Long before the #MeToo hashtag swept Twitter, Tarana Burke coined the phrase in 2006 to encourage victims of sexual violence to speak up and know they’re not alone.
The 44-year-old Bronx native realized that empathy was key in helping survivors of assault support one another—particularly because it’s what helped her deal with her own trauma. “All I had was the personal experience of being a sexual assault survivor, knowing what I needed and didn't have access to, and figuring out how to get that to the young people I served,” the activist, who currently serves as the Senior Director at Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, tells InStyle.
Now, more than a decade later, the phrase “Me Too” is synonymous with a nationwide reckoning on gender-based harassment across all industries. Following reports that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted more than 50 individuals throughout his career, women came forward and shared their stories using Burke’s phrase, which—with the help of a tweet from Alyssa Milano and a building frustration and anger among women—went viral.
Burke has since become well known as a face of the #MeToo movement. She attended the Golden Globes alongside Michelle Williams in January, on a night when women across the film industry proclaimed “Time’s Up” in response to the longstanding culture of sexual assault in Hollywood. Most recently, she walked the red carpet at the Oscars. And with her non-profit, Just Be Inc, and her work with Girls for Gender Equity, she has developed programs to help victims of sexual harassment heal and reclaim their sense of self-worth, with a particular focus on young women of color.
On this International Women’s Day, there is no doubt that Burke’s movement and ideas have helped change the discourse surrounding sexual harassment, and spurred individuals in many different communities to have conversations that they might not have had a year ago. But Burke notes that true change will happen well outside the realm of social media: “The #MeToo hashtag will always exist to memorialize this moment,” she says. “But the work that we do on the ground is what's going to thrust forward the movement.
What has it been like to see the issue you've worked on for so long get attention on an international scale? It's been a blessing. There's never been a time in our country's history where we've had a sustained, national conversation about all forms of sexual violence. While it's a whirlwind, it's also such a privilege to be able to speak up for survivors and to speak on behalf of people who support survivors. It's a privilege to me, so I feel deeply moved every single day.
There's been a lot of talk about how to make the women's movement more inclusive and intersectional. How do we achieve that? I think we've reached critical mass, and we're at a point where we need each other. Even my being thrust into the spotlight is an example of how there has been a shift in our intersectionality. It's not just black women who stand up and say, "You have to acknowledge this." It's white women, women of color, men who have been saying, "Don't erase this black woman's work." That's really different than even recent history. So I think we have to be honest and transparent about what privilege looks like, and we have to be strategic and thoughtful about what we need to succeed. We have to come together and speak honestly about what the barriers are within our community—and then tear them down. It's really that simple.
With the 2018 midterms coming up, are there any women you're excited to see running? I'm excited about the women who are on the ground. For example, the race we just saw in Alabama, with Doug Jones's election for Senate, women like LaTosha Brown [cofounder of Black Voters Matter, which canvassed on behalf of Jones], who are strategizing in the community—I'm excited about seeing those women come into leadership and prominence. We have to trust the voices of the community to be in leadership and know what we need for our communities. I'm excited about that, because I feel like that's happening.
What advice do you have for people who want to turn #MeToo into action? The Me Too movement is really about the work we can do to sustain the fight to interrupt sexual violence, and concretely, we need to start with believing survivors and trusting that survivors have the answers. We are under the false impression that we have to have government funding or grants, all these different things that can be barriers to doing the work.
What drives you? There's a mantra in the South: Take what you have to make what you need. If anybody wants concrete advice on getting started, take what you have to make what you need, and the other stuff will come. This was never something that was on my bucket list. It wasn't even a goal that one day I would have national prominence. I didn't think America could ever get to a place where this could be in the sexual discourse. What I knew was that for the rest of my life, in all the ways I could, I would do this work and find new and innovative ways to interrupt sexual violence. Over the years, these large institutions have in some ways become disconnected from community and lost the idea that survivors are the ones who have the deepest experience. The Me Too movement is grounded in the idea that survivors should be in leadership, and we have the deepest experience to move this work forward.
The issues you work on can be heavy and challenging. How do you keep a positive attitude? I'm all about cultivating joy in your life. Your healing journey around sexual violence is rocky, up and down. I used to always focus on the trauma. I would ignore the times in my life when the trauma wasn't dominant. When I started flipping that, and focusing on the things that brought me joy, like giving birth to my daughter, I held onto those. I curate and cultivate and hold them because when those low moments come, they're going to come. I'm grounded in joy; I'm not grounded in the trauma anymore. When I see that little hope in people's eyes, when they recognize they're not alone, and there are possibilities to move from this place, then it motivates me. There's so much joy packed into the possibility of that. You live your life in this dark place, and you know that there's light, and that light can stay on forever and ever? There's joy in that. I always try to look for the light.