Tarana J. Burke is a survivor.
She is also an activist, advocate and founder of the Me Too Movement, in which over 20 million people have come forward as survivors, too. Rooted in Burke’s own story is a belief that has sparked empathy throughout a nation: Healing isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.
Burke spoke in conversation with Emily F. Morris, vice president of marketing and communications and chief brand officer, at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater, closing Week Eight, “Shifting Global Power.”
The origin story of the Me Too Movement began in 2005, when Burke was working in Selma, Alabama, as the co-founder of Just Be Inc., a youth organization focused on the health, well-being and wholeness of young women of color.
“In that work, I realized that the girls that we were serving needed a different kind of attention,” Burke said. “It just felt like, if we didn’t make an intervention at some point early in their lives, then they wouldn’t have the foundation of worthiness.”
With Just Be, Burke wasn’t just hearing stories of survival from girls in the community, she was witnessing their stories unfold firsthand.
In 2006, Burke created a MySpace page so her Just Be efforts could have a place on the internet. But as she was working online and in person to heal those around her, Burke was also working on her own healing from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. That healing process started long before the idea of Me Too was even conceived, when a “seed was planted in her.”
The seed was planted in her childhood from the literature of black feminists, like Maya Angelou, whose 1969 work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings changed everything for Burke. Angelou’s recorded experiences introduced Burke to her first fellow survivor.
“It was the first time I encountered another person that had experienced child sexual abuse,” Burke said. “I didn’t have an understanding as a survivor; I never had survivor language, I didn’t grow up feeling like a victim or a survivor. You spend a lot of your time feeling complicit in your own grief. The guilt that I carried was for what I had done to contribute to the abuse.”
In one of Burke’s high school English classes, her teacher played a video of Angelou performing “Phenomenal Woman,” the first time Burke saw Angelou and heard her voice. As Angelou’s work had done before, listening to that poem changed Burke — but this time, in a new way.
“My understanding of what I had experienced and what she had experienced, was that the connection we had was wrapped around trauma; it was that we had a shared trauma,” Burke said. “She knew what it was to feel what I felt, she knew what it was to hide that.”
What Burke learned about Angelou’s healing was that she had mastered a way of making the world see her as someone “other than who she truly was.”
“When I saw her read the poem, it was this moment of shock because I thought, ‘I believe her,’ ” Burke said. “I believed every word she said; I saw the smile, I saw her standing regally, I saw her being confident and I thought, ‘How is this possible?’ ”
Burke questioned those possibilities because she had dedicated her life to being the “best possible child,” the only way she knew how to mask the parts of her history she wanted to leave behind.
“It was about trying to be perfect,” Burke said. “I had perfect grades; I was a perfect student; I was a perfect athlete; I did not get in trouble. I followed the rules because I thought, ‘I have to do everything right, because if I don’t, then they’ll see, then they’ll know.’ ”
Ultimately, what Angelou planted in Burke was a series of questions: “Can a body that holds this kind of pain, also hold joy? Is it possible? Do I deserve it? How do I get it?”
As Burke reflected on her community in Selma, it occurred to her that no one would plant those questions if she wasn’t the one to do it herself. So, at 14 years old, Burke started her work as an activist.
“At the same time that I am, from an interpersonal standpoint, trying to understand what healing looks like for me and what it could look like for these girls, I also was very confused about why we were not standing up as a community to push back against what these children were experiencing,” she said.
In those experiences, Burke learned that community problems require a community response. According to Burke, a vast majority of sexual abusers are family members and people familiar to the survivor. Particularly with black girls who are hypersexualized by society, these “morally wrong” relationships result in multiple layers of oppression, which Burke said people are not paying enough attention to.
“The thing is, it’s about race in some ways, but it’s also about class and economics,” she said.
And the loss of survivors’ stories is not accidental, as they are often overshadowed by the stories of their abusers — for example, in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, an American financier who was charged with sex trafficking of a minor and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, who recently died by suicide in prison while awaiting trial.
“We have heard his name ad nauseam for the last couple of weeks, we have heard all about the money that he made, all about the powerful men he flew around in his airplanes, all about the ways he came to wealth and who he was associated with — what about the girls?” Burke asked. “The part that drives me batty about the way we talk about this moment, is that we don’t realize we are building this on the backs of survivors, we are trading on the labor of survivors for salacious headlines and gossip, and it’s really disgusting.”
