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Empowerment through Empathy: The Birth of the Me Too Movement

Trigger warning for sexual assault

Tarana Burke talking to a large crowd of women student leaders
In October 2017, the #MeToo movement exploded on Twitter. Within weeks it had permeated social media, major news outlets, and everyday life, fueled by survivors of sexual assault and harassment who had finally found an outlet that let them speak their truths and know they weren’t alone in their experiences. Some would say that the movement was born from a single tweet — but social justice activist Tarana Burke can tell you that the movement started years before that.

Burke, who addressed a crowd of nearly 800 students at the 2018 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders, began her social justice career early. At 14 she joined an organization called the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, which was founded by veterans of the civil rights and labor movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In high school she organized activist events and walkouts, and in college a protest after Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police during his arrest in 1991. Her work on fighting injustice until then had been based mostly around race, economics, and politics, but her focus evolved when she moved to Selma, Alabama, to work for 21st Century as a camp director.

During one element of the camp, a sharing activity, the discussion consistently touched upon sexual violence. When Burke was a camper, she never spoke about her own experiences with sexual violence — “I would listen, and I would console … but I didn’t reveal my own.” — and that did not change in 1996, when one of Burke’s favorite campers approached her one-on-one and began to tell Burke about the sexual violence she had experienced at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.

“… what I really wanted to say to her, but it just didn’t feel like enough to offer … was that this happened to me too.”

Burke couldn’t bear to listen; after a while, she cut the girl off and directed her to another camp counselor. “In my mind,” Burke told the NCCWSL crowd, leaning over the podium as she shared her story, “although I was thinking all of these things that I wasn’t, the real underlying thing I was thinking was what I was. And what I really wanted to say to her, but it just didn’t feel like enough to offer … was that this happened to me too.” It didn’t seem like enough to just offer empathy and solidarity; but later, looking back on it, Burke realized the difference that her solidarity could have made. “Nobody ever said those words to me,” she said. “Nobody ever listened to me. So I never told.”

Burke never wanted to watch another young woman’s face close up the way her camper’s had that night. She began looking for resources and created a youth group, Just Be Inc., for young women of color — but the work was more difficult than she had anticipated. She and her fellow organizers didn’t have the necessary resources to help and educate young women survivors of sexual assault, and neither did the local guidance counselor or even the workers at Selma’s rape crisis center. But Burke and her fellow organizers had personal experience, and she realized that experience had to be their tool.

“There was not very many people who could empathize person to person with these young people and say … This thing happened to me too … but you know what? I’m alive, and I’m surviving, and this is how I’m surviving, and you can survive too. And I’m healing, and you can heal too.” That empathy was the best tool Burke had to help campers heal from sexual violence, and from that empathy was born Me Too.

Through Just Be Inc. Burke created a community where young women surviving sexual violence could feel the power of knowing they weren’t alone in their situation or on their journey to healing. Burke realized that healing from sexual violence wasn’t an individual process: It was a community process that stemmed from a community problem with sexual violence. Systems within Burke’s community perpetuated and allowed sexual violence, and that meant that the healing had to be on a larger scale.

As Just Be Inc. and Me Too expanded, Burke established web pages for both organizations — and realized that the community she wanted to help was much bigger than she had ever realized. Women began reaching out to her to ask how they could bring Just Be Inc. and Me Too’s programming to their communities.

At that point, Me Too was, for Burke, like a “secret.” If you knew that phase, she said, it meant that she had met you personally at some point. So when Alyssa Milano tweeted the words that made #MeToo go viral, Burke was stunned. “We had never experienced a moment … where we could talk publicly about sexual violence. When the country was interested in a national conversation about sexual violence. It was incredible.” And after the initial panic that her work would be erased and co-opted, Burke said she realized that “my work had been happening in front of me all day.”

She stressed that claiming ownership over the movement defeated the point of the movement altogether. “The Me Too movement is about individual healing and community healing,” she said. “Individual healing is possible so community healing can take place.” Now, she urged, is the moment for survivors to come together.

Individuals, whether they are survivors or not, also have a role in creating community. “If we wait for folks to come and save us, it’ll never happen,” said Burke. “You know that famous quote, ‘We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for?’ This is it. It’s us.” She urged the audience to think about what they could do to fight back against sexual violence by finding their role and their lane. No action or task is too small, according to Burke; any idea could be the next to change the future of sexual violence.

“You want to be part of the Me Too movement? You’re in it,” said Burke. “If you all are ready to do the work of ending sexual violence, if you are committed to healing yourself and healing your communities, I can only leave you with these two words: Me too.”

Along with Burke, attendees at the 2018 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders heard from Vlora Çitaku, Madelyn Scales Harris, and Women of Distinction Simone Askew, Carrie Goldberg, Esq., and Aisha Bowe.

This post was written by AAUW Editorial Assistant Femi Sobowale.



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By:    June 26, 2018