Glass talks to civil rights activist Tarana Burke about the past, present and future of the most influential movement of recent years
On 15 October 2017, actress and activist Alyssa Milano sent out a short message on Twitter that would shake the world. “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The internet blew up with thousands of women speaking out on their experiences, creating a digital uproar that was impossible not to hear, with the hashtag #metoo catching on like wildfire. But as with all internet trends, many take the viral hashtag at face value without really being aware of the complexities behind it.
Back in 2006, African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke founded Me Too, a movement providing help for survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of colour from low income communities. Burke’s initiative came from her own experience of being abused at an early age. Throughout the years, Me Too has managed to build a community of survivors of sexual abuse by bringing the topic into mainstream society, creating “healing circles” for survivors and helping them get the resources each one needs to get past trauma and find happiness again.
With the eyes of the world watching, Milano’s tweet put the Me Too movement in a strategic position to further their work and gain momentum in a year when very public controversies rooted in racism and misogyny abounded. But as much visibility as the internet has given the movement, it has also given way for it to be misconstrued and used as a vehicle to launch false or misinformed accusations, and in many ways the hashtag – used erroneously as a synonym for the movement – threatens to flatten out Me Too to a very relatable (almost too relatable) trend that doesn’t deal with the very many complexities of sexual violence, abuse and/or racism.
Glass talks to Burke about Me Too’s biggest misconceptions; Time magazine’s Silence Breakers cover; getting past her own history of abuse and helping survivors of abuse find joy again. And holding on to it.
The founder of Me Too movement – Tarana Burke. Photograph: courtesy Tarana Burke
I want to talk to you a little bit about Time magazine’s person of the year for 2017. What did it mean for the Me Too movement to have The Silence Breakers on the cover?
People were breaking their silence before Me Too went viral, way before Harvey Weinstein and all of that, and so I’m glad that Time magazine celebrated the silence breakers. These are people – not just celebrities – who came forward, whether they were propelled by the movement or not. Being a part of Time’s person of the year, I made it clear that there was a momentum building here right along with people breaking silence in various ways, and standing up, and pushing back against that violence.
What the Me Too movement did was expand the possibility to break silence beyond Hollywood, beyond celebrities, beyond the protective cloak of privilege. So it was really important to be included in that group. I’m not a celebrity, I’m an individual, and so my inclusion as the representative of this movement was an indication that this is about everybody – millions and millions of people are represented. Thrusting the movement into the spotlight opened up a space for the world to join.
What we’re all seeing now is that Me Too is visible at a global scale, in part thanks to the way it’s been disseminated through social media. Do you see social media as a promising political tool for activism?
I do. I think that over the last five, six years, we’ve seen some pretty large scale global movements erupt that either started on social media or used social media to galvanise people. I think it’s a pretty proven tool and resource for movement-building in this day and age. It’s not the only one, and I don’t think you can singularly use social media to build a movement, but certainly it is a powerful tool.
What would you say are the biggest problems or setbacks the movement, expressed as a hashtag, has brought about?
I think that there’s too wide an interpretation of what Me Too is about, and so people were introduced to the hashtag as just part of a statement. When Alyssa Milano first tweeted it, internet users were introduced to the actor as the person who originated it, and so that allowed for this wide interpretation. The mainstream media has come in and complicated that even more by hyper-focusing on individuals, on perpetrators and things that are contrary to what the movement is actually about. So it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle, as they say, once it’s out. With social media, it’s difficult, that is definitely one of the drawbacks. We have to spend time doing narrative-change works which keeps us from doing the work of supporting survivors.
Would you say that one thing we urgently need is a deeper discussion on sexual culture, one that’ll help inform our systems of education, codes of ethical conduct and legislation?
Oh, absolutely. I think that we have not mastered the ability to have a nuanced conversation about sexual violence, and the way in which it permeates our lives and our cultures. We desperately need to be having a conversation about comprehensive sex education in our schools, for our young people, and that’s not happening. It’ll be a missed opportunity if we don’t figure out how to have that conversation sooner rather than later.
Is that one of the things that your organisation is working on, implementing these things in the classroom?
