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A Long Road Ahead: #MeToo Founder Tarana Burke On Sexual Assault, Stigmas And Society

“I’m sorry I’m so late!” Tarana Burke sighs as she swings open the door to Harlem’s rustic ‘Food Bar,’ her frigid frame greeting mine with a warm embrace. New York City is unthawing after experiencing a monster Nor’easter storm the day before, which introduced us to a new (and positively bizarre) weather phenomenon known as “thundersnow.” The quaint eatery, located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, serves as the perfect place to defrost.

Her tardiness is justified, as today is International Women’s Day (Mar. 8), and Burke—who is rocking a sweeping gray dress designed by her close friend—is a social justice and civil rights activist. The annual observance of all the world’s baddest ladies felt a bit different in 2018, given the turbulent climate society has reluctantly adopted in recent months.

For nearly half-a-year, news headlines have been dominated by sexual assault claims against some of the entertainment industry’s most powerful men, including (but not limited to) film producer Harvey Weinstein, Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and TV journalist Matt Lauer. This is not just La La Land’s problem, as men in the restaurant, children/young adult literature, plumbing industries and more have been accused of abusing their power against unwilling, unsuspecting victims.

These reputation-sullying admissions were brought to light due in part to a Twitter trending topic that circulated during the fourth-quarter of 2017. On Oct. 15, actress Alyssa Milano suggested that victims of sexual assault use the hashtag #MeToo, in an effort to reveal the issue’s ubiquity. Since going viral, countless sexual assault victims have broken their silence regarding their experiences, with the hope of raising awareness about the problem at hand.

From the jump, no one could have predicted the impact #MeToo would spark. What many people also didn’t know at the start was that the movement was created by Burke, my lunch partner, in 2006.

#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke Talks Sexual Assault, Stigmas And Society
Getty Images

Burke’s involvement in social justice began at the tender age of 15. As we nommed on cheeseburgers and fries, she explained that her “militant” upbringing growing up in the West Bronx sparked her interest in civil rights.

Thanks to influence from her “Garveyite” grandfather and her “womanist” mother, Burke read books like They Came Before Columbus, Roots, and Sex and Race as early as seventh grade, and became interested in writers such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston. This inspired her to join the 21st Century Leadership Movement—an international youth organization founded by veteran activists—at 14 years old, where she trained to be a grassroots community organizer.

In 1989, she had her first experience with activist organizing by working against Donald Trump’s media campaign that targeted the “Central Park Five,” a group of young men of color who were accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. Trump paid thousands to place “full-page ads” in NYC papers against the teens, which Burke says was his way of “doubling down” on the hypersexualized stereotypes of black men. Additionally, she organized a city-wide rally in support of black and brown youth representation.

After graduating from Alabama’s Auburn University, Burke began working at 21st Century in Selma. During her tenure as the executive director of a youth-based arts center, a conversation about girls needing “different” attention sparked an idea, resulting in the formation of Just Be Inc, which is dedicated to promoting the power of self-esteem and self-worth for young women of color.

“These girls need to be grounded in a foundation that helps them to see that they’re worthy,” she says of the org’s initial focus. “When they’re not in this circle or not in this room, they’ll go out into this world that’ll constantly try to devalue them, and they need to be grounded in something that constantly brings them back to their worthiness…inevitably, what always happens when you have a bunch of girls is that they start talking about experiences.”

Burke said that these “experiences” often dealt with boys and men, which caused her to become “fed up.” She heard stories ranging from pre-teens “dating” much older men, to high schoolers “being harassed by the deans of their schools,” to girls being harassed or assaulted by family or family friends. Through this frustration, Burke had the idea to speak to the Just Be girls about their experiences with sexual violence more candidly. She wanted her organization to be a safe space, as she is also a victim of sexual violence both in childhood and adulthood.

“When we initially got started, it was about giving these girls language so that they could adequately describe what they’d experienced,” she explains, brushing her long braids away from her food. “You could have pain you’re experiencing without having the words to describe it, because no one taught it to you. So we started off giving them language, then, we gave them possibility. I could stand up and say, ‘I’m Ms. Tarana, this happened to me, too.’ And that always got them. That was the hook.” While it started small, the creation of a ‘Me Too’ MySpace page helped the movement reach more people.

In order for the girls to better understand that sexual assault doesn’t define them, Burke referenced celebrities in her discussions, in order to give more tangible examples of how to overcome it.

“We had some girls there that were dealing with some really horrible stuff,” she says. “So, when I’d say that Oprah went through something at 14 and still became Oprah, that’s what opens up a conversation about life possibility. You can change the trajectory of your life.”

