Before the talk: the ascent of Tarana Burke and MeToo

Izzy Margulies

Tarana Burke was brought up in the Bronx in a “Pan-African liberation family,” as Burke shared in a lecture at Iowa State University. Her family was poor, but hardship was always met with resilience and pride which Burke carries with her to this day.

One of Burke’s earliest forays into activism occured via The 21st Century Youth Leaders Movement in which she participated in leadership training and acquired the skills to channel the foundation she received from her family environment, to truly engage a community and manifest a grassroots effort. After participating in the organization in high school, Burke worked as a team member organizing summer workshops. It was here that she met the girl who changed the trajectory of her life: a young woman she refers to as Heaven.

Heaven opened up to Burke about her experiences of recurring sexual abuse that she had suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. This was the first time Burke found herself searching for a way to respond to and acknowledge the experiences of a survivor. No concrete method had been developed to address this far too prevalent reality. Burke had suffered sexual abuse herself, but the subject was swept so far under the cultural rug that she still struggled to find the words to reach out. Burke described the experience as something that “sat in her spirit for a long time.” Burke told Yellow Hammer, “I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper… me too.”

Almost half a decade passed, in which Burke worked all over Alabama in grassroots organizations, developing communities and engaging with young students of color, all the while hearing stories like Heaven’s. It was there that Burke learned what worked and what didn’t when approaching survivors and, through her experience, saw what young black girls needed in an organization- what real help looked like.

In 2003, Burke founded JustBe Inc. to provide a space for young women of color to find mutual understanding and acknowledge their worth. JustBe also provides leadership training and paths toward community engagement and self-empowerment. In 2006, Within JustBe, Burke coined “Me Too” both as a response to survivors and as a movement. In an interview with WHYY, Burke elaborated on the power of the phrase: “Why I started using #MeToo, is because it’s so simple and complete. It’s a conversation starter or the whole conversation. I was used to seeing this happen in smaller spaces, where people connect with each other and not just women on TV. But people, you know — girls, women, transgender, nonconforming, some men — just connected with the commonality of being a survivor.”

In 2008, Burke moved to Philadelphia to work at Breakthrough Philadelphia, helping low-income students gain access to higher education. After relocating, Burke continued her work with #MeToo and JustBe, giving talks, holding support meetings, facilitating protests and raising awareness.

After Burke spent a decade dedicated to survivors and young women of color, #MeToo hit the mainstream when Alyssa Milano seemingly pulled the hashtag out of thin air, using it in a tweet to expose her own experiences with sexual abuse while working in entertainment. Milano later credited Burke after finding out the hashtag’s origin, but the correction wasn’t quick enough to ensure that everyone familiar with #MeToo was also familiar with Tarana Burke. After that, the movement went viral and accounts from survivors flooded both the internet and the mainstream media. Only following this surge of high-profile coverage, was Burke’s founding role finally recognized. After the #MeToo explosion, Burke was recognized by Time Magazine as Person of the Year and presented with high-profile opportunities such as hosting the ball-drop in Times Square.

While Burke was humbled by the positive impact of #MeToo both in regard to public awareness of sexual assault and individual empowerment of survivors, Burke has recently spoken critically of the manner in which the media has turned #MeToo into an opportunity to shame and focus on the offenders instead of the healing process for survivors. In today’s media, where suffering is always capitalized upon as scandal, the hashtag has gained momentum in outlets who take advantage of what #MeToo really means.

Before hearing what Burke has to say in December, it is important to remember that the essence of #MeToo is something that has lived within Tarana Burke and every survivor of sexual violence for their whole lives. Me Too took years and years of unceasing effort. It is not just a craze, and it is not just an opportunity to expend energy on abusers. #MeToo is a recently recognized step on a long road toward justice and healing for survivors and a better future for groups and individuals victimized by those in power. Tarana was there for survivors before a single celebrity came out. She lives her activism and her recognition as the heart and soul of Me Too and as a leading figure and source of hope for our generation is long overdue.