Tarana Burke on sexual assault and the Me Too Movement.

Brie Welton (left) & Tarana Burke (right) - Photo by Lauren St. Clair
Brie Welton (left) & Tarana Burke (right) - Photo by Lauren St. Clair

The original Me Too movement began, not with the hashtag, but 12 years ago as a grassroots campaign founded by African-American activist Tarana Burke. The campaign was born out of a need in underprivileged communities for sexual assault support for survivors, particularly African American women and girls. The goal of Me Too was to turn the focus to survivors and the resources they need, in an effort to shift how sexual violence is talked about and understood in our culture.

The phrase went viral 15 October 2017 in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, when actor Alyssa Milano tweeted an invitation for survivors to comment “#metoo.”

Time named Burke Person of the Year in 2017 for her work founding the Me Too campaign in 2006 and advocating tirelessly for sexual violence survivors.

Although the Me Too hashtag recently thrust Burke’s movement into the world’s spotlight, the campaign existed before, and will continue to grow beyond this viral moment. The hashtag was only one part of this movement, which is over a decade in the making.

Burke came to Kelowna March 6 and gave a presentation on campus and later at the Community Theatre in downtown Kelowna. I had the opportunity to briefly sit down with her and discuss the Me Too movement.

Where is the Me Too movement going from here? What work is going to be done in the future?

It’s a movement to support survivors. It is a movement to make sure survivors have resources... make sure that people recognize, survivors mostly, that they have the power to do the work to the end sexual violence. And a lot of that is around cultural shift, a different understanding of our role to end sexual violence, and also our role in relating to each other in that work. And that’s a big order. That can’t happen from just the internet… That takes different kinds of people, working together… That’s what we’re doing in a big way. Our work is really about shifting the narrative… it’s around providing resources and connecting individual survivors to resources they may or may not have known existed -- and if they did know existed, didn’t know how to access them.

There is a plan being made to work with Hollywood writers’ rooms to address how they handle sexual abuse on screen. What does this plan entail?

Being a part of productions, whether their scripted or unscripted... all conversations around sexual violence. It’s shaping how they talk about it. Whether it’s changing the language from victim to survivor, or it is having depictions of sexual violence or telling stories that haven’t been told, Surviving R Kelly is an example of that, it’s a story that we couldn’t get told for 20 years, until now. It’s projects like that that bring to the forefront stories of people - sexual violence doesn’t discriminate and there’s so many people whose lives and whose livelihood are affected by that, and so helping people having an expanded understanding of what it looks like. I think folks have only just scratched the surface of what the reality of sexual violence is. So that’s why that work is important. Pop culture is everywhere, people are consumed by it. So using it to our advantage as a way to broaden our message, is like a way to get the word out to millions and millions of people in a way that I couldn’t do by myself.

If you could give advice to a survivor of sexual assault who isn’t comfortable coming forward yet, what would that be?

Don’t be pressured into doing it. The timing around saying “me too” or telling your story is your own and there’s nobody who can advise you better than your own instincts. And I think that’s an important message for survivors, because a lot times what happens as a result of the violence is that you don’t trust your instincts, and you don’t trust your decision making. But when you lose the right to make a decision about your own body, every decision you make after that becomes that much more important. And that decision includes whether you tell your story or not. So I would say don't feel like you have to be a part of the moment, don't feel like you have to tell your story in order for it to be valid, and telling your story also can look a lot of different ways. It doesn’t mean doing it publicly, it doesn’t mean doing it on social media. It could mean writing it in your journal, telling a family friend. But do it in your own time, be incredibly gentle with yourself, and know that the resources are here for you when the time comes.