By SHANNON O. WELLS
While it may be tempting to consider the 1990s as a more docile, less socially engaged and outrage-filled time than the past few years, Tarana Burke recalls vividly the many causes that moved people to march and speak out.
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“Young people now don’t realize that the ‘90s was chock full of a lot of movement activity very much like what is happening now,” she said. “We were in the streets protesting against police brutality. We were in the streets protesting against political corruption and all kinds of things, just like now.”
Amidst all the outspokenness and demonstration, however, the Black female activist found a key element missing from the picture.
“It was very easy for my community to respond to the immediate types of violence that they saw, except for sexual violence,” she said. “And I found that to be really problematic. Because of my work, I saw how rampant sexual violence was in our community. And I thought, these principles that I’ve been taught as an organizer fit very well into the work that we could be doing to address the rampant sexual violence happening in our community. But it wasn’t well accepted. So, it felt like a movement was necessary.”
That movement became known as #MeToo, a phrase Burke coined in 2006 that years later went viral as a hashtag and now is synonymous with the ongoing battle against sexual abuse and violence. Burke spoke on July 27 as part of Pitt’s multi-day Diversity Forum 2022: “Rewiring Our Systems.” The virtual symposium featured keynote programs and community-led sessions aimed at developing “social equity consciousness and systems thinking approaches” to advance social justice.
A native of The Bronx, N.Y., Burke was introduced for her morning talk by Jabeen Adawi, a Pitt clinical assistant professor of law. While Me Too took some time to go from a catchy hashtag to defining a major social justice movement, Adawi reminded those listening of Burke’s longtime commitment to helping victims of abuse and violence.
“Tarana has dedicated more than 25 years of her life to social justice and to laying the groundwork for a movement that was initially created to help young women of color who survived sexual abuse and assault,” Adawi said. “The movement now inspires solidarity, amplifies the voices of thousands of victims of sexual abuse and puts the focus back on survivors.”
A survivor of sexual assault herself, Burke now serves as executive director of the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, organizes workshops to address gender-related policies at schools, workplaces and places of worship, and counsels students not to blame themselves for sexual violence. Her book, “Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement,” was published last year by Flatiron Books.
Burke recalled the five years of her life since actor/activist Alyssa Milano sent the #MeToo hashtag into viral, worldwide renown as “tumultuous” and as going by “very quickly.” Anticipating calls from the news media and others to offer a point-by-point “checklist” of what the movement has accomplished at the five-year mark, Burke — referring to the theme of Diversity Forum 2022 — prefers to revel in the larger picture.
“As we talk about ‘Rewiring Our Systems,’ I am really encouraging us to start by rewiring our thinking,” she said. “We should not be thinking about what Me Too has done in the last five years. We should be thinking about what Me Too has made possible. And that is a different framing from what we’re used to.”
This means not just looking at court cases won or lost or laws that did or didn’t change, Burke explained. Movement supporters “have to look at people, and we have to look at culture and we have to create a different framework for how we have been able to engage and think about sexual violence in this country and globally, simply because the voices of people were elevated.
“And if we really are going to rewire the systems that have allowed sexual violence to flourish in this country and around the world, then we have to start with the epicenter of that,” she added. “In the past five years, the biggest change … has come from people who have suffered the worst kind of trauma and felt a sense of freedom and liberation in being able to release that trauma and that shame, in finding community. That was not possible in many ways for many, many people just five-and-a-half years ago.”
Moving forward, the movement will require “actually having to tear down the systems,” she said. “And that starts with shifting our thinking about many, many ideas that are attached to sexual violence, including accountability and justice and these concepts that have been widely discussed outside of the people who they most impact, which are survivors.”
Despite work she and others in the movement have engaged in to shift the narrative, Burke doesn’t see significant change occurring unless “everyday people — sometimes including survivors themselves — are willing to not just change, but completely reimagine what safety looks like, completely reimagine what justice looks like, completely reimagine a world where sexual violence is absolutely unacceptable, where rape culture is absolutely unacceptable.”
Burke said she’s “excited about the potential” of what can be accomplished in the next five to 15 years with the “most marginalized of survivors at the center of the conversation.”
Following Burke’s monologue, host Jabeen Adawi shared a Diversity Forum participant’s question on what actions or policy changes Burke would like to see university leadership take to “better protect and support vulnerable students.”
Encouraging students to “talk to groups that you would not normally talk to,” such as a Black student union reaching out to the “whitest sorority on campus,” Burke noted that college campuses are “like a microcosm for the rest of the world.”
To harness the inherent power students have, she said there are many ways to “hold your administration’s feet to the fire.” One is examining the school’s budget to see “how much money is being put into the rape-crisis center or the women’s center. … It’s always the least amount of money,” she said. “They’re always the ones that are stretched thin. That’s something that you can go to your chancellor or your whoever and say, ‘I hear you speaking this, but this is what the dollar said.’
“You have to be really strategic about how to hold them accountable in ways they don’t expect,” Burke added. “Because you deserve that. And they owe that to you.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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