With an activist spirit and charisma to spare, Tarana Burke is propelling #MeToo from the headlines back into the community.

By Laura Brown
Jan 14, 2020 @ 8:00 am
Jason Wu coat. Eloquii skirt. John Hardy hoops. Bracelets and ring (right hand), her own. Brent Neale ring (left hand). Schutz boots. Photo by Andreas Laszlo Konrath/IMG Len

I first met Tarana Burke in October 2018 at an InStyle dinner in Los Angeles. We had overlapped earlier that year at the Golden Globe Awards, where she and fellow activists joined forces with prominent actresses to represent the launch of Time’s Up. Burke founded #MeToo in 2006 but really surged into the public consciousness in 2017, when the initial sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced and the movement gathered momentum online and became a viral hashtag. 

A born activist, the Bronx, N.Y., native, who is a survivor of sexual abuse herself, began the drumbeat of women speaking up, being supported, finding people to listen, and, of course, taking action. 

And she has not stopped. While the intensity of 2017 has cooled to a more workable climate, Burke has remained steadfast in her vision. She is focusing on creating an online network that survivors can access to find help on a local level. 

That said, she’s not #MeToo all the time. She can’t be. After Burke walked into our InStyle dinner that night in October, I raced up to her and said, “Do you need a glass of wine?” She responded with a prompt yes, a laugh, and a grand reveal that, while she’s a pioneer, she’s a woman too. One who keeps the culture in perspective and loves a joke, a whiskey, and a good pair of Fendi boots. Long may she reign.

LAURA BROWN: We know the origins of the #MeToo movement, but I’m curious how it runs day to day. 

TARANA BURKE: So, I never wanted to have an organization. I have worked at organizations my entire life, and I wanted to figure out how to do the work and not have to get into the administration of it. In 2018 the day to day was doing different bits of media, traveling around, giving speeches. I would liaise with a group of women who run other national organizations — Aijen Poo from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center, and [Alianza Nacional de Campesinas co-founder] Mónica Ramírez, who is my favorite. We were always strategizing about what’s next and how we move forward. But after Brett Kavanaugh’s [Supreme Court nomination] hearings, I started feeling like I needed more structure.

LB: Go on. 

TB: So, I started the #MeToo International organization in November 2018. And we also partnered with the global ad agency FCB [Foote, Cone & Belding], which helped us build a tool that is launching this summer that serves as a digital platform of sorts for survivors. And for people who want to help support them. 

LB: Because previously there weren’t many options. 

TB: Previously, if you went on the Internet looking for help as a victim of sexual assault, it would send you to one website, which is RAINN’s [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network]. They are a great organization and have been doing this for a long time, largely without peers, and they run the National Sexual Assault Hotline. But as a survivor, I need a different kind of information — more accessible, more personal. Me as a survivor and you as a survivor have different experiences around what that means. I always describe our work as healing and action. There is a healing side to the website, and then on the action side is this tool that allows you to put in your zip code and find out all the ways people are working to end sexual violence right in your neighborhood. You can volunteer, donate, pray, all the ways you want to be a part of that. 

VIDEO: #MeToo Founder Tarana Burke on Keeping the Movement Going Strong

LB: How does it work? 

TB: This tool makes it really accessible. You want to do bystander-intervention training? You can go to this local rape crisis center. You want to volunteer to take people who have been assaulted to the hospital? You can get trained to do that. You want to donate $100 a month? Maybe you’re very specific and want to help trans women who have been abused. You can give your money to that too. It gets really granular, and I’m excited about that. 

LB: I also want to talk about addressing the hyperbole of it all. Because you are a pragmatic person who is doing solid work for solid reasons, how do you navigate if #MeToo becomes a punch line, like on late-night TV shows? 

TB: I just focus on the people who get it because the people who don’t, in some ways, don’t want to. There has been enough information and enough conversation. It’s just like, if this has happened to you, say it out loud. Right? Anything else is bullshit. 

LB: When we met, I gave you a glass of wine. There has to be a lightness, right? 

