Tarana Burke — activist, advocate, founder of the ‘me too’ Movement and Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year — joined Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis for a virtual conversation on Wednesday, April 21, as part of the University’s Presidential Lecture Series. Burke addressed the aspects of her career and history of advocacy during an introspective 60-minute discussion.
Citing Burke’s prominent role as an activist and for helping to break the silence for sexual assault victims all over the world, President McInnis began the discussion by bestowing upon Burke the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
“The movement you created has significantly influenced the way in which people understand sexual assault, you’ve helped survivors of sexual assault find their voices, and you’ve unleashed a powerful wave of change,” said McInnis. “Like so many in our audience today I have been inspired by you and the humane and empathetic approach that grounds your work.”
After thanking McInnis for the honor, Burke began her lecture by describing the event that would become the genesis of the ‘me too’ Movement and, in fact, give it its name.
“I worked with and became close with a young girl in a youth leadership organization,” said Burke. “This girl had become attached to me and trusted me. The truth of the matter is the words ‘me too’ came from my own inability to say them back to her when she confided in me. I wished I had a little bit of the gumption and trust that she had in me, and I didn’t. But the lesson I learned from that moment really changed the trajectory of my life. It’s the reason why I’m here now and it’s the reason why I can talk about my experience. It was a journey before I even got to the to the language of ‘me too,’ and in some ways I felt like my whole life was leading up to that moment.”
As a teenager growing up in a predominantly black community in the Bronx, New York, Burke took an interest in working to improve the lives of young girls living in marginalized communities at an early age.
“I saw so much violence in general and sexual violence in particular in my community, and we seem to only pay attention to one type of violence,” she said. “Somebody has to be bleeding in the street for us to respond and take the issue seriously. I saw just as much devastation with sexual violence in my community as I saw with gun violence, but the response was not on par.”
Burke described the importance and immense healing power of empathy as a building block in her future activism.
“It was the people who heard my story and listened and then showed me enormous amounts of empathy and compassion that made this possible,” she said. “I thought that this is exactly what I needed somebody to do for me at 12 and I wanted to live that.”
Determined to build a movement that was built on empathy, healing and action, Burke founded the ‘me too’ Movement in 2006. After years of hard and often frustrating work building the movement, in October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo went viral over social media following a worldwide response to the flood of sexual misconduct allegations in the entertainment industry becoming public. In the face of early challenges to building an organization, Burke said she relied on a close-knit community of activists and organizers who helped shape her, something she encourages aspiring activists to also take advantage of. She addressed this in a Q&A session that followed her lecture.
“I am a firm believer in being a joiner,” she said. “You don’t have to start a new organization or new group. The first step is finding like-minded individuals. That’s much easier to do on a college campus like Stony Brook because you have sort of a microcosm of the larger world. There might be people in your dorm who feel as passionate you do. Get together and start talking.”
Burke also encouraged future activists to study and learn everything that they are advocating for.
“What we see on television and in social media is the end result of a bigger effort,” she said. “We see the people in the streets and we see the marching and the speeches, but there’s a lot of organization behind that. And there’s history. Hashtags aren’t movements, they are movement amplifiers.”
Burke drove home the point with well-known recent examples of what long-term activism make possible.
“If we had stopped in 2014 or 2015 we wouldn’t have a Cori Bush in Congress, we wouldn’t have [Tishaura Jones] the first black female mayor of St. Louis, and we wouldn’t have had an immediate call to action after George Floyd,” she said. “That didn’t come out of nowhere, that came out of strict strategy, thought and organization. And it’s really important for us to support the people who are on the ground doing that work. It is good to be well-read. Passion wakes you up and brings you to the frontline every day, but it takes more than passion to strategize and build a movement that’s long and strategic and thoughtful.”
Burke concluded the event by stressing the importance of perseverance and recognizing the physical and emotional hills and valleys that accompany her work.
“There were bad times when I felt like I couldn’t keep going and I was overwhelmed,” she said. “Sometimes that means you need to stop. What I don’t ever want to do is bring a depleted and overworked version of me into my work because the work is that important. There have been times when I thought ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ but if it is written on your heart it will come back. Something always brings me back and I know that there’s no way that I can live a life that doesn’t include this liberating work.”
— Robert Emproto
You Are Your Best Thing, a book that brings together Black writers, organizers, artists, academics and cultural figures to discuss vulnerability and shame resilience, co-edited by Burke and University of Texas at Austin professor Brené Brown, will be published by Random House later this month.