Get to Know Tarana Burke, African-American Civil Rights Activist & Founder of “me too.” | The 2019 MAKERS Conference
Tarana Burke founded the “Me Too” campaign back in 2006, as a way to stand in solidarity with her fellow survivors of sexual assault, particularly black women and girls. When Alyssa Milano used the #MeToo hashtag following news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017, she quickly found out that it had all started with Burke, who has since been the face of the powerful movement.
African-American Civil Rights Activist & Founder of “me too.”
Little did civil-rights activist Tarana Burke know that 12 years ago, when she first founded the “Me Too” campaign as a way to stand in solidarity with fellow sexual assault survivors, it would help ignite an international movement.
Get to Know Tarana Burke, African-American Civil Rights Activist & Founder of “me too.” | The 2019 MAKERS Conference
Why She’s a MAKER: The declaration, “Me too,” first used as a tool of support by Burke, has now become a unified battle cry for women and men who have experienced sexual abuse or assault, catalyzing an unprecedented worldwide movement.
Not so Black and White: Growing up in the Bronx, Tarana Burke had a childhood enriched with black American culture. From lessons in Swahili to the writings of Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, Burke was ingrained with a strong sense of the beauty — and injustices — that came with being a woman of color in the U.S. “I grew up not being able to say the Pledge of Allegiance. My grandfather was adamant about that: ‘You will not pledge allegiance to a country that has no allegiance to you.’ “
Brave Hearts: In 1997, Tarana Burke was working with 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement when a 13-year-old girl revealed to her that she had been sexually abused. The teen’s admission resurfaced trauma from Burke’s own experience with sexual abuse. “She had brought up all this stuff that I was not dealing with. She had found whatever courage she needed to come forward and say this to me, and the nagging thing in my brain was that this happened to me, too.”
Don’t Stop Believing: From that point onward, Burke, a three-time survivor of sexual assault, began her lifelong mission to end sexual violence against women, focusing in particular on young women of color from low-income communities. “The idea that somebody who you look up to believes you, that's a very small thing to ask, you know? And just a simple act of believing her changed everything.” The simple truth, she says, is where power lies. “The way you dismantle those power structures is by truth. That whole idea of speaking truth to power comes from the idea that the more truth that you tell, the less power people have to lord over you.”
Making Connections: According to Burke, women saying “me too” has done more than start a movement against sexual misconduct— it’s given survivors a community and connection like never before. “The words ‘me too’ are so simple. But the underpinning of it is that I agree with you, I am with you, I understand you and I'm connected to you.”
TARANA BURKE: The words me too are so simple, but the underpinning of it is that I agree with you. I am with you. I understand you, and I'm connected to you. I was raised by my mother in the Bronx, with a very strong understanding of who I was as a black child in America. My mother had an extensive library, so I was exposed to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou at very, very young ages. We had a lot of traditional American ways, but I also grew up not being able to say the pledge of allegiance. My grandfather was adamant about that. You will not pledge allegiance to a country that has no allegiance to you. Donald Trump took out full page ads in all the major newspapers in New York calling for their death. He labeled them animals. We wanted to push back against the way these young black and Latino boys were being portrayed in the media, and so we organized a rally. It was the first thing I'd ever organized. That changed the trajectory of my life. She had brought up all the stuff that I was not dealing with, where you deal with the pain later and later and later. She had found whatever courage she needed to come forward and say this to me. And the nagging thing in my brain was, this happened to me too. I practice deeply listening to little black girls when they told me the truth about their lives. Another young woman said to me, you were the second person I ever told what happened to me, but you were the first person to believe me. Every time I think about it, it makes me emotional. The idea that somebody who you look up to believes you, that's a very small thing to ask. And just a simple act of believing her changed everything. I went on Twitter, and I was floored. I just saw that this hashtag was trending. So that really is what set the panic off. The possibility that black woman's work being erased, and of me being lost in this narrative is a reality. But for me the decision was, am I going to be in conflict in this moment, or am I going to be who I said I was which is somebody who was in service of survivors. And that wasn't hard. I had to figure out a way to insert myself into this conversation, not to take ownership of it, but because I have something to contribute to it. Maya Angelou was molested as a young person and figured out some kind of formula for survival. I remember trying to identify, how does a body that holds this kind of pain also hold joy? Because I know the pain doesn't go away. And so I've made a practice out of curating joy in my life, and I find joy in listening to survivors talk about how resilient they feel. I find joy in knowing that there's a new crop of young people who are committing themselves to interrupt sexual violence. That's why I've always done youth work, because I believe young people will save us.
TARANA BURKE: The Maya Angelous and the Toni Morrisons and the Oprah Winfreys are really about God at the end of the day. They are a conduit for this wisdom and this information and this connection to what love looks like in real time. Whether you believe in God or not, it's about the divine, or it's about the universe or whatever. For me, it's about God. And it's about the vehicles that God uses, which is any vehicle that God wants to use to bring love into our lives.