TB: I wish people knew me better. I love a good joke. I actually hate the fact that people think they have to be a certain way around me. I love edgy humor. Now, Dave Chappelle is literally one of my favorite comedians. Louis C.K. was one of my favorite comedians. I get their funny. I have said for years, funny always flies. But there has to be a line. When Chappelle’s stand-up special came out [on Netflix], he was randomly going in on #MeToo , and he was just pushing and pushing. If it’s funny, it’s funny, but that’s not true when you’re talking about hurt people, people who are in pain, people who are experiencing trauma. They are not exposing themselves so you can make jokes about it. 

LB: I do understand in this overwhelming PC culture that comics want to see how much they can push it. But not at the expense of people being hurt. 

TB: Right! There is a way to tell jokes in this moment that I wish some of these comedians would embrace, like, to make fun of people’s lack of nuance. Make fun of the foolishness of these mea culpas that we get six months later. Why take the other road? [Chappelle] told a joke about children being molested. He talked about Michael Jackson’s [alleged] victims. You’re talking about children being molested, sir. How is that funny? Like, come on, for real. 

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LB: There is plenty of ridiculousness out there. We are on Twitter every day. It’s fertile soil. 

TB: My friends and I joke that we can’t even say the words “me too” anymore. We are all like, “Me as well.” [laughs] “I also.” 

LB: Right, because you don’t have to walk around representing this every day of your life. 

TB: No. And also, the other part about me needing lightness in my life is that people see me as an embodiment of what a survivor is and leading this movement and representing survivors and standing up for them. This thing that happened to me does not define my life in such a way that I am confined to sadness. I like talking about fashion and relationships and all kinds of other stuff, because our lives have to go on.

LB: And you are capable of more than one track. 

TB: Exactly. And God help me if I weren’t. If I talked about this all the time every day, I couldn’t do the work. 

LB: So, what have been some of the really edifying things that the work has brought you to? 

TB: I think what folks don’t realize is how most survivors don’t think punitively. Our mind isn’t totally focused on “I want to get the person who did this to me” or “I want them to go to jail.” I don’t want to live my life trapped in that feeling. This work is about us figuring out what it means to come back to yourself and who this new post-traumatic person is, how to feel whole again. When I can have experiences with survivors that are about how they access their joy, that’s some of the best work to have. Joy is possible. There is another side to this. But we have to get people what they need to feel better. I didn’t have all of this language 20 years ago. I didn’t walk around saying, “I want to help you heal.” I was just like, “Yo, I feel terrible.”

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LB: Do people unload on you? How do you metabolize that? 

TB: This is always a hard question because I don’t know that I have mastered how to set aside my feelings, but there is a part of me that is trying to work through it. If I’m going to put myself out there as a leader, then there is some responsibility that comes with that. If I get to the point where I’m overwhelmed and I can’t take it, I have methods of decompressing and retreating to get what I need. But in the interim I can’t go on national television and do interviews in major magazines and say, “Survivors should heal,” and “I stand up for survivors,” but if they stop me in the airport, say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I gotta go!” 

Lafayette 148 New York coat. Kate Spade New York dress. Earrings, her own. Brent Neale rings. Photo by Andreas Laszlo Konrath/IMG Len

LB: Right. But it must be gratifying that it’s calmed down a little. 

TB: I think it’s good for people to know that the reality of this work is not what we saw in 2017. It’s not being on the front page of magazines and walking red carpets. Now it’s leveled off into “Oh, she represents this thing. Let’s bring her in,” as opposed to “Hey, the #MeToo lady is here!” 

LB: [laughs] What is your happy day when you are not working? 

TB: That’s hard because I work so much. But I have a wonderful partner, and I love to spend time with him. My friends are some of the best women in the world. They have stood up for me and been there for me. We make life decisions together, and suddenly I was thrust into this other arena that was quite different from what we’ve had. 

LB: I’m sure you’ve been asked this, but what about running for office? 

TB: People always ask me that, but it’s a no. I think politics is a very necessary intervention in a lot of social-justice ways, but you have to perform and conform, and I’m not comfortable with that. I’m sort of in the same position as a politician, so I bend and shape myself in ways I didn’t think I was capable of. I feel like politics is a step further, and I’m not PC enough. 

LB: OK, what women in political office do you think are badasses? 

TB: I mean, you know, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is from the Bronx. I’m a Bronx nationalist, so she jumps out first, but that whole crew — Ayanna Pressley, AOC, Ilhan Omar. This is not an endorsement, but I’ve always liked Elizabeth Warren because she’s so smart. 

