Tarana Burke: A hashtag isn’t a movement

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Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, speaks at Jorgensen to a large group of students about the organization. Burke addressed the false statements in the media regarding Me Too and her belief in empowerment through empathy. (Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus)

In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and amidst the appearances of conservative group Turning Point USA and alleged rapist Sean Kingston, the Women’s Center, along with many groups on campus, brought the creator of the Me Too Movement, Tarana Burke, to UConn.

Burke wasn’t daunted by being sandwiched between an extremist conservative group and an alleged rapist. According to her, if she were to limit where she went based on the people who have been there, she probably wouldn’t travel much.

“You know, I’m often in spaces where people who don’t agree with my ideology or my way of thinking or who are hateful or venomous are,” Burke said. “I think the people that attend one will not be the same people who will attend the other. That’s the wonderful thing about being in a big school, because it’s just an incredible diversity of people. But even if there are [people attending Burke’’s event, who also went to Turning Point USA’s rally], maybe they’ll hear something that will completely contradict—well they’ll absolutely hear something that will completely contradict—what they heard and be moved by it.”

Based on the overwhelming applause when she walked onstage and whenever she made a good point, chances are the audience members were behind her ideology. Having not heard about Sean Kingston’s case prior to coming to UConn today, she broke down what she thought about him into two lines of thinking. The first was that once a person is accused of sexual violence, it’s important for people to know who they are. This pertains largely to people who want public support.

“If you want me to spend my money and my time supporting you, then I should know who you are and if who you are lines up with my values,” Burke said. “So I have to make a decision if I want to support you or not.”

Her other line of thinking was the question of what was done, not just to settle the case, but to mitigate the harm that was done. She said that often, restorative or transformative justice is about helping the accused and rehabilitating them.

“But often it doesn’t include how the harm is resolved or how the person who was harmed is made whole again,” Burke said.

She believes it is important that people knew Kingston was accused of rape prior to booking him and buying tickets to see him, so they were fully aware of what values they were investing in.

Upon taking the stage, Burke gave a history of herself and the Me Too Movement to help audience members understand what she and the movement actually stand for in contrast to what the media says. Burke had been molested for six years from the time she was six until she was 12-years-old by two different men, but she never told her mother about it when she was younger. Instead, Burke grew more and more invested in activism, joining the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement at 14 and taking on cases such as the Central Park Five. During this time in her life, she worked mainly from an economic and racial lens; there was no lens regarding gender.

When Burke was in college, she heard about a female college student who had accused one of the football players at her school of rape. The school’s newspaper then wrote an article asking the school whether they were going to let one girl bring down the entire football program. After reading this, Burke was horrified and felt a surge of empathy, but she and her activist friends didn’t take the time to do something about it. Years later, Burke met a different young woman. This girl confessed her entire sexual assault to Burke, but Burke didn’t know what to say. In 2006, in a fit of frustration at herself for not having said anything to the girl and at the epidemic of sexual violence targeting young girls in her community, Burke scribbled “Me Too” on a piece of paper.

She then turned those two words into a movement to help the young girls in her community. It became a tool to help women share their stories, have an exchange of empathy and begin the healing process. A decade later, actress Alyssa Milano asked victims of sexual assault or harassment to tweet “#MeToo” to show how widespread the problem is. Over the course of the 18 months following her tweet, 19 million people tweeted #MeToo across the world, and everyone became aware of Burke’s movement.

Burke’s initial reaction to this explosion of awareness wasn’t entirely happy.

“It felt scary,” Burke said. “It felt like I didn’t have control over which direction it was going to go in, and I didn’t have a say so in how it was going to be represented. That changed relatively quickly, and I’m thankful that I didn’t respond in certain ways.”

Today, Burke is amazed at what the movement has created. It has created an international dialogue about sexual violence that no one has ever seen before. Since it went viral, over 100 pieces of legislation against sexual violence have been introduced. This is an incredible step forward.

But, unfortunately, the media has made the movement out to be an attack on individual powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh.

“Trump is an exaggerated example of all things bad with toxic masculinity, patriarchy and power and privilege and sexism, and he’s just a bastion of all these things,” Burke said. “But he is far from the only one, and he’s not the first person that occupied that space that was a sexual predator or who abused power. And so, that’s why the fight against those things is not about individual people, it’s about fighting the system from different places and in different ways.”

Burke says that the problem lies in the unchecked misuses of power and privilege across the world, and not just the actions of individual powerful men. For this reason, there needs to be a cultural healing: A decision on how we live together in law, culture, etc. The way to achieve this is for people to take action. This means going beyond tweeting #MeToo or talking about change. It involves getting your feet on the street.

“The Me Too Movement is not a hashtag, because hashtags aren’t movements,” Burke said.

Burke said she feels burnout and fatigue constantly since the movement picked up. But she still goes out there and spreads the word, attends hearings, organizes protests and runs the Me Too database to give survivors resources for healing.

“Overall it was just interesting to learn more about the Me Too Movement, and how, like she talked about, it’s all about the healing process,” Dominika Sokolewicz, a second-semester accounting major, said. “I just really thought it was interesting to hear about her story and her process and the history of the movement. But also her answering people’s questions, even about the whole Sean Kingston thing, it was interesting to relate it to UConn.”

Burke touched on other issues in an interview prior to her onstage conversation. One such issue was how Joe Biden treated allegations against him lightly. She said that the problem with Biden is that he is embracing “Good Guyism,” i.e. he is under the assumption that he gets a “pass” because of the good deeds he has done.

Several women, including former Nevada lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores, accused Joe Biden of making them uncomfortable. According to Flores, Biden rubbed her shoulders and kissed her head. But when he responded to this accusation publicly, he joked about it.

“This situation with Joe Biden has been really interesting to me because I think that the work that Joe Biden has done to support women’s issues and politics has been great,” Burke said. “He’s been an outloud, outfront supporter of legislation and policy that have helped tons—of not just women—of survivors of sexual violence. But what he has done has shined a light on what I call ‘Good Guyism.’”

Beyond the fact that no one should be sexually harassed, Burke is especially disappointed in Biden because of the example this will impress on the younger generation.

“What came up for me is what happens to the teenage girl who is struggling right now to tell somebody that the way her coach touches her makes her uncomfortable,” Burke said. “Like the beloved coach that everybody is just is always talking about who is a good guy, and she’s like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be one, treated like this woman was, Lucy Flores, I don’t want to ruin his reputation like people are saying.’ Biden’s reputation is not ruined, right? People are saying it and then she’s quiet. We have to have examples in our leadership of what accountability looks like. And so him making light of this situation is the opposite of being accountable. I was disappointed, because it was such a missed opportunity.”

Burke also talked about the problem of grey areas, especially in cases on college campuses. She said that because you can’t always work in absolutes, it’s important to have definitions of things.

“A definition of consent,” Burke said. “It helps the conversation. But I also think it’s important when we say ‘believe survivors,’ for instance, it’s not that we’re promoting the idea that we should believe people—it’s not a blanket statement saying believe everybody regardless of what they say, regardless of who it is. What it means is that: Start with the premise that they aren’t lying when they come forward to disclose these kinds of things. And if you start with that premise—the most respectful thing to do is to do a thorough investigation; to take it seriously and do a fair and balanced investigation.”

Burke’s trip to UConn was an incredibly moving, enlightening and empowering experience for the students that attended her conversation.

“To be honest, I did not know much about the Me Too movement before this,” Sarah Cohn, a second-semester undeclared major, said. “But it was really inspiring to hear her talk and share her story, and how she started at such a young age and how obviously she can get burnt out, but she just keeps protesting and never giving up.”


Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.

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