Tarana Burke: How Can We Build A World Where People Don't Have To Say "Me Too"?

Feb 1, 2019
Originally published on February 1, 2019 2:52 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Gender, Power And Fairness.

About Tarana Burke's TED Talk

For Tarana Burke, #MeToo began as a way to tell survivors, "You're not alone." But as the movement evolved, another priority emerged—how can we work together to put an end to sexual violence entirely?

About Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke is a civil rights activist and the founder of the Me Too Movement. In 2007, Burke founded Just Be Inc., an organization committed to the empowerment of black girls.

While working at Just Be Inc., she originally coined the phrase "me too" in response to the stories of countless girls and women who had experienced sexual violence.

Burke currently works as the Senior Director at Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, NY, an intergenerational nonprofit dedicated to strengthening local communities by creating opportunities for young women and girls to live self-determined lives.

Since #MeToo became a viral hashtag in 2017, she has emerged as a global leader in the evolving conversation around sexual violence.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about Gender, Power and Fairness. And just a quick warning - there are stories in this episode about sexual violence and harassment that may be difficult to hear.

Hi, Tarana.

TARANA BURKE: Hi. How are you?

RAZ: Hi, it's Guy Raz here. How are you?

BURKE: Good.

RAZ: Thank you for coming in.

BURKE: Thank you. I'm sorry for being late.

My name is Tarana Burke, and I'm the founder of the #MeToo movement. So it came to me in parts, and it started - the idea of wanting to address and deal with sexual violence certainly came to me before the words me too were the tool that I was using to do it. So you know, I'm a survivor of sexual violence and had been grappling with my own journey around healing, had been grappling with what that looks like and just - and how it was affecting me and just coming to terms with that. And it was just painfully clear to me at some point that we didn't have any conversation about sexual violence, and I saw so much.

I had had a moment in my life where I met a child in my early 20s who was in my camp, who was - I used to run a youth leadership program - and basically confided in me that she had been molested by her stepfather. But she did so at a time when I really did not know what to do with that information. And the only thing that came to me to say was that this happened to me, too. You know, like this thing that - it just didn't feel like the appropriate thing to say at the time, but that's what was, like, ringing in my head while she was saying it. Like, it was a moment of me confronting my own issues as well.

But - so the words me too came from that moment because it was - after it happened and she, like, walked away and the moment was over, I realized I wish I had said that to her because I wish somebody would've said it to me. You know, I wish I didn't go through my formative years thinking I was the only person in the world - me and Maya Angelou were the only two people in the world that this had happened to, which is what I thought for a while.

I often think about the numbers of adult decisions I made between 6 and, like, 12, all related to going through and experiencing sexual violence. If there was somebody who would've said, listen, I don't know what's going on, but this thing happened to me. And if you are experiencing it, you're not alone. You're not nasty. You're not bad, and it's not your fault. If there was somebody who would've just interjected that, I think it would've changed the trajectory of my life.

RAZ: So this - I mean, this idea of #MeToo really began as a way to recognize and to sort of say, you're not alone. And that is really how it began. And about 10 years after you created this idea, it exploded into the consciousness of the world with reporting and social media and - what do you remember about how that began?

BURKE: Well, even before that, I want to just say - before #MeToo exploded into the world in 2017, it started as this idea of making sure that survivors knew they weren't alone, but it quickly evolved into also knowing that we have to do the work of ending sexual violence collectively. And so more than just a declarative statement, it was about survivors coming together to organize and do the work of healing ourselves and our community.

So when 2017 happened and it exploded, it was - you know, I was initially very worried that that sentiment would be lost. You know, we live in a viral age. And I've clearly seen numerous other hashtags go viral. And I've seen them come and go. And then I've also seen black women and people of color at the center of those things be removed or be replaced or be erased in one way or another.

And so all of those were concerns in probably the first few hours. But it was necessary because there's not a scenario that I can think of that I could've generated myself to bring the work of ending sexual violence into the public consciousness in the way that it has.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The #MeToo campaign is giving a voice to many women who say they've experienced sexual harassment and abuse.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Prompting the #MeToo campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: #MeToo movement.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: #MeToo.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: #MeToo mobilizing women seeking office.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Also known as the ME TOO Congress Act.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A guy behind me pretending to perform a sex act on me with all the other guys watching and all the other guys laughing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I didn't tell anyone, afraid that I wouldn't be believed.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Every woman in my vintage...

CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: I am here today not because I want to be.

GINSBURG: ...Has not just one story...

FORD: I am here because I believe it is my civic duty.

GINSBURG: ...But many stories.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I said it's because time's up. Is that right?

(CHEERING)

RAZ: The #MeToo movement has changed how we think and talk about Gender, Power and Fairness. Behaviors that were once downplayed or even ignored in the workplace, in social settings, even at home are now part of a dialogue that's moved beyond just a hashtag. There's now a conversation between women and men that's effecting real change. So today on the show, we're going to explore how this movement moved the world, defined an era of reckoning and what it will take to move it forward.

And for Tarana Burke, the way ahead will be necessary, but not easy, because for every step forward, some days, it feels like there are giant leaps back. Here's more from Tarana Burke on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BURKE: I've been trying to figure out what I was going to say here for months. And so I searched and searched for days on end, trying to find the right configuration of words. And although intellectually, I could bullet point the big ideas that I wanted to share about #MeToo and this movement that I founded, I kept finding myself falling short of finding the heart.

I wanted to pour myself into this moment and tell you why even the possibility of healing or interrupting sexual violence was worth standing and fighting for. I wanted to rally you to your feet with an uplifting speech about the important work of fighting for the dignity and humanity of survivors. But I don't know if I have it.

The reality is, after soldiering through the Supreme Court nomination process and attacks from the White House, gross mischaracterizations, Internet trolls and marches and heart-wrenching testimonies, I'm faced with my own hard truth. I'm numb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it must, at times, feel discouraging.

BURKE: You know, it's some mixture of disappointment, frustration and sadness. But I feel sad sometimes that so many of us lack the ability to empathize with people to try to understand. Like, one of the things that became painfully clear for me around the Kavanaugh hearings with Dr. Ford testifying was just how little people understand what survival looks like. We have sort of a "Law & Order: SVU" idea of what that looks like.

And so when I heard the backlash that she got, a lot of the, like, well, how could she forget this? And it was - a lot of it came from other survivors, right? There were people who wrote on our pages, like, I was assaulted when I was 6, and I remember every single moment of it, and she's lying because how could she not - forget this and that?

And I thought, you know, we don't have enough conversation, or even examples in pop culture, of what the act of surviving looks like. And it doesn't look the same for everybody. So like, I identify with her because as a survivor of sexual violence, one of the ways that we survive is by practicing forgetting, right? Like, I actually have a bad memory because I've spent most of my life trying not to remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You know, most social movements start out ahead of where the culture and the society is. It's - that's why they start - right? - because they start a conversation. There's a backlash. And then down the road, we sort of reflect on it and say, yeah, that was really important. But do you - when you look ahead, you know, do you imagine this conversation leading to a better place in our lifetimes, in a short period of time?

BURKE: I think of this in long term and short term. So there's - in the short term, I am very clear that this moment has started changing people's lives individually because I've heard over and over again this last year, people coming to me saying, I thought I would go to my grave with this, but I was able to tell my mom, and my mom told me her story. I told my dad, and my dad told me his story.

But beyond that, I also think that people are ready for action. And so in the long term, you know, we can't go back. There's - Iyanla Vanzant, a self-help personality, has a book called "Faith In The Valley." And there's a quote in that book about when a light goes on and shows you something, you can't unsee it. So I don't think we ever go back from here. I think we continue to move forward.

And when we get distracted by naming lists of predators, like, you know, these articles that come out and say, here's the 200 or 400 men who have fallen since #MeToo, those things are distractions. People need to be called out for their behavior. But beyond that, their behavior doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of a society that creates space for that kind of behavior.

There's a little boy right now being socialized to disrespect women, to not respect somebody's bodily autonomy, to think that he's better because he's a male. So we can fire Bob from - in accounting, and we can take so-and-so off the board, but if little Timmy and little Jamal are not learning - unlearning what we know now, then we're just going to create a replacement for them.

So I think that the work that we're looking at moving forward is, one, helping people figure out where they fit in this puzzle. But also, there's going to be a unrelenting core group of people who are just absolutely focused on getting us to a world where people don't have to say me too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Tarana Burke. She's the founder of the #MeToo movement. You can see Tarana's full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas around Gender, Power and Fairness. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.