'Me Too' Founder Tells RWU Students: 'Let’s Heal Together. Let’s Get Active Together.'

Tarana Burke says movement is about supporting survivors of sexual violence and maintaining the momentum of open dialogue

Guest speaker Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke shares the story behind the creation of her "Me Too" movement during a presentation, "Me Too: The Movement to Empower Survivors." Image Credit: Oggi Photography
Edward Fitzpatrick

BRISTOL, R.I. – In a word, Tarana Burke was scared when the two words that define the movement she started – “Me Too” – went viral.

Burke, a social justice activist for 25 years, had been using the phrase “Me Too” for years to let survivors of sexual violence know they’re not alone. On Oct. 15, 2017, that phrase burst into the national dialogue when actress Alyssa Milano used the #MeToo hashtag following accusations of sexual harassment and assault made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

“It was so unexpected,” Burke told a crowd of about 800 at Roger Williams University on Feb. 13. “This was a passion to me – something I held dear to my heart, that I will do until the day I die. But I never expected the world to talk about it, because we don’t talk about it.”

So at first, she was scared.

“That’s the truth,” she said. “I felt like this thing that had been my life’s work was about to become a pop culture moment that will be fleeting – here today and gone tomorrow. But we are all in the middle of a lesson, aren’t we? We are all in the middle of something that we never thought we would see in our lifetime.”

Indeed, she said, “I couldn’t even dream of a time when the national dialogue would be about sexual violence for four months. It’s fascinating to me.”

She sought to dispel misconceptions about the #MeToo movement.

For one thing, it has never aimed at taking down powerful men, Burke said. “Even in Alyssa Milano’s initial tweet, she never said anything about a perpetrator,” she said. “Our work has always been about centering and supporting survivors. It has never been about what the perpetrators are doing.”

The notion of removing men from powerful positions represents “the corporate response,” she said, “because these corporations are complicit, so it’s easy to say, ‘OK, we will fire him.’ ”

So what is the movement about?

“We are about making it safe for people to speak their truth,” Burke said. “We honor everyone’s experience, with all forms of sexual violence. We are about centering survivors, particularly survivors of color and the most marginalized. I’m talking about queer and trans folks, disabled folks, I’m talking about the forgotten. You have to start with the least, the most vulnerable, because it benefits everybody in the long run.”

The movement is also about joy.

“It’s about teaching people how to cultivate joy in their lives,” Burke said. “We can’t live in our trauma. What this moment will have you do is think that ‘Me Too’ is where you stop, but ‘Me Too’ is where you start. It’s permission to start your journey, it’s permission to heal, it’s permission to be out in the world boldly as whoever you are. It’s the starting point. And it’s driven by joy – it’s not driven by trauma.”

Diving Deeper into Critical Dialogue

When RWU President Donald J. Farish welcomed the crowd that packed the Campus Recreation Center Gymnasium, he noted that Burke’s speech was part of a year-long series, “Talking About Race, Gender and Power” at the university. “We couldn’t have picked a more exciting year to get involved in that topic,” he said. “There just has been no shortage of things to discuss, and part of the objective of being at a university is to make sure that we are on the front lines of those conversations.”

Associate Professor of American Studies Laura D’Amore, RWU’s program coordinator for Gender and Sexuality Studies, said, “A story like Tarana Burke’s is essential to that discourse because at its core it’s a story about the ways that race and gender intersect in ways that disempower victims. But through this movement, ‘Me Too’ promotes empowerment through empathy, creating a global network of people who are connected to a journey of healing. And that is powerful.”

Before leading a Q&A, RWU Intercultural Center Associate Director MiNa Chung thanked Burke, saying, “To have you on campus and to hear through your own testimony the work that you have done at the grass-roots level – the years, the struggle, the heartaches and the joys of getting to this place – really brings into sharper focus the meaning and purpose of this work and how central and important it is.”

Burke, who has experienced sexual assault, founded the “Me Too” campaign in 2006 to help women and girls — particularly women and girls of color — who had also survived sexual violence.

Burke, 44, recalled that in 1996 she was working at a youth camp when a 12- or 13-year-old girl, who she refers to as “Heaven,” tried to talk to her about sexual abuse by her stepfather. “I was only 22 years old, still trying to figure out what being a survivor meant,” she said. “I put so much pressure on myself that I shut down” and ended up asking the teen to talk to someone else. She came to realize the only thing she really wanted to tell girl was: “Me too.”

For years, Burke thought of that experience as her biggest failure. But years later, she said, another student contacted her to say, “If that’s your biggest failure, I’m your biggest success.” She said that student, now an adult, told her, “You were the second person I told my story to but the first person to believe me. When you told me, ‘Me too,’ and gave me that T-shirt, you changed my life.”

Now, Burke said, she tells Heaven’s story differently. “It’s not a failure,” she said. “It was a catalyst. It led to something that was much bigger than I could have ever imagined.”

Burke called not only for personal healing but also for community healing. “When I’m talking about community healing, I’m talking about concrete things,” she said. “People hear that and think intangible, kind of hokey things. When I talk about community, I’m talking about policies and law and a culture that makes people safe.”

In concluding her speech, Burke said, “Let’s heal together. Let’s heal our communities together. Let’s get active together. Let’s support survivors together. If you are ready to do that, I can only leave you with these two words: Me Too.”