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Women’s Initiative welcomes Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo movement, to campus

Burke speaks about her journey as an activist

Women’s Initiative welcomes Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo movement, to campus

Tarana Burke, right, speaks during a Women's Initiative event Feb. 10. 

Women’s Initiative awarded Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, the Women’s Initiative’s Excellence in Activism award Saturday. During her remarks, Burke spoke about her work founding the #MeToo movement before it went viral in late 2017 and her hopes for its future.

During an interview with The Eagle, Burke said she encourages all institutions, not only the entertainment industry, to become involved in the #MeToo movement. Burke said universities have a responsibility to focus on issues of sexual violence.

“It’s about a cultural shift,” Burke said. “What’s happening in the classrooms? What’s happening in the dorm rooms, all right? I think what these institutions, especially colleges, and universities should do is really focus more on shifting the culture on the campus, and you can’t ‘policy’ your way out of that.”

Burke wants to create an interactive website for survivors of sexual violence and their allies to find resources, get help and discover tools to bring about change in their communities.

Burke first became a community organizer as a teen in the Bronx, where she was a member of the 21st Century Youth Leadership movement. Her work with the organization made her realize activism was about more than protests and nonviolence.

“I learned nonviolence was a tactic, not a way of life … a lot of civil rights leaders had guns,” Burke said.

After graduating from college, she worked in Selma, Alabama — an important site for the Civil Rights Movement — where she realized that much of her activism had focused solely on racial injustice rather than gender inequity. After this realization, she decided to start an all-girls empowerment program with her best friend.

Their program, Just Be, provided youth and leadership development for African-American girls in middle and high school.

“We need to help girls understand their self worth,” Burke said. “We need to differentiate that from self esteem.”

Although Just Be was successful and shaped the young girls involved, Burke said she was still not satisfied. As the program continued and many of the girls in the group became comfortable with sharing their experiences with Burke, she found many of them had similar stories about sexual abuse and violence. For them, their experiences of sexual violence had become normalized, Burke said.

To help the girls, she decided to reach out to the local rape crisis center for resources. However, Burke said the only resource available was to contact law enforcement.

It was then that Burke said she realized that sometimes “you gotta take what you have to make what you need,” and it was then that the #MeToo movement was born.

After spending time working on these issues with young girls, Burke created a MySpace page in 2006 to share the stories of what they had been doing. Once the stories were posted online, they received numerous messages from women everywhere thanking them for their work and reaching out and asking for help, Burke said.

“Everytime something happened, our work expanded,” Burke said. “We always centered on the most marginalized people.”

Burke continued her work of helping sexual violence survivors for years, but it was not until Oct. 15, 2017 that her work went viral. It was that day that actress Alyssa Milano tweeted asking women who had experienced sexual harassment and violence to come forward on social with the hashtag #MeToo. She did this in response to allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein and other prominent men in the entertainment industry.

When Burke woke up that morning, she was flooded with messages from her friends who had seen the hashtag on Twitter, but had not seen Burke or any of her work attached to it. When Burke learned about the hashtag, she panicked.

She was worried that her work would become overshadowed and she would be erased, as she had “seen what happens when a black woman’s work gets too popular.”

Yet, when she saw that so many of the people who were using the #MeToo hashtag to share their stories of sexual violence, something in her shifted.

“My feelings went from panic on my work being erased to my work happening in front of me,” Burke said.

Rather than the #MeToo movement being about taking down powerful men, Burke wanted to create a “global community of survivors who are committed to healing.” She believes the focus of the movement should be on helping the survivors rather than focusing on the perpetrators.

Burke’s speech had an impact, as many of the students who attended felt empowered and inspired by her message.

For freshman Yeabsera Mengistu, the topics that Burke discussed were necessary even though they made her uncomfortable.

“Generally, I was kind of spooked because a lot of the conversation she was talking about was something that we don’t generally talk about in public,” Mengistu said. “Just being able to hear her testify to a lot of things that are happening in the community really pushes me to want to continue the dialogue because most of the time we are very nervous to talk about things like this.”

Freshman Lily Gasper said the talk helped to clear misconceptions about the #MeToo movement and give students a background as to how it began.

“I was almost crying at the end,” Gasper said. “I personally know a lot of people who are survivors, so I think that I want to be more sensitive and change my approach to those conversations, and shine light on how to better approach those conversations with people that you love.”

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