Yesterday night, Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement, was invited to Mohawk College to discuss critical questions and conversations between two interviewers and the audience while interrogating narratives of sexual assault & violence, validation, and crime & punishment. Burke was captivating, authentic, engaging, inspiring, and motivating.
All proceeds of the event went to SACHA – Hamilton’s Sexual Assault Centre
Who is Tarana Burke?
This passage is taken from The Inception on the About – Me Too Movement Page:
“The ‘me too’ Movement™ started in the deepest, darkest place in my soul.
As a youth worker, dealing predominately with Black children and children of color, I had seen and heard my share of heartbreaking stories—from broken homes to abusive or neglectful parents—when I met Heaven.
During an all-girl bonding session at our youth camp, several of the girls in the room shared intimate stories about their lives. Some were the tales of normal teenage angst, but others were quite painful. Just as I had done so many times before, I sat and listened to the stories, and comforted the girls as needed. When it was over, the adults advised the young women to reach out to us if they ever needed to talk or if they needed something else—and then we went our separate ways.
The next day, Heaven—who had been in the previous night’s session—asked to speak with me privately. Heaven was a sweet-faced little girl who clung to me throughout the camp. However, her hyperactive and often anger-filled behavior betrayed both her name and light, high-pitched voice and I was frequently pulling her out of some type of situation.
As she attempted to talk to me that day, the look in her eyes let me know that this conversation would be different. She had a deep sadness and a yearning for confession that I read immediately and I wanted no part of it.
Finally, later in the day she caught up with me and almost begged me to listen. I reluctantly conceded, and for the next several minutes this child, Heaven, struggled to tell me about her “stepdaddy”—rather, her mother’s boyfriend—who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body. I was horrified by her words, and the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut.
I listened until I literally could not take it anymore-/which turned out to be less than 5 minutes. Then, right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and immediately directed her to another female counselor who could “help her better.”
I will never forget the look on her face.
I will never forget the look on her face because it haunts me. I think about her all of the time. The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed again – it was all on her face. As much as I love children, as much as I cared about that child, I could not find the courage that she had found.
As much as I loved her, I could not muster the energy to tell her that I understood, that I connected, that I could feel her pain. I couldn’t help her release her shame, or impress upon her that nothing that happened to her was her fault. I could not find the strength to say out loud the words that were ringing in my head over and over again as she tried to tell me what she had endured.
I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. 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.”
What is the #metoo movement?
This passage was taken from the About – Me Too Movement page:
“The ‘me too’ movement was founded in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing. Our vision from the beginning was to address both the dearth in resources for survivors of sexual violence and to build a community of advocates, driven by survivors, who will be at the forefront of creating solutions to interrupt sexual violence in their communities.”
For more information: About – Me Too Movement
As a university student and minority woman, navigating my way through both my education and learning about my own political, social, and personal values, I have awakened and transformed my own activism through Redefine Twenty. I have only seen activist movements on TV or social media, but never experiences an actual rally myself. In ways, I thought of myself as a fake activist, that I was far from professional, and I was doing minimal in the grand scheme of things, I was helpless… nothing like my inspirations such as Kamala Harris, Malala Yousafzai, Amanda Nguyen, Dr. Christine Blasely Ford, Anita Hill, Chimamanda Adichie, Tarana Burke, Serena Williams, and the list goes on…But yesterday night, to be in the same room as Tarana Burke, to hear her voice, to watch her from the stands … it was so liberating, inspiring, heart-warming, and motivating … I felt awake, engaged, and ready.
She captivated the room with both the stories of her past and present experiences, her humor, and gentle yet invigorating energy. She discussed many important key points that challenged my own thoughts and opinions that I wanted to share with you.
First, Burke discussed that we are failing to recognize what goes beyond basic needs. We always think about basic needs as food, clothing, and shelter but we tend to forget the heart and soul…what makes us feel alive, what pumps blood throughout our bodies, our heart and soul need resources to heal, which are as important and essential as food, clothing, and shelter.
Burke emphasized how survivors need individual resources for healing and community healing but first, we need to start with ourselves and work outwards. Burke shared a story of a conversation she had with her friend, Gabrielle Union, about healing. Union explained how the first 10 years of her survival journey was for others and how to heal others. It became about performing strength. She couldn’t acknowledge she was hurting and was in need of healing. “The narrative of sexual violence makes us carry so much shame, that we don’t look into self-care first,” says Burke.
And self-care looks different for everyone. Burke explains how her friend said she planned a trip for them to go to her cottage so they could talk and get away from everything. “That’s not what I wanted to do,” said Burke. “My self-care is laying in bed, eating a pound cake, and watching Law & Order. That’s what makes me feel better.”
