‘We’re all in this together’: At KU, founder of ‘Me Too’ recalls the movement’s creation

photo by: Ashley Hocking

Tarana Burke speaks about the status of the #MeToo movement at the KU Memorial Union on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Burke is the founder of the #MeToo movement.

The #MeToo movement went viral a year ago because millions of people lent themselves to the world, sharing their experiences of sexual assault and harassment, said Tarana Burke, its founder.

“People don’t realize the women with tears running down their faces as they wrote their message for Facebook,” Burke said. “The labor of everyday people finally came out of this cover of shame we have been in for years.”

As Burke spoke to a packed ballroom in the University of Kansas Memorial Union Tuesday night, she explained that she had been crisscrossing the country for the past year talking about the #MeToo movement to raise awareness — many people didn’t know what the movement was, she said.

Burke’s talk at KU was sponsored by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, the Student Union Activities Board and the KU School of Law.

photo by: Ashley Hocking

Interim Provost Carl Lejuez, second from right, and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tammara Durham, right, listen to Tarana Burke speak at the KU Memorial Union on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Burke is the founder of the #MeToo movement.

Growing activism

Burke told the audience that the seeds of her activism were planted when she was a child in Bronx, New York. Her family played a big part in that — her mother made a point to introduce her to the works of black feminist writers.

“At 12 or 13 I realized that what my family gave me was a cultural and historical perspective so that I could recognize injustice when I saw it,” she said.

In her early teens, Burke was moved to protest after five black and Latino teens were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman who was jogging in Central Park. She said that was when she first experienced what it felt like to have a voice.

After graduating from Auburn University, she went to work in Selma, Ala., as a camp counselor. There, she met a 12-year-old girl she referred to as Heaven. The girl told Burke her mother’s boyfriend had been sexually abusing her.

“I was 21 and it scared me,” Burke said. “I stopped her abruptly, saying I couldn’t help her. I sent her to a different person. I was so sorry, I couldn’t find the right words, it was such an intense moment.”

Burke paused as she recalled the experience, and then gathered her thoughts.

“I wish I had a Lifetime movie happy ending, but I never saw Heaven again,” she said.

After that incident, Burke said she was driven to “live a life that was useful.”

She worked with Just Be Inc., an organization for black and brown girls in junior high school. They were dealing with issues of sexual assault and violence, but to her great frustration, there were no resources available.

So, she went home and organized a program that could be used to help victims of sexual harassment and assault.

In Dec. 2005, she sent a friend she worked with a message: “What if we call it ‘Me Too?'”

Her friend wrote back “Damn, that’s good.”

That’s how her movement started, with 12- and 13-year-old girls sharing their traumatic experiences.

“I got in front of them and said, what you have experienced, I did too,” Burke said.

A viral movement

Then a year ago, Alyssa Milano, a Hollywood actress, used the hashtag #MeToo as a rallying cry for people everywhere who had survived sexual assault or sexual harassment.

It went viral.

“The first day, I lost my [expletive] a little,” Burke said.

The second day, Milano reached out to Burke telling her she didn’t know her “Me Too” program even existed.

Burke admits that she felt like white women were trying to steal the movement at first. But she later realized they weren’t saying they started #MeToo.

“They came out like any survivor telling their truth,” Burke said. “Alyssa tweeted out because they needed to be heard.”

A year later, Burke is proud of what the movement has accomplished and of some of the policy changes she has seen.

“We’re starting to till the land,” she said. “At the end of the day, we are trying to walk through life with our dignity intact.”

photo by: Ashley Hocking

A crowd listens to Tarana Burke speak about the status of the #MeToo movement at the KU Memorial Union on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Burke is the founder of the #MeToo movement.

The ‘process’ of healing

One person in the audience asked Burke for effective ways to heal after a traumatic incident. Burke told her that healing is a beautiful word.

“But there is an ugly underbelly,” Burke said. “There is a process and deep sadness is part of the process. It’s easy to get stuck in the process.”

Burk said what helped her was discovering joy. She said she kept a joy journal and wrote down every time she felt joy.

“The dark time is going to come, the trauma doesn’t go anywhere,” Burke said. “But don’t build your life around trauma, but joy. Hold on to the joy; create joy like your life depends upon it.”

Burke emphasized the community aspects of recovering from a traumatic experience. Part of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of colleges and universities, she said.

“It seems like colleges are accountable to everyone but the students,” Burke told the crowd as heads in the audience nodded. “They are accountable for your safety.”

As she concluded her talk, Burke reminded the attendees to support one another through the difficult times in their own lives.

“We’re all in this together,” she said.


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