by: Grace Wood
The UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIE) hosted “Moving Beyond Me Too” with Tarana Burke, leader of the Me Too movement, to a sold out audience at the Barclay Theatre on April 22. Burke’s presence was part of the “Perspectives on: Bias, Prejudice, and Bigotry” series, a component of OIE’s “Confronting Extremism” initiative.
“Confronting Extremism” is a two-year campus initiative to better understand hateful behaviors in an effort to adequately combat them and establish a positive and truly democratic campus community.
Burke’s work with women of color and sexual violence awareness made her an ideal candidate for teaching effective responses to prejudiced, ignorant behaviors — especially in the context of survivors of color.
“This evening is special because it’s an opportunity for people who care to connect, to create a space, to support survivors, and to learn more about the vision of Tarana Burke’s Me Too Movement,” Douglas Haynes, Ph.D., vice provost for academic equity, diversity, and inclusion from OIE, said in his opening remarks.
Burke graced the stage to a standing ovation and resounding applause. Haynes and Burke then engaged in an illuminating conversation about Burke’s 20-year career as a community activist, from her desire to incite change as a college student to her current work with Me Too.
“Getting to see Tarana Burke speak about her life and the genesis of the Me Too movement was incredibly inspirational,” Lizzie Hofer, a third-year UCI student, said. “I’m so glad I got to hear more about where she and the Me Too movement came from.”
In 2017, Burke’s world transformed when actress Alyssa Milano used #metoo to share her survivor story on Twitter. People immediately picked up the hashtag and the phrase became synonymous with surviving sexual assault. Milano later brought Burke on news outlets like the Today Show to discuss Me Too.
The day #metoo went viral, Burke worried that the work she had done so tirelessly for years would not be properly credited to her — just like that of many other black women. Thankfully, through the efforts of black women on Twitter, Burke’s vocation as an activist gained international recognition.
“I read this woman’s story and it was heart-wrenching. I was convicted in that moment because I had spent the whole day … fretting and worrying about saving my work and my work was happening right in front of me,” Burke said. “This was my work all over the internet.”
Burke explained her ultimate goal with Me Too is to cultivate safe spaces for survivors who feel like “weirdos.” Rather than pity or condolences, Burke desires a community for survivors to engage with each other through shared experience and compassion.
“I recognized very early what sympathy did … For survivors, you’re like ‘This horrible thing happened to me’ and the person’s response is ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you,’” said Burke. “There’s a distance in that that’s different from, ‘I get that. That happened to me too.’”
Burke’s work with survivors has its roots in her undergraduate career. As president of Auburn University’s African American Student Alliance, she watched the football team publicly shame a white female student for accusing one of the players of sexual assault. It was in that moment Burke recognized her racial justice advocacy could merge with this impulse to defend the student and Burke’s personal desire to heal from sexual assault.
“She was a young white girl from Auburn, couldn’t be more different from me, but there was a connection, or just a connection to the injustice that was happening,” said Burke. “My visceral reaction was, ‘we have to do something.’”
After college, Burke founded Just Be Inc. in 2002, a program that taught worthiness and leadership to young black girls. Burke did not intend Just Be to handle sexual assault specifically, but the issue constantly arose. She realized that the students she worked with did not understand sexual violence. As a result, Burke formed Me Too in 2006 as an in-community effort for young students to recognize sexual assault.
With the popularity of the Me Too programs, Burke and her fellow activists decided to start a MySpace page as the organization’s website and women from across the country reached out. The movement grew, but Burke never imagined people would use the phrase on such a massive scale.
Despite Me Too’s reach, Burke does not think fame should be the ultimate goal. Instead, she wants to strive toward a world where sexual violence is an inherent part of activism — whether it touches one person or one million people.
“We still have many people who do this work, who are deeply committed to social justice, who don’t see sexual violence in that same way,” said Burke. “They don’t see it as a form of oppression.”