TARANA BURKE: I was raised steeped in a lot of black culture. I took African dance. I went to a Muslim daycare and learned Swahili. I was exposed to, you know, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, and Tony Cade Bambara, and, you know, Maya Angelou at very, very young ages. In fact, I was so anxious to read those books because my mother would not let me. And I would always act like, can I-- can I read this book yet? I just had tons of this particularly black feminist literary culture that was very important in my life.
TARANA BURKE: I joined an organization called the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement when I was 14, and it changed my life. The premise behind 21st Century was that young people have power now and that you can be an organizer in your community now.
I think people really don't understand how invisible it feels to be a black and brown youth in America. Even if we don't have the broader concept and know the reasons why, you have eyes, and you can see the cops coming into your community and sweeping up everybody in the neighborhood. So we know what injustice looks like, but this gave us a tool to speak out against injustice. And that wasn't something that I don't think any of us knew was available to us. So it just changed things.
TARANA BURKE: I met another young woman who's still in my life who's very much a big part of my life. And I've-- I've had her since 13. And I call her my little moth. They all have-- they all have nicknames.
And when this all started blowing up and everything, she saw me talking about heaven on something, and she said-- and I-- and I was characterizing it as my biggest failure, right? And she was like, stop saying that. You know, stop calling yourself a failure. It wasn't a failure. When I met you two years later, you were the second person I ever told what happened to me, but you were the first person to believe me.
When she says to me that the idea that somebody who you look up, that somebody who you respect believes you, that's a very small thing to ask. And just the simple act of believing her-- this is from her own words-- changed everything.
And so before MeToo was a thing, I practiced deeply listening to little black girls when they told me the truth about their lives. And in the spaces where they could not find the strength to do that, my story became the impetus for it. I can create safety for you in the knowledge that I know what you're holding. This is the safest place you could be in because I will never let you have to experience anything close to what you've experienced already because I love you, and our children need that.
TARANA BURKE: There's a way that people frame what's happening as if MeToo is suddenly successful. That's not true. The work that we've done in MeToo has been successful for 10 years, for 12 years, actually. But it's about how you define success. And there's a way that people bring this to me that always diminishes the history of it when they think they're actually trying to give accolades.
My work is successful. I have hundreds of children, hundreds of adults, of people's lives who have been touched by the work that we've put forward in MeToo, and that's what success means to me. So I never had, like, a, oh, boy. Now, we made it kind of moment. Because this could have never happened, and I would still be out here speaking at conferences, and workshops, and whenever people would let me do it, and I would be fine, and we would be successful.
TARANA BURKE: I refuse to let the MeToo movement or Tarana Burke take up all the air in the room, and I refuse to let people try to all of a sudden do what they do as, you have during your-- this is your 15 minutes of fame. Give us all the answers now. Look, Tarana Burke is a sexual violence person. She's going to tell us all about it.
I don't have all the answers. I'm one person that had one idea. And I think it's a great idea, and I think it will help millions of people. But I guarantee you that I can go out in the street and I can find you another Tarana Burke with another brilliant idea, and she doesn't have money, and she doesn't have resources, and she won't ever be in "Time Magazine" because we will ignore her.
And so part of my work in this moment is to make sure the people out there who are trying desperately to save their communities, trying desperately to bring a new reality into the lives of people whose lives have been shattered, that they don't get lost because all we can talk about is MeToo.
MeToo is a tiny part of a large movement that's been happening for decades. What good does it do for me to make sure that my work isn't erased to only erase other people? That's not-- what's the point of that? Then that means I'm out here alone, and this work can't be done alone.
TARANA BURKE: I hope that there is somebody out there right now that is-- that is like, I want to do what you're doing. I'm so inspired by this because I realize you're a regular person who just decided that I won't let my community suffer. And I-- and I have something to contribute. And I hope more than anything, more than they're like, oh, she did this, or she went to the Golden Globes or whatever, that they're like, oh, yo, she just made me realize that this idea I had is possible, and I should keep doing it.
The thing that I tell people all the time is, if you're going to get anything from me is to keep going. That idea is brilliant. It may not be brilliant to everybody, but it's brilliant to somebody. You're helping somebody. Keep going.
TARANA BURKE: The name of the program was Just Be Inc, the name of the organization. And it was called that because we believed deeply that black girls needed a space to just exist. One of the things that I think that's the most unfortunate and sad about the way people characterize black children is that our children aren't ever given the space to mess up, to do the things that children do, which is make mistakes, learn from their mistakes, and grow. Our mistakes cost us our lives. They cost us our reputations, you know?
And so we wanted to create a space where these girls could understand that they were worthy, and they were worthy just because they existed. And this is a space where they could just be.
TARANA BURKE: If there's anything that we're taking down as a movement, it's no individual person, but it's this dismantling of the power structures that allow sexual violence to be as insidious as it is. And that happens, the way you dismantle those power structures is by truth. That old idea of speaking truth to power comes from the idea that the more truth that you tell, the less power people have to lord over you because your-- our truth is powerful in and of itself.
If this level of visibility and-- and, like, acknowledgment does anything, it gives me the opportunity to bring those ideas into rooms, and places, and to people who are in a position to do something about it, and to become a person who's in a position to do something about it.