Crowds of people filtered into Campbell Hall on Monday night to hear Tarana Burke, the founder of the “Me Too” movement, share her journey as a community organizer and speak about the evolution of her campaign. The talk, presented in association with the UCSB Feminist Studies and Black Studies departments, started off with an Arts & Lectures staff member introducing Burke and ended with a question and answer session.
Burke is a social justice activist and the senior director at Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a grassroots organization that promotes the well-being of women and girls. A survivor herself, she created the “Me Too” campaign in 2006 at her youth organization, Just Be Inc., which seeks to help young women of color who have survived sexual assault and abuse.
Actress Alyssa Milano, via a Twitter post, amplified the term “Me Too” in the wake of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The expression has since gained traction and popularity in the media, garnering a Wikipedia page and a new website.
A standing ovation greeted Burke as she walked onto the stage with grace and comfort. During her empowering and educating speech, Burke pointed out that the movement is a rallying cry for people everywhere who have survived sexual assault and harassment.
Originally from the Bronx and hailing from an average working class family, Burke noted that her ability to identify injustice was sharp from a young age. She encountered instances of sexual violence early in life but she believed she could not produce real change.
However, when she was a teenager, she joined 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, a group dedicated to inspiring the younger generation to be community leaders. “I had an adult saying to me, ‘You have power now,’” Burke recalled.
At 21st Century, she said the heart of her work was through a program called “Sister to Sister, Brother to Brother,” which provided a space for brown and black adolescents to discuss their lives and exist safely. At least one person every year shared an experience of sexual violence, Burke noted.
Later on in 2003, Burke co-founded Just Be Inc. and sought out resources to help survivors, including herself. When she approached the South Alabama Rape Crisis Center, which was next to a halfway house, she said that the woman cracked open the door and stated, “We don’t take walk-ins.” After the gasps and murmurs from the audience had quieted, Burke announced that this was the moment when the “Me Too” movement was born.
She said, “‘Me Too’ was about this deep empathy I felt about these young people, these girls, these children.” Of survivors Burke said, “They need someone to speak healing into their lives. They need to be seen, they need to be heard, they need to be believed.”
The “Me Too” movement spread by word-of-mouth and through workshops with the young participants. In 2006, Burke said she created a MySpace page for the movement as a way to communicate with folks around the country. Although the website was originally started for the kids, adult survivors contacted Burke to thank her for starting the campaign — this outreach led her to realize that the needs of survivors, including herself, did not change even as the people grew older.
Furthermore, Burke stated, “The people most affected need to be at the center of the work.” The “Me too” movement started organically and expanded; the only difference between then and now, she noted, is that people did not care back then. She said she is not surprised by the statistics surrounding sexual violence but rather by the sustained national dialogue on the matter. That being said, she mentioned that the #MeToo hashtag has become a reaction to a movement rather than a persevering movement itself.
Towards the end of her talk, Burke read the UCSB Vision and Mission Statement and, although she expressed her appreciation for it, she challenged it. In the context of sustainability, she questioned how the administration is handling sexual violence on campus saying, “Students, the solution should be built around you.” She additionally highlighted the Kavanaugh hearings saying, “We need to lay our burdens down at the feet of the people who deserve to take responsibility.”
Amidst exasperated jokes about the Trump administration and witty comments about Black culture, Burke encouraged the audience to talk about the movement differently and not to become distracted by the noise in the media. She said, “The ‘Me Too’ movement is a people’s movement, a survivors’ movement… If you claim it, it is yours.”
She emphasized that individuals define what healing looks like to them and that “it is possible, it is a life-long journey, and there are a myriad of ways to get there.” She asserted that individuals have a moral imperative to help and support one another. In order to affect positive change, people must show the ones in power what leadership looks like.
Right before a standing ovation and cheers from the audience, Burke concluded her speech by saying, “If you’re willing to do that work, I can only leave you with these two words: me too.”