“I didn’t want to give these girls platitudes, I wanted to give them something concrete,” she continues. “The connection part with the reality portion requires a real-life example of how things are still possible. If you give young people enough information, they’ll figure out what to do with it. They just need a little guidance.”

#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke Talks Sexual Assault, Stigmas And Society
Just Be Inc.

“I didn’t know how I would be included in the narrative,” Burke says, reflecting on her initial “panic” after Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo tweet went viral. “I thought I’d be lost and I thought my work would be lost.” Even in the earliest days of the movement, Rolling Stone published an article where Milano discusses “her” #MeToo campaign. While the Charmed actress got the hashtag trending, several Internet users were quick to give proper credit to the black woman who really started it all.

After the creation of #MeToo was properly attributed to her, Burke was featured everywhere from The New York Times to TIME, where she and other “silence breakers” were named “Person Of The Year” in 2017. She even pushed the Waterford Crystal Button in Times Square to drop the ball on New Year’s Eve. While Burke’s visibility as the movement’s founder has been beneficial for #MeToo, she assured that the work and the message are far more important.

“It’s not enough to celebrate me because I went to the Golden Globes or the Oscars, or you see me on TV all the time…because that’s bullsh*t, unless you are willing to interrogate the reasons why those things are happening,” Burke says.

“It gained traction really fast. I think the narrative got away from us,” she continues. “I think at the time, there were so many accusations coming back to back, and there was no one who could talk about why #MeToo was so infectious. But I knew, because we had been seeing what would happen globally on a small scale for years.”

While sexual assault is an intersectional issue, women of color, LGBTQ women and women in adult industries have been seemingly shut out of the conversation, while the media endlessly highlights the stories of white women. Statistically, women of color face higher rates of sexual violence than that of white women. Burke says that the voices of marginalized individuals have always been ignored in the media, which makes it imperative that we push to make these stories heard on our own.

“We love to hear about Hollywood celebrities and we want to know what’s going on with them, so people feed into that,” she says. “If you come into it through the lense of what mainstream media has told you about what [Me Too] is, then of course you’re going to get marginalized as we always are. We have to always assert ourselves and be aggressive about women being misrepresented. Is it only valid if CNN talks about it? Why isn’t it valid when we talk about it? I think that we have to create spaces where who we are and what we’ve pressed in our own lives to deal with the trauma is normalized.”

While the intersectionality of sexual assault could aid in empowerment through empathy across color lines, it’s also important to remember that #MeToo began as a movement for people of color. With this in mind, Burke notes that marginalized communities can’t be excluded from the movement unless we continue to stay quiet on certain issues pertaining to sexual assault.

“It doesn’t have to be up to me to decide this movement is about us, period. It’s about us if we say it’s about us,” she says. “Nobody can take you out of something, especially if you’re the one who started it. It started for you, for us in our community. For us, by us…and you’re just going to let somebody walk away with it? ‘#MeToo’s not for us.’ Of course it is!”

The media’s amplification of the massive issue also demonstrates that sexual perpetrators do not discriminate based on gender. Actors such as Terry Crews, Broadway star Anthony Rapp and The Mummy’s Brendan Fraser have spoken out about being sexually assaulted by other men in power. Although their admissions were seen as brave by many, several others dismissed their accusations. This disregard for their experiences, especially in reference to Crews’ confessions, highlights the sole reason many male sexual assault survivors don’t come forward.

“When you truly empathize with someone, you have to take into account all the things that make that person who they are. This is about men destigmatizing sexual violence amongst men that will help other brothers come forward, and be able to feel comfortable talking about it,” she explains. “Would you rather [Terry Crews] beat the sh*t out of this man and go to jail, and throw his whole career away, so you can be like ‘oh, he beat that brother. He showed him.’ It makes me crazy how people talk. I’ve even heard women say, ‘It’s not that bad. It’s just groping…’ This is all of the stuff men have to deal with, because the stigma around homosexuality in our community is still—regardless if it’s 2018—so prevalent. It’s shrouded in shame.”

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), nearly three million men have been victims of attempted or completed rape, and more recent research can conclude that these figures may even be an underestimation of the problem’s actual severity. “There’s one in four girls that will encounter sexual violence before they turn 18, the other number is one in six boys. That’s not much better,” she explains. “We talk about girls all the time, but there’s a spectrum of gender-based violence that’s wide. This movement has opened up a portal that’s allowed people to pour all of that out.”

