Silence Breaker Tarana Burke On The Me Too Movement & Where We Go From Here — 'This Moment Is A Gift'

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Interview: Who Is Tarana Burke And What's Next For The #MeToo Movement?
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'Inspirational' doesn't come close to describing the power of this woman's vibe.

Placing a phone call to Tarana Burke, Senior Director of Programs at the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, Inc., creator of the MeToo Movement, and one of "The Silence Breakers" chosen by Time Magazine as 'Person of the Year' for 2017, was, for me, a surreal moment; as though it was already 50 years from now and someone asked me who I would go back in time and speak with if I could, and my wish had been granted at that very moment.

Not that Burke is elderly by any stretch of the imagination. Despite her relatable fondness for poking fun at her "old-age", 44-year-old Burke's optimistic energy bursts through crystal clear in every interaction.

#latepass #LASTONE #yardmassive #RoadTripShenanigans #BabyGiantandMe #lovethisgyal

A post shared by Tarana J. Burke (@fortyisthenew40) on Jul 15, 2015 at 8:04pm PDT

It should be clear to everyone reading this now — Tarana Burke and the MeToo Movement are here to stay, and it's about damn time.

When #MeToo first began circulating on social media, I, like most women I know, decided to participate with a degree of hesitation. I've never been a fan of anything that even vaguely resembles a chain letter, which is the way I have perceived previous social media campaigns attempting to spread awareness of important causes and issues. Post the color bra you're wearing to raise Breast Cancer Awareness!

That was cute, and I obviously remember it, so I suppose it was effective but was it truly meaningful? Did it effectuate change? How would posting this "me too" hashtag be any different?


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It's too soon for anyone to reliably pinpoint what the ultimate outcome of what has now evolved into the MeToo Movement will be for society, but it has now been close to one month since the hashtag began to make waves, and this movement appears to not only have broken new ground wide open, but it has firmly planted powerful roots already being nurtured by the kind of dedication and determination that the build the kind of organizations which truly being about landmark cultural and societal change.

And the woman taking it all on her accomplished, joyful and inspiring shoulders is powerhouse Tarana Burke.

 

Alyssa Milano first tweeted out her call for others to join in sharing the hashtag as a show of solidarity on October 15, 2017, five days after allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and rape against Harvey Weinstein struck home through Ronan Farrow's expose in the New Yorker, quickly followed by Gwyneth Paltrow's statements to the New York Times.

"If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.

Me too.

Suggested by a friend: "If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as their status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem."

As of October 24, the #MeToo hashtag had been used in more than 1.7 million tweets in 85 countries, not to mention the additional times it was shared across all other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Shortly after women Milano's rallying cry took off, reports surfaced that the concept had originated approximately one decade ago, with activist Tarana Burke.

Under most modern circumstances, this might have led the powerfully building momentum of the moment screeching to a sudden halt, transforming the stream of women's simultaneously wounded and healing voices into the all-too-common cries of outrage and in-fighting that typically derail any attempts to use social media as a tool for mass communal change.

Instead, Burke handled it all like the boss of bosses, nodding graciously to Milano, beaming her warm smile to the media, and picking up the mic she was born to carry.

As the Senior Director of Programs for an organization called Girls for Gender Equity, Inc. (GGE), Burke's current day-to-day work focuses on leadership development for girls and TGNC (trans & gender nonconforming youth) of color around issues of gender and racial equity. GGE provides direct programming in the areas of community organization, civic engagement, and afterschool programming with a social justice lens, acting "as a catalyst of change to improve gender and race relations and socioeconomic conditions for our most vulnerable youth and communities of color."

As we began our conversation, Burke shared the origins of her journey.

She found her interest in activism at a young age when she became involved in the 21st-Century Youth Leadership Movement, whose mission is "to inspire, assist, organize and develop young people of all ages, in and out of school, to be skilled community focused leaders, resiliently and creatively empowering themselves and their communities to affect positive change now and in the 21st Century."

The purpose of this group was to teach the youth involved in their programs about the deep significance of community.

The concept, Burke says, comes from "the premise of 'We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.' It was a group of elders from the Civil Rights and the Black Power and the Labor Movement. You know, just movement people from the 60's and 70's who came together to make sure we were grounded in this idea that we are the ones who are here to help our community. So I was raised in that ethos that community is first and that we are responsible for our community, from environmental issues to political issues to personal issues."

Burke chose to pursue her Bachelor of Arts in political science at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama.

Upon graduation, she went to work as one of their leadership camp directors.

"I was really interested in youth work," she explained, "because of how it changed the trajectory of my own life."

Once her professional career began, she says, "the real issue is that I was grappling with my own stuff, so I couldn’t bring myself to say 'me too' to this young girl who really obviously could have used it. That was a pivotal moment for me, because that disappointment she had sat in my spirit for such a long time. I just never want to have a child out there — not on my watch — I don’t want to know there’s a young person out there who I could’ve done something for, even if it was just saying something to help them. Too many people have helped me in my life for me not to be that generous of spirit. But it wasn’t for a lack of generosity. It was a lack of understanding, and I just wasn’t in a place where I had done enough personal work to be able to pour into her what she needed."

