigger painful memories, and Burke tried everything she could to avoid the conversation. But the girl wanted to tell this story about her mother’s boyfriend, whom the girl called “Stepdaddy,” and all the ways he was violating her body. Burke couldn’t handle it. After less than five minutes, she sent the girl away to another camp counselor to get help.

Burke harbored deep regret for not being able to at least say to the girl, “Me, too.”

“I couldn't reach into those feelings, connect with those feelings [of pain from abuse], so I rejected her in that moment,” she says. “I really just felt convicted by it for a long, long time.”

An activist since her teen years, Burke decided to channel her trauma and the regret she felt over her response to the young camper. She's been using her organizing skills to address the silence around sexual violence and help other young girls ever since.

“From [age 14] and around my early 20s was when I started realizing, we organize around every issue that's plagued our community. We organize about police brutality. We organize about economic injustice and violence injustice. We don't organize around sexual violence,” she says. “More than 15 years ago, 20 years ago, when I looked around, I didn't see people taking to the streets, protesting, organizing, or even talking about sexual violence in the social justice community.”

She was ready to share her voice.

Just Be, Inc. and Me Too became for Burke, not only a source of healing and empowerment, but also a way to make sure no other survivors of abuse would feel alone or silenced in her presence again.

“As a person who's deeply involved in social justice, that's important to me to know that I not only can heal at an interpersonal level but I can use my energy and my power and the collective power of the survivors around me to do work that interrupts sexual violence.”

Through Just Be, she offers workshops and trainings, like the Jewels program, primarily for teen girls of color to help them "move through adolescence and into adulthood with a strong sense of self worth and healthy self esteem."

Even the profoundly simple phrase Me Too grew out of a desire to help young people.

“I was trying to find a way that we could connect to young people as well, and to not have people have to tell their whole story over and over and over again.” Burke is acutely aware of how damaging that can be to a survivor. “I don't think people realize how traumatic that is for people to have to relive that, unless it's their own inclination to do so.”

Because this is a movement about reclaiming agency over your body, voice and life after assault, Burke stresses that choosing to be silent is also a survivor’s right.

“I get people all the time who say to me, ‘I really want to say, ‘Me Too,’ but I just haven't found the courage. I will one day.’ I always say to them, ‘Please don't force yourself to do that,’" she says.

“This is not a trend," she says to those worried it may one day be too late to speak out. "The words are there. They'll always be there, and people need to be gentle with themselves. There's no race to healing, right?”

There's also not one right way for survivors to heal, Burke says; only "support and openness and compassion and empathy, which we all need."

For those wishing to support survivors, her main advice is at the crux of Me Too: listen to survivors. "Ask them what they need," she says, and be okay with the answer.  

Burke continues to do that at the non-profit Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), where she is the senior director. The youth development organization works to improve gender, race and economic conditions for the most vulnerable. She's also merged the movement with the work of the organization, “a perfect marriage,” she says, of all of her passions.

Me Too is also associated with Hollywood’s Time’s Up legal defense fund, which protects and defends survivors. Though the media’s initial erasure of Burke as the founder and particularly from the cover of Time’s Person of the Year issue in favor of celebrities concerned many of Burke’s supporters, Burke has been able to see value in celebrities joining the cause, while also advocating for an awareness of how the intersections of race, class and gender impact whose voices are heard.

“Every movement that is multi-racial is always going to have to deal with questions around intersectionality and be honest about what the challenges are and be proactive about making sure that women of color's voices are centered and amplified,” Burke says.

“It does us a disservice if we don't also acknowledge that while these [celebrity] women have privilege and have wealth, that privilege and wealth did not protect them from being subjected to sexual violence or sexual harassment.”

“Certainly this kind of collaboration between race and class is really important,” she says.

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