However, the prevalence of the issue still doesn’t take away from some victims feeling silenced because of who they are. “There’s a freedom that’s happening on the one hand, but it’s inhibiting on the other hand, because imagine you’re being set free, but then you’re muzzled,” Burke says. “I always imagined lifting the lid back and there’s all these people screaming, but we can only hear the people on that end, while the rest of us are screaming as loud as we can…but we’re on mute.”

#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke Talks Sexual Assault, Stigmas And Society
Getty Images

Pro-tip: If you ever get the chance to speak to Tarana Burke, you probably should refrain from asking about “what’s next” for #MeToo. Even though once-voiceless victims of sexual assault are belatedly being heard thanks to the movement, there are still mountains that need to be climbed.

“‘Where do we go now?’ ‘What are we going to do next?’ Those questions drive me crazy,” Burke says, raising her hands in exasperation. “I get ‘what’s the work that’s going to happen?,’ but in the history of the United States and all that we know about sexual violence that’s happened in this country, we’ve had a sustained national conversation about sexual violence for less than six months.”

Those in power are being exposed for their wrongdoings, but lest we forget there is still a man holding the highest office in the world who has been accused of (and has bragged about) sexually assaulting women. There’s an incredible irony that lies in the fact that Burke started her activist organization journey fighting against Donald Trump, and now she’s working to protect people from individuals like him once again.

“Stop talking about ‘what’s next,’” she urges. “What’s next is we gotta keep digging into this issue because it’s way more pervasive, it’s way deeper than what we’ve seen so far.”

She’s certainly right. While the prevalence of sexual assault in the workplace has been discussed in great detail, there are still numerous incidents of the problems occurring all over. RAINN reports that among college undergrad students in the U.S., 23 percent of females and five percent of males experience sexual assault through “physical force, violence or incapacitation.” The issue affects students in kindergarten through 12th grade as well. Not to mention, child sexual abuse, domestic partner abuse and attacks happening to members of the trans community remain surfaces that haven’t been scratched at as deeply.

“If these are the stories in Hollywood, imagine the stories that are in everyday communities,” Burke notes. “If your focus is on all this other stuff, it’s just distracting from the billions of people that are asking for help. This is why we have to shift the narrative. We have to do it now. We have this window of opportunity, and if we let it pass, I don’t know if we’ll get it again.”

Besides bringing attention to the topic through candid discussion, how else can we create change? Burke says that a decrease in the marginalization of victims of color, and a decline in stigmatization of male voices, could make a world of difference. This change starts in our own communities (black, white, Latino/Latinx, Indian, Asian, etc.). Instead of trying to avoid it, we need to address it head-on.

“Part of it is about how our own community responds to sexual violence. We could’ve shut down R. Kelly years ago,” Burke says. “I’ve been writing articles about Nate Parker, about R. Kelly, about sexual assault for years. When those things stop causing big schisms in our community, then we can have real conversations about the pervasiveness of sexual violence. We don’t talk about it. We don’t do anything to deal with it as a community. We don’t look at sexual violence in our community as a social justice or community issue. [In communities of color] this culture of silence that we have is killing us.”

Despite the terrain that must be traversed, Ms. Burke is nonetheless pleased by the progress #MeToo has made in its 12 years. In the week after #MeToo went worldwide, it was reported that 85 countries engaged with it, and 1.7 million people tweeted about it. Since then, the hashtag has been used over 12 million times across the globe, and has sparked an international movement.

“When I hear that number, I think about… what if it was an international outbreak of a communal disease,” Burke says. “The entire world would be focused on a cure, would be focused on ‘how did we get here, how do we get out of here, how do we never cause it again?’ We’ve got to know how we got here, to figure out how we get out of this thing and how to find a cure for it. We are in a moment where if we don’t focus on what the cure is, what’s preventative, don’t support the people who have come forward, and prevent other people from having to deal with it, then we are making the wrong move here.”

All in all, putting a stop to various forms of sexual violence is a collaborative effort. She can’t do it alone, and Tarana Burke is willing to work with those who are willing to help every victim and every voice.

“I want people who are committed to what this movement is actually about, which is centering victims or survivors of sexual violence, making sure the most marginalized survivors have access to resources, and making sure all survivors have resources to craft their own healing journey. Also, giving people actual steps for what they can do in their community,” she said, firmly.

“If there’s an organization that’s doing child sexual abuse work or sexual harassment, or something in that framework, then they fit with us,” she continues. “Then, if we’re going to be intersectional, take all of the things that I am… we want to be collaborative. We want to be expansive, we want to be global, and we want to find solutions.”