Asked what that personal work turned out to be for her, Burke replied, "One of the first things I did was I got a community of other survivors. That was really really important for me. What survivors do for each other, particularly once they’re farther along in their journey toward healing, is to give permission for those who are starting their journey. You know, it may sound crazy to some people, but there is some way that we are looking for some permission or understanding or an opening, and they were the ones who really helped me understand myself. They affirmed me in a way that nobody else had affirmed me. So I wanted to share that. I wanted to give that feeling to young people. That came over time."

It certainly would have been understandable for Burke to have taken offense to the way Alyssa Milano was initially applauded worldwide for kicking the movement off.

Such a response, however, would have flown in the face of everything Burke and the MeToo Movement is about.

"I just feel like I’ve been given so many gifts in my life," says Burke. "This moment is a gift. I talk about cultivating joy a lot because particularly with social media, it’s really easy to look at other people — we talk about the fear of missing out and all those other things — it’s really easy to look at other people and think ‘Oh, I want their life. Oh, that feels so easy. Look at that. They’ve achieved so much,” [But that's coming] from a place of deficit. Me Too is a gift of abundance to me."

"There’s so much empathy. Empathy is so easy to exchange. And there’s so much love. I know I sound like a sappy, tree-hugger kind of person, but it’s just the truth. Man, there’s just too much in the world that people need for us to hoard anything we have that’s gonna help. I really believe that. And so I started doing this work and using the name Me Too because it’s so easy to connect with people, so watching it catch fire across the Internet — I would never fight about that. That’s not really what’s important, like, who created it first. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that it’s out there, and [I want to] give context to people and help them ground in the moment beyond the hashtag."

Among the "problems" surfaced in relation to that hashtag is the question of to who exactly, the MeToo Movement is for.

In some instances, male victims of sexual assault voluntarily chose to withhold their own stories of victimization, as was the case with actor Jim Beaver.

In other circumstances, men were blasted by women for even sharing articles talking about how to respond to their female friend's MeToo posts. These men were told that their only role in this moment of time was to sit back and listen to what the women have to say for once.

Asked for her thoughts on the dilemma, Burke says:

"I tweeted about this because I was incredibly disappointed in that response, to be honest, because, you know, imagine if I’d come out and said ‘Hey I started me too first. I started it for black and brown people. What are you doing? You’re appropriating it from us!” That doesn’t serve a purpose. This is the comparison I gave folks on Twitter..."

"If a tree grew in your yard and you discovered that the fruit of that tree had a balm that heals wounds, would you hoard that or would you share it with people? It’s in your yard and you technically own it and you discovered it or what have you. You could hoard it and make a million dollars and bottle and sell it. But it’s a tree, right? So it’s really it’s not yours anyway. If Me Too is something that helps people — if it gives them community, if it gives them a sense of belonging, if it helps them to understand they’re not alone, if it is a way for them to share empathy — why would we want to hoard that?"

And it wasn't only men who were questioned for joining in the rallying cry.

"I had some queer folx, trans people and other folx, reach out to me and say, ‘You know, people are saying it’s just for women, it’s not for trans men or trans women.’ You know, making all of these restrictions, and I get it. In other areas, I get it that it’s just about one group of people, Black Lives Matter is about the issues that are affecting the Black community specifically, so when people say All Lives Matter, it’s an affront to that. I get that. It makes sense to me. But in the case of Me Too, we’re talking about people who are suffering from abuse or assault or harassment, and if men are standing up and saying me too, nine times out of 10 these are men who have probably survived childhood sexual abuse. They’re not talking about being harassed in the workplace. They’re not talking about being chased around their desk by their boss. Do we really want to be the kind of people who tell somebody who’s holding their trauma [about being sexually abused as a child] that they can’t participate? I won’t be a part of that. That’s contrary to the ethos of what this work is about."


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There are, of course, distinctions to be made and boundaries to be drawn as we all go along this path together.

"So I don’t agree that it’s something that it’s something that’s just for women," Burke reiterates. "I do agree that women are the space of sexual violence. I do agree that women are the largest group of survivors of sexual violence. I do think that we need to pay special attention to women and girls, particularly women and girls of color. But because we are so many, the number is so great, a few men who also want to stand in that number or trans folx who want to stand in that number — why would we deny them? I would never do that. Their participation doesn’t diminish us in any way."

Back to what might have been perfectly reasonable expectations, Burke was just as sure as most of us that the #MeToo moment would vanish as quickly as it appeared.

But as we have all now watched more and more once silent victims come forward to name such powerful men as former President of the United States of America George H.W. Bush, Louis CK, Brett Ratner, and George Takei, just to name a select few, it is sinking in for all of us that the full impact here is only in the most embryonic of stages.

Asked at which moment she knew the MeToo Movement had hit the tipping point that took it beyond the category of once-viral-hashtags, Burke responded, "Kevin Spacey [being] in the hot seat, that was probably the tipping point for me, because it’s really difficult a lot of times for men to come forward because of the stigma and what have you. So that actor coming forward and accusing Kevin Spacey... I was like, wow. I mean, people are emboldened. And they are ready."