We have a campaign that calls for comprehensive sex education and we have partnered with larger organisations to support organisations that actively push for this, but it’s not right now part of the work that we’re doing. The work that we’re doing now is really about survivors and making sure they have the resources that they need in this moment.
When you speak about resources, are we talking about psychologists, doctors?
We’re talking about all of that. We’re talking about creating space for people who are survivors of sexual violence to begin their own healing journey. We all need different things: where therapy could work for one person; another person may need a support group; another might not be able to afford therapy and another person may just need recommendations of books to read. So what we want to have is a place that helps you figure out the things you need and then help you figure out how to get access to that.
You did an interview with Quartz where you said that the movement is about respect, love and joy as tools to combat trauma – that the movement is not about creating a passive repository of trauma, such as publishing a book about survivor stories. I think part of the problem with topics like abuse is that they have a shock factor to them, and people become fascinated with them as stories. At the same time, problematically, respect, love and joy are not always thought of as active tools or agents, but just as mere feelings.
Joy becomes an active tool when you are actually intentional about cultivating it. And so, if you’re just saying, “You should be joyful, we should all love each other”, then no, that leaves the person in a place where they have to figure out how to do that, or they have to figure out and pretend to be somewhere that they aren’t.
We’ve lived in a world of positive affirmations for years now, where people tell you about self-help, folks who say, “You just have to learn to love yourself” or “You just have to believe in yourself, tell yourself everyday that you love yourself”. But the reality is you can get up every morning, look in the mirror and tell yourself that you love yourself, and then turn around without really believing it. Me Too is about taking the active decision to cultivate joy and really unpacking the ways that we deal with trauma.
Can you give me an example of how you use joy as an active tool towards healing?
Traumas, especially in sexual violence, become almost like security blankets, and that’s hard for people to understand. Sometimes, when you say that, survivors will respond with, “You think I enjoy living like this?” And that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is it becomes a default, it becomes a place that you lean into all the time because this reality is what you know. The problem with that is that when joyful things happen in our lives, we experience them in the moment and then allow joy to leave, as opposed to identifying that joyful experience and holding on to it.
Some of the kids and young people that I’ve worked with keep a “joy journal” to learn to identify those places where joy lives in their lives. I ask them to think about and respond to “How do I feel in this moment? What does it make me feel?” One of the first questions I asked in this workshop was, “Who are you without your trauma?” This is very different from writing yourself a note, sticking it in the mirror and telling you to “love yourself”. That may work for some people, but what I think is better is to attack the thing attacking you.
Trauma is killing us. It’s choking us and it’s strangling us. Embracing, cultivating and identifying joy is like exercising a muscle. You have to retrain your brain to lead it to the place that’ll help you to feel more joyful, and you have to work at it every day. It’s a difficult journey to take but it’s effective if you commit to it.
Tarana Burke. Photograph: courtesy Tarana Burke
Do you remember a particular time in your journey when you wanted to find joy?
When I was pregnant with my daughter. That was probably the first time that I realised – or felt more committed to – wanting to have a different type of life. Once I found out that I was pregnant and that my life was going to be completely different, it became really important for me to figure out how to have that kind of life – to reshape my life so that I don’t pass the things that I have and am dealing with, to my daughter. That literally was where it started from, from me deciding, “I can’t have this child come into the world and carry this burden that she didn’t ask for.”
You said earlier that Me Too works with kids. What age groups are you working with?
Our age range is 12 and up. I did a session last Saturday with mothers and daughters. The youngest in the room was 12 and it went all the way up to parents.
Kids are so vulnerable when they’re young – being told to be quiet and not speak out can be traumatic in itself. Silence can be a tremendous virtue but it can also be an incredibly powerful tool for oppressing someone. What would you say to minorities, regardless of gender, who struggle to speak out?
People of colour have to be grounded in their history and in their culture because we come from strong cultural backgrounds. Our ancestors and our elders stood out and spoke out, and young people need to know and connect to that history so that they can understand that there is a precedent. Whether you are Indian, African or Latino, whatever your background, you come from people who are strong.
