‘Me Too’ founder Tarana Burke talks community leadership and activism

‘Give time, resources and a voice’

Alvin+Buyinza%2FCollegian
Back to Article
Back to Article

‘Me Too’ founder Tarana Burke talks community leadership and activism

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






‘Me Too’ movement founder Tarana Burke said that, two years ago, she couldn’t book a speaking engagement; Wednesday night, almost 2,000 seats in John M. Greene Hall were filled listening to the famous activist talk about the importance of leadership.

For the past two years, Burke has been traveling around the world talking about the misconceptions about the “Me Too” movement, a “survivor-built and survivor-led social justice movement” to end sexual violence.

Burke stated one reason she established the movement because “people don’t understand what a survivor looks like.”

“That’s why people say, ‘she can’t be a survivor; she doesn’t act like one,’” Burke said.

The other is that the Me Too movement and the #MeToo movement are the same.

First, according to Burke, “#MeToo doesn’t recognize Black, queer bodies – only white, able-bodied, beautiful celebrities.”

As a result, it took 16 years of exposés, social media posts and documentaries for R. Kelly to be indicted, but “only two articles to take Harvey Weinstein down.”

Nonetheless, Burke stated that she started the Me Too movement to center Black women and Black girls.

“And I do that unapologetically,” Burke said.

Burke credits her activism to her upbringing in the Bronx.

“People need to know that extraordinary people come from ordinary places,” she said.

Raised by a pan-African grandfather and a mother who “wrapped” her in Black feminist literature, Burke was exposed to books like “Before the Mayflower” and writers like Ntozake Shange.

Although growing up in an activist household helped her identify injustice, Burke said that it didn’t give her the “tools to fight it.”

It was when she joined the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, where she found the tools and the moment to be a leader.

“And it changed the trajectory of my life,” Burke said.

The organization, one of the oldest youth leadership organizations in the country, was founded back in 1985 by veterans of the civil rights movement and many social justice movements of the ’60s and ’70s. According to the organizations website, its mission is “to inspire, assist, organize and develop young people of all ages, in and out of school, to be skilled community focused leaders.”, its mission is to “inspire, assist, organize and develop young people of all ages, in and out of school, to be skilled community focused leaders.

Burke said that, during her time at the organization, every morning she said to herself, “I am a leader; what shall I give?”

To Burke, a leader gives time, resources and a voice. Donating your time means looking for the gaps in your community where there are little resources and joining others in doing similar work around your interest.

“People did not really care about sexual violence until two years ago,” she said. “And a lot of them still don’t care now, so that means in your community there is probably some under-resourced, understaffed organization that is holding all these people in your community that is probably saying ‘Me Too.’”

“Go volunteer there. Give them some of your time,” Burke added.

According to Burke, there haven’t been a lot of resources that have spread through “the ground,” the ground meaning grassroots organizations, which have left a lot of meaningful organizations that could help in financial worry.

For reference Burke cites that the National Sexual Assault Hotline had a 400 percent increase last year and a 26 percent intake rise. The need for resources is urgent she claims, which means that involving yourself in fundraisers and donating money to organizations is crucial.

“It takes resources to build a community.”

Lastly, a voice – Burke emphasized that although they can “galvanize” a movement, “hashtags are not movements.”

Instead, she advised the audience to speak out when they hear hateful words – as long as it does not put them in danger – and to not “squander this moment.”

“Build while you climb; be a lifelong learner; and don’t be afraid of making mistakes,” Burke said.

She also advocated for working together toward a goal because “it’s less hard to be done in a community.”

“And that’s what we are: an international community,” Burke added. “Work is hard, but it is less hard when done as a community.”

To Burke community is a preference over the government, one she claims we cannot trust to create tangible change for the rights of survivors.

One of the biggest lessons Burke learned in understanding how deep the country was into the sexual assault epidemic was in Selma, Alabama.

When Burke did a sexual violence education program in the Selma Junior High School in the late 1990s, she had all the children write down their knowledge about sexual violence on sticky notes. If they had experienced sexual violence themselves, they were encouraged to write “Me too.”

Burke said that she saw those two words on “sticky after sticky.”

According to Burke, 75 percent of the girls in the middle school at the time were survivors of sexual violence. The number shocked her.

“These are the same children [that], if a police officer touched a hair on their head, we would shut this city down,” Burke said.

After recounting this experience, Burke emphasized to the audience the need for communities to work together.

“If we have a community problem, we need a community solution.”

The other time Burke saw this was through the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Through the people that she met, Burke was able to realize how deeply personal the hearings were to many survivors, many who she described to be “sad” and “broken” after his confirmation.

Each night after the confirmation Burke would read comments and emails about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that would categorize Ford and feminists in offensive manners. It was that moment where Burke realized that part of the problem around sexual violence is that not only is it pervasive and normalized but that people do not understand what survival looks like.

“We use the word and throw it out, people were saying things like ‘you know she has to be lying because she doesn’t know the details’ or ‘this is ridiculous, why are you bringing up this 30-year-old case?’”

Burke began to understand that she lives in a “bubble,” a space where everyone agrees with and does the same work as her. In that moment she realized the importance to teach others what a sexual survivor looks like.

The notion that a sexual survivor will be able to recall each and every detail in their account is not a universal experience. Referencing her own life, Burke states that she has companions who are angered at her for not being able to recall simple facts due to her poor memory.

“And my memory is terrible because I have spent most of my life trying to forget,” Burke said.

She added that, when people hear narratives around who got “Me Too’d” and describe the movement in bits and pieces of the spectrum of sexual violence, it shows a lack of understanding about what “Me Too” is about, she says.

To Burke, “Me Too” is about learning and talking about a culture that creates an atmosphere around sexual violence from language to people who fear walking outside of their own homes.

However, Burke also emphasized the importance of joy in emotionally-taxing work.

Although she has days where “all I can do is survive,” Burke said that she heals her soul not only through therapy, but also through little things, such as memories of her child running over to her at daycare.

Like activism, “curating joy is about intentionality,” Burke said.

Burke closed the event by encouraging the audience to talk about the movement differently.

“One of our biggest challenges, is when people don’t understand,” Burke said. “They feel threated, they feel like it’s too much, or they feel like it’s been going on too long.”

Akilah Williams, a Smith College student, said that she couldn’t put this event into words.

“I’m kind of shook,” Williams said. “She resonates such amazing energy.”

Smith College student Brittany Torres said that hearing Burke “makes me feel like ‘yeah, I can f***ing do this.’”

The event was organized by the Smith College Wertele Center for Leadership.

Alvin Buyinza can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @buyinza_news.

Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @busybusybeckybe.