"I don’t if people really get what the burden of holding this thing inside of you... what that feels like. So, yeah. It does feel like a watershed moment for real now."

Ever the classically trained communal leader and activist, Burke has absolutely zero plans for resting on her newly famous laurels.

"I want to give context to the feeling people feel when they hear it and when they see it. We have literally watched a community form right in front of our eyes across the world. That’s a beautiful thing! And I know there’s fatigue and I know there are some problems, but we need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. I think we can critique a thing and we can love a thing. And so I both love this moment and I accept the critiques of this moment. and a part of the work we’re doing next is about responding to the criticism and responding to the moment by helping people find a roadmap."

And as is her way, Burke steadfastly refuses to walk this path holding onto any of the honors that come with her newfound recognition alone.

In late December of 2017, Burke teamed up with Milano to pen an essay for The Guardian titled, "We created the #MeToo movement. Now it's time for #HerToo," in which they shared the latest layer to their platform's mission.

"Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Nor can this moment in history belong solely to the Silence Breakers who have the opportunity to speak out. We all must speak out for those who can’t — for the girls and women who suffer in silence. Like the mostly hidden woman on Time’s cover, described as 'an anonymous young hospital worker from Texas who fears disclosing her identity'.

This is why we have joined forces with Unicef USA to say: #HerToo...

#HerToo is about our deepest desire to ensure the dignity of every woman and girl is honored. It’s about our personal dedication to building a culture of respect where it is sorely lacking. It is about Unicef’s work – work we all must undertake  to end discrimination and violence against girls and women — and against all children suffering violence and harassment — worldwide, through education, protection and policy reform." 

And when she took the stage for the honor of pushing the button for the famous ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve 2018, she again welcomed additional women into her spotlight.

"Bringing in the New Year as the special guest in Times Square has been deeply rewarding and humbling. As a native New Yorker I am proud to represent my city and as a survivor of sexual violence I'm optimistic about the future. Representing the 'me too' movement at a time when the world is changing rapidly, I am hopeful that more and more people will share in our commitment to support survivors and find new ways to interrupt sexual violence. Tonight's monumental occasion is underscored for me by the presence of my two guests: Jenny Lumet, who published a powerful piece in The Hollywood Reporter detailing her experience with Russell Simmons and Jerhonda Pace who broke her non-disclosure agreement to expose the depravity that she experienced at the hands of Robert R Kelly. In this year when 'Silence Breakers' were celebrated for their bravery and vulnerability, these two women were outstanding examples of both. Both of them stood up and said 'me too' in ways that resonated deeply in communities of color, representing women all too often drowned out by the din of privileged voices. 

"Our goal in 2018 is to re-frame and expand the global conversation around sexual violence to speak to the needs of a broader spectrum of survivors. Young people, queer, trans, and disabled folks, Black women and girls, and all communities of color. We want perpetrators to be held accountable and we want strategies implemented to sustain long term, systemic change.

"My deepest desire in 2018 is to continue to grow a global community that provides a safe space for survivors to heal."

With a new website in place, Burke is launching a series of webinars called "MeToo Tuesdays," which will cover a variety of topics intended to help people process the moment.

As Burke explains, "It’s been a lot to take in. It’s been a lot for folks to deal with in a lot of ways. It’s been triggering for some people. So we want to do a series that will help them process it all."

Currently on the slate of topics to be covered in these webinars are the following:

  • What comes after the hashtag, i.e., helping create a roadmap for survivors.
  • The healing journey. Says Burke, "I remember being younger and people would say, ‘Oh, you have to learn how to heal’ and I was like, 'Yeah, but you left out the figuring it out part. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know what that means.' Sometimes it feels like this amorphous thing that’s hard to find and just out of reach."
  • Developing a community action plan: "It’s a clarion call. We want to give people some tangibles, things that they can do right now in their communities to start fighting back against sexual violence."
  • How to you speak to your children about sexual violence. "How do you have the conversation about me too with your 11-year-old or your 6-year-old, and how do you have the conversation about safety without leading from fear?"
  • The role of power and privilege in sexual violence. "And, in this moment of talking about sexual violence, we have not talked a lot about street harassment."

The website is slated to grow into a resource center of sorts for survivors, and the plan from there on out it is just to keep going. And I don't know about you, but I intend to climb onboard.

Because me too. 


RELATED: 7 Women — Including A Former Harvey Weinstein Employee — Share 'Me, Too' Stories To Prove It Isn't Just Hollywood


This interview is part of YourTango's 'Empowering Women Series' highlighting female icons making a difference in the lives of other women through their talents, voices and strength of character.


Senior Editor and happily-former divorce coach & mediator Arianna Jeret is a recognized expert on love, sex, and relationships (except when it comes to her own life, of course) who has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Style, Fox News, Bustle, Parents and more. Join her Sundays at 10:20 PM EST for answers to ALL of your questions on Facebook Live on YourTango and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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