On the evening of October 15, someone alerted Tarana Burke of a hashtag that was gaining traction on Twitter. At the time, there were a few hundred posts with a #MeToo hashtag, all stemming from a call for solidarity from Alyssa Milano in the wake of Harvey Weinstein allegations. Yet, as the night passed, Burke watched the two-word sentence mushroom into a viral movement.
As the social media trend gained popularity, Burke started to have concerns. “I was nervous that the work that I’d done would be erased,” Burke told Levo.
She was, of course, referring to decades of advocacy work she had done — long before Milano’s call for tweets.
Years ago, after a conversation 13-year-old survivor of sexual abuse, Burke was left speechless. Shaken by her inability to respond to the young girl’s confessions with two simple but powerful words —"me too" — Burke was determined to do more to help survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
Ten years later, in 2006, Burke founded Just Be Inc., a youth organization focused on the “health, well-being and wholeness of young women of color everywhere.” The movement’s mission became the very two words she once found herself unable to say: Me too.
Seeing the #MeToo come to fruition as a global phenomenon was not altogether surprising for Burke. “I’d always envisioned this could be the kind of thing that could be widely accepted because they’re just two words and they’re so cathartic for some people,” Burke said. What’s more, the fact that “Me Too” only gained global traction after being championed by white women in Hollywood did not surprise Burke much, either.
If it had been a group of Black women who had come forward with allegations of sexual assault the situation would have been different, Burke said. “We would be talking about in the Black community [and] there would be white allies — I’m sure — who would join in the discussion, but it would not be across networks, cable news, and all of the major newspaper outlets,” Burke said.
“This feeds into our experiences as Black women — people don’t believe Black women.”
This moment, Burke acknowledges, represents a crucial opportunity for developing a more empathetic approach to activism — one that is rooted in solidarity. “Intersectionality has become such a buzzword,” Burke said. Burke continued to discuss empathy, saying that true empathy is much more nuanced than it’s often framed.
According to Burke, intersectional work requires more than just a naming of a specific problem or issue; it must be underpinned by a collective determination to solve it. “Intersectionality is not just an acknowledgment of — it’s a commitment to,” Burke added.
Burke also cautions against centering conversations about systemic oppression and violence around single individuals. “I’m being centered in so many conversations as ‘the Black lady who did this first,’ and this is being explained as almost a Black history moment,” Burke said.
“We should be shifting the conversation to this pervasive issue that is systemic,” Burke continued. “I want to decentralize myself as the central focus of this because this is not about the good work that this one Black woman did, it’s about the people who I did it for — the Black and Brown girls who initially inspired this work.”
Nevertheless, Burke is glad that these two simple words have managed to bring together such a diverse group of people around the world. “This movement of survivors—who are a cross-section of race, gender, and class—connecting with each other with the words ‘Me too,’ that is amazing, and it’s rare,” Burke said.
Indeed, what we have seen transpire in recent weeks—starting with the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations and, more recently growing to include other prominent individuals—has been a pivotal moment for many survivors of sexual violence.
However, Burke cautions against letting crucial narratives get diluted. “We should be shifting the conversation away from the singular boogeyman and into this issue that is systemic—it’s not just about a singular person,” Burke said. “Folks should be held accountable, but it falls a little short."
Burke also lamented that too many people conflate sexual violence with sexual deviance or dysfunctional desire when, in reality, these acts are about power and control. “It’s not about desire because desire doesn’t create an extreme need to dominate and exert authority over [someone].”
Given the fact that we live in a social media-driven society that pivots quickly between current events, there is an increased need for movements to find ways to transcend the ‘viral moment.’ This is where Burke wants to see increased emphasis: moving forward.
“The main thing that’s been overshadowed is that ‘Me too’ is not about the amplification of the numbers,” Burke said. “Really, ‘Me too’ is about what happens after.”
So what does happen next?
For starters, Burke has a forthcoming documentary that explores the idea of healing. She hopes this project will highlight what healing journeys can look like. Burke has launched a new website and is searching for partnerships to help develop the next iterations of this movement.
By the end of this year, Burke envisions building her website into an online space that connects people to local community groups and actions. The site will also house a living library of resources for people healing from sexual violence and people who want to talk to survivors in their lives, including children.
“My goal is to make it a destination for resources, for both survivors and allies who want to do this work,” Burke said. “The great part about this moment is that there are people who will be deeply interested in participating in this work. You don’t have to be some sort of social justice warrior, you just have to care.”
Ultimately, Burke is optimistic about the future. Despite the fact that the ‘Me too’ movement rose up out of a viral moment, Burke is hopeful that people will remember to look ahead and ask themselves: ‘What’s next?’
“I deeply believe that if we don’t quickly invest in the next generation that we’ll be in the same space in a few years,” Burke said. “My hope is that in fifty years, we’ll have a generation that has grown up their whole lives hearing about consent and boundaries—about humanity and dignity. That’s the way we have a shift in our culture.”
“I may not see that shift in my lifetime,” she continued. “But I will have died knowing that I planted these seeds.”
Watch our Facebook Live interview with Tarana Burke:
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(Illustration by Ludmila Leiva, Photos courtesy of Tarana Burke)