The weight of the movement’s conversations “on the backs of the survivors,” Burke said, has everything to do with power and privilege. And just because there will never be a culture without hierarchy, she said, that doesn’t mean society must continue to operate as if hierarchies are the only influencing social structure.
“I do think, though, that we can shift culture in such a way that people can understand that because you have power and privilege, doesn’t mean you have to abuse it,” Burke said. “The building blocks of sexual violence are around the abuse of power and privilege.”
As much as those building blocks are a result of power and privilege, they’re also a result of systems. Harvey Weinstein, for example, “could not do what he did over the time period he did it, without being a part of a larger system that people want to protect.”
“You have to talk about systems and dismantling systems, and one of the systems that upholds sexual violence is capitalism,” Burke said. “You can look at R. Kelly, or you can look at Harvey Weinstein, but there had to be people who were more invested in what he could provide, in what he represented. He generated millions and millions of dollars, and the fact that he had the power to generate that money meant more than any one person’s humanity.”
When it comes to changing the society in which sexual violence thrives, Burke said the challenge can’t be met by an individual, given “an individual didn’t get us here.” And while the violence may not disappear, action can be inspired, like when her efforts sparked 15 million people to engage in hashtag #MeToo in 24 hours.
The Me Too Movement that had been around since 2005, went viral in 24 hours in 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted for women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply with “Me too.” Burke recalled the Sunday morning the hashtag went viral. As soon as she wrapped her head around what was going on, Burke said her first feeling was panic, mostly because “the white people got my stuff.”
“Who was going to believe that a 44-year-old black woman from the Bronx started this work?” she said.
Burke believes her work took off “by the grace of God.” Since she knew her purpose was serving others from the age of 14, Burke had a moment while looking through the hashtag when she asked herself: “Tarana, are you going to be who you said you are?”
What she saw through the hashtag was thousands of people pouring their hearts out, thousands of people talking about the worst thing they’ve ever experienced, on the internet. As those stories were shared, Burke knew there would be consequences: Some people might post something that no one would “like,” and they would feel terrible; some people would be triggered; some would have nightmares; some would wake up and not know what to do with their new realities — all because of the conversation she started.
“I think, honestly, the failing of the field that does work around sexual violence was everybody was a deer caught in the headlights, and nobody responded to the survivors,” Burke said.
In the midst of the millions using the hashtag, headlines were focused on everything but the survivors, Burke said.
“We have literally turned our backs on these people who raised their hands to say, ‘This thing has affected my life and finally, I get to say something; finally, I get to open up my heart; finally, this thing I have been holding in the pit of my stomach for 30 years, I get to let it out,’ ” Burke said. “And then people walked away from them. It’s horrible.”
Burke thought the movement would quickly lose momentum, but as more and more powerful figures were held accountable, she was put in the spotlight to comment on their actions. Burke said her responses were repetitive, until Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who she said sexually assaulted her while the two were teenagers at a house party in Maryland.
It was a pivotal moment because it proved to Burke just “how little” people knew about sexual violence and survivors. As people made comments about how Ford’s testimony “could have been better” if she just remembered more and hesitated less, Burke saw the way the portrayal of survivors in television and pop culture has affected the real-life figures they represent.
“I was first sexually abused when I was 6 years old,” Burke said. “I am 45 years old, and that means I have spent 39 years trying to forget. I have spent every day of the last 39 years wanting to know less and less and less of the horrific things that were done to my child body. I don’t want to remember. God bless her for not remembering everything — that’s how we survive.”
The hashtag took off globally as well, particularly in India and Sweden. And just as it is not confined in the United States, Burke said it is crucial to note that it is not a women’s movement, either.
“Men’s first role in the Me Too Movement is as survivors,” Burke said. “We have to acknowledge and make space for men to be survivors first, before we ask them to change behavior, before we talk about them as perpetrators.”
More generally, Burke wants people to move away from a “survivor versus perpetrator, crime versus punishment world” — instead, she wants people to focus on harm and harm reduction.
“When you harm a person, you have to be accountable for the harm that you’ve caused,” she said. “There has to be an examination of where these things come from, and if we don’t make space for it, we will never get to a different model of it.”
The bottom line: Forgiveness is vital if people are to move forward.
“There is always room for forgiveness,” Burke said. “I think that forgiveness doesn’t mean that you always come back. Sometimes, forgiveness is about acknowledging that the other person is a human being, forgiving them in your heart, but removing them from your space.”