#MeToo founder Tarana Burke talks of the movement, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly
“My vision was always for it to be sort of this rallying cry among survivors,” Burke said during a visit to Northwestern University.
A survivor herself, civil rights activist Tarana Burke spent years working with survivors of sexual violence, launching a nonprofit in the late 1990s to work with young black girls.
By 2006, Burke was convinced of the need to create a community for survivors and began using the hashtag #MeToo on social media — long before it was propelled to the forefront in 2017 by Hollywood actresses protesting sexual abuse and harassment in the film industry.
“It was about creating empowerment for the young people we were working with, through the idea of empathy,” said Burke, 47, senior director at the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, nonprofit Girls for Gender Equity, in a talk at Northwestern University on Monday.
“It was about connecting survivors together so that they saw each other, so that we knew we didn’t exist in a vacuum, that we weren’t alone,” said Burke, who grew up in public housing in the Bronx, surviving rape and sexual assault, first as a child, then as a teenager.
“My vision was always for it to be sort of this rallying cry among survivors.”
Burke was in Chicago to keynote for N.U.’s annual commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, her talk covering the journey of the many actresses whose accusations eventually triggered criminal sexual assault charges against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose trial continues in New York.
After The New York Times and New Yorker magazine published exposes on Weinstein in October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano had encouraged women to post the hashtag if they’d experienced sexual violence or harassment, and #MeToo went viral.
It took some time for Burke to be recognized as the founder, and many who had long been in those trenches with her complained. But Burke, named Time magazine’s 2017 “Person of the Year,” with other activists dubbed “The Silence Breakers,” didn’t have a problem with it.
“I realized that my role in this moment of visibility was to make sure we keep shining the spotlight on the folks who never get that kind of energy, never get that visibility,” she said.
“And it has been difficult, not because white women hijacked the #MeToo movement. That’s not what happened. They came forward as survivors to support other survivors, and because they are white and privileged and famous and beautiful, the media was like, ‘Oh, look at this shiny thing,’” Burke said.
“So if you have rich, beautiful, powerful white women crying on television, they’re not going to talk about me. They’re not going to talk about the little black girls R. Kelly was victimizing. But that’s not the women’s fault,” she said. “The movement that I started is not on television, is not in a newspaper. It’s feet to the street, with human beings.”
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times afterward, Burke lamented that it took the Lifetime network’s “Surviving R. Kelly” series to finally give credibility to black women who had for years accused the Chicago artist of sexual abuse.
“I know how hard the black woman who produced this series fought to get it on the air. We don’t get very many instances to explore black women’s pain,” Burke said.
“What struck me about Part 2 is the impact of the hairdresser talking not just about R. Kelly, but of how she was silenced by her family. And then listening to the others talk about what they had to put up with from their own community — those are important things for people to hear, and the result was much more empathy than the first time around,” she said.
Following the Weinstein trial closely, she was moved as were many by the testimony of actress Annabella Sciorra, the first woman to accuse Weinstein of rape in a criminal court.
“I know Annabella, who I talk to and support very vigorously. What she did was tremendous. It was super courageous. And the way she was cross-examined is very typical of the victim blaming and other such things we see on TV — except in real time, not pretend,” Burke said.
“I’m following the trial closely because I care about the women. I care about the survivors. People keep asking me, ‘Are you worried about what happens to the movement if Harvey Weinstein does not go to jail?’ No, I’m not,” she said. “Whether he goes to jail or not will not be a determining factor in this movement. The fact that people can stand up and speak? That was unheard of before. We have to count every piece of this as a victory.”