LB: What does the word “badass” mean to you? 

TB: It’s such a good word. It’s one of those words we take over to make it mean what we want it to. Women are supposed to behave. In order to get ahead, women are supposed to be nice or conniving and cutthroat. For me, a badass is the woman who can navigate any situation, whether it’s at work or at home, and still be able to maintain her dignity — and also let people know she is not going to be messed with. I can rely on her, and she is going to get it done. But she also takes care of herself and is not afraid to tell people no. A badass encompasses all those things. When I look at someone and am like, “Oh, she’s a badass,” it’s because she gets it right. And even when she gets it wrong, she does it well. 

LB: One of the most badass qualities is to be empathetic. Because there are plenty of people, especially in this political era, who just don’t care. 

TB: You can tell when people lack empathy. It is so disingenuous to pretend to care. Not only are you not a badass, you can’t be an effective leader. 

LB: Do you consider yourself ambitious? 

TB: I am proud of the work I’ve done in coalition and collaboration with these other badass women over the past couple of years. It is not an accident that people are still talking about #MeToo. We continue to make sure we are building on the momentum that started in 2017 so it doesn’t get lost. That’s a job. It takes vision and leadership to do that, and I’m fine with accepting that. With all humility. 

LB: You don’t have to be an asshole about it, but you can say, “I want this.” 

TB: We are trained to play small, both as women and as survivors. The other part of it is, as a survivor of sexual violence, I have to take what I can get. We are supposed to wait for somebody to come along and pick up our pieces, put them back together, and give them to us so we can be humble and grateful for that. Whereas I have spent my life putting my own pieces back together, and that is hard fucking work. And I won’t let anybody diminish that. I think it is enough to come out of it and say, “I don’t want to be a leader; I just want to live my life. That is enough.” But to come out of that and say, “I want to contribute so somebody else doesn’t have to go through this, and then I’m supposed to play small for you?” Absolutely not. 

LB: Yeah, you don’t have to be meek and grateful. 

TB: There is this notion that if you are not grateful or humble, then you’re evil. Then you’ve done something unethical to get where you are. You can live, you can be empathetic, you can be compassionate, you can be open and thoughtful — all of these things — and still be a badass. It doesn’t mean if I step into this role as a leader, I’m going to step on all the little people to get here! [laughs]

LB: Maybe someone is really short, and you just don’t see them! [laughs]

TB: I always say power is not inherently bad — it’s the unchecked accumulation of power, when there are no checks and balances. There is nothing wrong with privilege unless you are using it to destroy people or make people feel smaller. We need to renegotiate our standing and our relationship to power — to walk into it in ways, to make people say, “I want that kind of power.” 

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LB: In the magazine world I really resist the word “empowerment” because I think it’s patronizing. 

TB: It is in my world too. We stopped using that word, because I’m not going to give someone power. 

LB: Speaking of power, as a flank to your vital #MeToo work, will you ever relaunch your fashion blog [She Slays]? 

TB: I think about my fashion blog all the time. It was such a happy place for me. I walk through life with a clear understanding that most of the world doesn’t see me as traditionally beautiful, and with the added trauma that I experienced or whatever, it really helps to co-sign that in my brain. Like, “This is why you are less valuable; this is why these things happen to you.” I know, intellectually, that is not true, but I still struggle with this as a human being, so the blog, for me, was a way to put myself out in the world. I’m going to present how I want to dress, how I want to take these pictures. It was my little rebellion, if you will, working through that. My girlfriend said the other day, “Everything you’ve done in your life has prepared you for this moment.” Because if I didn’t do that blog, all those photo shoots, I would have been like, “Oh, I can’t do it.” 

LB: And you have freaking great style! 

TB: [laughs] I love dressing up. It makes me feel good. I didn’t buy any high-end stuff when I had my blog because I didn’t have any money. I’ve never had a lot of money — and I don’t really have a lot of money now — but last year Michelle Obama was supposed to speak in Germany, but she couldn’t go, so the people in Germany asked for me. 

LB: Chic! 

TB: I was like, “Thank you, Michelle Obama! Can I just be your stand-in?” And that’s how I got my apartment! [laughs] 

Hair: Kay Ward. Makeup: Camara Aunique. Styling: Laurel Pantin.

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan. 17.

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