What can we do for survivors?
Burke explains how this is a common question for her, “What tangible things can we give survivors? Or “my roommate was sexually assaulted, how can I get her to talk about it?” Burke responded by saying:
“ASK the survivor. We are too prescriptive and we think there’s a fix for everything but the best thing to do is to ask. But do not pity us, it makes us feel worse. Do not make assumptions about what survivors need. Needs also change and they might not even need you. So ask yourself why? Why do you need to help survivors? Interrogate your own motives. Are you the best person to help in that community and how do you impact that space? Overall, be respectful and responsive to what their needs are cause it’s not about you. It’s about them.
And some people don’t need your Me Too. People often say, “I am a survivor and I am all better now, don’t worry… soon you will be too” well, I don’t care. Mind your own business. Ask the survivor what they need. Sometimes it’s not you or hearing it’s going to be okay.”
I think this was one of her key points that resonated with me. The idea of savior and helping survivors come out and talk about their experience was my way of helping. But why? Why do I position myself in this way? When I should be believing the survivor and asking the survivor what they need. When we should all be, believing and asking.
This ties into validation. What Burke sheds light on, is how Me Too and other movements are now seen as platforms for survivors to speak out… that in order to have people believe you or to heal, you have to share your story. But not everyone deserves your story.
“We do not need to share stories to validate what was done to us, we need people to believe our stories. To believe us,” says Burke.
Burke brought up the political controversy and pathetic excuse of a president. “The terrible narratives like we are witches and these are witch hunts are a distraction of a reality. Burke explains how, in 2006, when the #metoo tweet went viral, millions of people raised their hands to say they were sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, and sexually violated. During the Kavanaugh hearings, people began pouring out their Me Too stories and retweeting #metoo. But people turned their backs and said, “who’s Me Too going to take down next?”
Burke says how she can spit out numbers, “numbers around Me Too were 12 million retweets in 48 hours. What we fail to recognize is… every single tweet, every single hashtag … is a human being. They share their stories for who? To benefit who? Even with the backlash, I have hope.
But I am also numb in a lot of ways. We associate numbness as an inability to feel, but sometimes it’s feeling too much. People come up to me and say, “Tarana Burke, how are you going to fix this?” I feel a sense of responsibility. But I cannot do this alone. It’s about having those hard conversations. I am not saying, tell your story but rather, push with facts, study movements, and educate yourself.”
“With backlash and everything going on, what is giving you hope?” asked one of the interviewers. Burke explains, “I was at the Kavanaugh hearings and to have Dr. Christine Blasely Ford close to me, in a room that was openly hostile, sharing a deep dark thing that happened to her… I was scared. I was scared for her. I felt like we needed to protect her and build a physical fort around her. When Ford left the room, the energy shifted. I have seen horrific things and I am not saying this because of my political standpoint, but because I looked into Kavanaugh’s eyes. He is a lunatic. I had to go deep into my joy bank and grab some hope. People that have been doing these movements for a long time know that there are triumphs and failures, wins and losses. When Kavanaugh was confirmed, it was not a loss but breath in the movement, which was a powerful one… so powerful, it is changing history. What we have gained gives me hope. Dr. Christine Blasely Ford gives me hope.”
Black Lives Matter and Me Too
“When I first started as a youth worker, it was hard for Black and Brown girls. Sexual violence didn’t have a movement or a home. When I went to a school and talked about gender violence, they said, we need more guidance counselors. If children in a community got shot, we would stand up, we would rally in the streets, That’s My Child. If it’s a community problem, the community responds. They said, Me Too was a distraction of Black Lives Matters. There is a lot to unpack here, issues that are gendered are another issue basically saying, “we don’t care” but my WHOLE life matters and if Black Lives Matter, the QUALITY of my life mattes,” says Burke.
Restorative Justice and Crime and Punishment
Sexual violence happens on a spectrum and accountability. The crime and punishment narrative is challenged. Why do we automatically think crime and incarceration? Because we don’t know how to deal with these people outside of jail. We can all dream of a world that doesn’t use incarceration as our final answer but we have to deal with the world we have. Harm and harm reduction has no space for accountability and restoration. After the incident, survivors try to piece their lives back together and their heart.
When things get hard or when it’s difficult to feel happy, Burke dives into her joy bank and thinks of all her good experiences in her life to help her heal and find hope for a world she is still fighting for. Thank you for sharing your joy bank with us Tarana Burke.
This post is dedicated to Ntozake Shange, an American playwright, and poet. As a Black feminist, she addresses issues of race and Black power in much of her work. She is known for her award-winning play, For Colored Girls.