NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Tarana Burke said she had always been an activist by heart, stretching back to her years growing up and all the way through to the present day.
As a child born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, her family subscribed to the Black nationalist and pan-African ideologies, the latter of which stressed the idea that all those of African descent across the world should strengthen their bonds of solidarity and unity.
While a student at Auburn University in Alabama, Burke rallied to strike down the school’s zero-tolerance policy on drugs, which she and other advocates argued was used to target the university’s “black and brown” students and kick them out of student-housing.
But the #MeToo movement - bringing to light the widespread prevalence of sexual abuse - was just the platform she needed to bring about an issue that had been brewing for decades, and to later become a hero and voice for many,
“I had been an organizer at this point since I was 14 years old, and never once had I organized around sexual violence,” Burke said at a Feb. 12 event.
On that Monday evening, Burke appeared in front of several hundred students, staff and alumni at the College Avenue Gym at Rutgers University, for a frank discussion on sexual violence.
Students gather in line outside the College Avenue Gym on Monday evening. Credit: Daniel J. Munoz
The crowd was receptive and appreciative of what Burke said, and often times they would clap, cheer or snap in support of her.
Since going viral in October 2017, the #MeToo movement has inspired millions of women to come forward with their own stories of sexual trauma. Burke said she believed the movement gave the tools to victims of sexual abuse, who otherwise wouldn’t have had those available.
“I’m a survivor of sexual violence; I’m surrounded by young people who were survivors, and we organized against a number of things.” Burke told the crowd. "But we never came together, forget organizing, we never came together as a community to discuss sexual violence.”
While working at a leadership camp in Selma, Alabama in 1996, Burke, then 22, realized there wasn’t any language given to women and girls to express the trauma they’d been experiencing.
She presented a somber story of one female student she worked with, a pre-teen, who’d been subjected to sexual harassment by one of the deans.
“There was a dean was a school, who all the little girls knew, that if you were a cheerleader or dance line or track, anything that had a uniform, and you came to his office in your uniform and sometimes did a little routine, he’d let you out of detention,” Burke told the crowd.
But many of these female students simply didn’t know how to describe these situations, which nonetheless made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe, Burke said.
“They didn’t have the words, nobody had ever defined what these things meant to them and told them, just really plainly, ‘this is rape, this is statutory rape, this is what this means, this is what assault looks like’,” Burke said.
Crisis volunteers from the Rutgers Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, for any attendees who felt distressed by the content of the event. Credit: Daniel J. Munoz
It was a somber moment and pivotal point in her career, and years later it led to the formation of the “Me Too” phrase on her Myspace, a now dinosaur-esque brand of social media which predated Facebook and Twitter.
“Shout-out to Myspace,” Burke said jokingly, to chuckles from the crowd. “Myspace was the jam back then.”
Burke and other activists took what they heard from people in their target audience, what survivors of trauma needed.
On Oct. 15, 2017, the phrase “Me Too” went viral as a hashtag when actress Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet urging women to come forward with their stories of sexual trauma, in order to demonstrate the ubiquity of the phenomenon.
Milano’s tweet came in response to a growing number of sexual abuse allegations against then-Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.
Burke said, she was initially worried her worked would be overshadowed and taken from
her, the credit going to a white woman, which she said has often been the experience of women of color.
But in the hours that followed the emergence of the hashtag, Burke said she followed the online posts, until finally, she came across a first at the time; a woman using the hashtag to share her deeply personal story of sexual violence.
“In that moment, I felt like ‘what are you doing Tarana’,” Burke said, and so she shifted her efforts to focusing on “this thankless work.”
Nonetheless, it came to Milano’s attention that Burke came up with the phrase nearly a decade prior and public credited Burke.
And so, it was a misconception, Burke told that crowd, that she and Milano had any kind of adversarial or frosty relationship over Milano taking unfair credit for the phrase.
There were in fact, quite a number of misconceptions regarding the #MeToo movement, which Burke devoted a large chunk of the event to delve into.
For one, the movement wasn’t any kind of “witch hunt” to take down “powerful men,” an idea which has been floated by many critics and observers of the movement.
“I’ve never had a person come to me and say ‘I wanna take down this person,’ they come and say ‘I need help, this thing is killing me, it’s weighing me down, it’s sitting in the pit of my stomach and I need help’,” Burke said.
Another misconception: that the #MeToo movement focuses solely on sexual harassment in the workplace.
“I definitely support the Time’s Up movement, and time is up,” Burke said. “That initiative exists to answer one part of what we know as a spectrum of sexual violence and the #MeToo movement is about addressing the entire spectrum. Child sexual abuse to intimate partner violence.”
The movement isn't just for “white, cisgender women,” Burke added, and needs to continue focusing on marginalized communities: queer and trans women, women of color and the disabled. #MeToo shouldn’t leave out men either, Burke added, and often times when a man says “Me Too,” it’s about child sexual trauma.
Ultimately, Burke said, the #MeToo movement will not put an end to sexual violence once and for all, and that the dedication needs to continue from activists on and offline.
"If this went away tomorrow, and if we get one percent of those people to continue to engage in this work, we have built an army that we didn't have before," Burke said. "Those of you who are new to this, I need you to stay in it when the attention goes away."