My conversations with communities of colour are very different from other communities because I want people to know that I’m not there to inspire, necessarily. I’m there to model what possibilities look like. That’s really important to me in communities of colour. The other thing is, when it comes to sexual violence, our communities have a culture of silence that is so detrimental to our progression and our healing around sexual violence. A lot of times when I have the conversation about sexual violence in communities of colour, it’s about how we have to shift: we have to stand in our rich cultural history. But we also have to shift away from some of the ways our history and our cultural norms have suggested we heal. We have a responsibility to each other and to other generations to break this culture of silence so that we really can start healing deeply as a community.
You’ve previously stated that your work will continue to focus on black and brown-skinned women. What key role do non-white identities play in shifting cultural attitudes?
We have a huge problem, I’ve said this quote many times but it’s true that sexual violence literally touches everybody. It’s not affected by race, class, culture or age; it touches all part of our lives, every part of the world, everybody is affected by sexual violence. But the response to sexual violence is predicated by race, class and culture.
For instance, white men are not prone to amplify the issues around sexual violence in communities of colour. The problem is that historically, people in communities of colour, we ourselves are also not prone to amplify the issue. How we deal with sexual violence is something that has been passed down from generation to generation: shrouded in shame, ostracised, victimised, blamed. All of those things are prevalent especially in communities of colour, and we have to deal with that as a reality in our community if there’s to be any level of progress.
The fact that we are even having this conversation right now is a product of a series of events: it’s the product of 12 years of activism on your part; it’s the product of technological contexts that allowed your movement to reach the homes of millions of people around the world; and it’s a product of a very timely conversation caused by shifts in attitudes towards minorities. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have the technology and the cultural context to tackle this issue the way that you are now.
Absolutely. One of the mistakes that people who are plugged in to social media make is that they are disconnected from the long history of movement work in our country. There is an enormously long history of fighting against sexual violence, particularly in communities of colour – particularly among black women – that is not considered when we talked about how we got to this moment. We didn’t get to this moment from a tweet. We got to this moment from years and years and years of groundwork being laid.
Some people characterised me as the founder, almost as if I found a rock 10 years ago, thought the rock was pretty, held on to it and found out a decade later that this rock was worth something. That’s how people talk about it. But no, there was a sustained amount of work that happened from the time that I discovered the rock, and I’ve been building something pebble by pebble, over the course of a decade. So now we have somebody who has collected those pebbles and figured out how to build a mountain. That’s probably a sloppy metaphor, but I’m saying we have to acknowledge the foundation; this moment is not built just upon my 12 years of work or thinking about it for 25 years.
This moment is built of off Rosa Parks fighting for Recy Taylor in 1944. This moment is built off a movement that black women started in America in the early ‘90s, along with so many different bodies of work that allow us to feel prepared to talk about this in this moment. It may be shocking and surprising that we are able to talk about sexual violence globally in a very open and sustained conversation. But the reason for that conversation is possible because of the history of our people for decades.
Now that you’ve got the world’s attention, it’s left a lot of people wondering: what’s the next step?
First and foremost, our work is really about making sure that survivors have resources. I want people to get that into their heads and break from this narrative that Me Too is about anything else but that. There’s a problematic narrative that Me Too is about taking down powerful men and that it’s about all of these other things that it’s actually not about.
The work that we’ll be doing moving forward is just scaling up the work that we have been doing already. We’ll be building a virtual space for survivors that doesn’t exist right now on the internet, a place where survivors can come and get those resources that we keep talking about and help them crack their own healing journey, figure out what they need and be able to get that. And offline, our work is what it used to be, which is building healing circles and teaching people how to build these healing circles in their communities.
There are millions of people asking, “How do I get involved? What do I have to do?” Me Too is also an organising tool, it’s a way of organising survivors to interlope sexual violence in their own communities. There’s not enough conversation because I think people aren’t accustomed to that, but that’s what this work is also about. Once you get a group of people together who are like-minded and who have committed to a healing process together, you also have a built-in power base. And power bases can be useful for legislative and political change. There’s a lot of possibilities once you gather people together who are not just working to heal themselves, but also working to heal their communities.
by Regner Ramos
Find out more about the Me Too movement here
From Glass Magazine – Issue 34 – Summer 2018
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