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‘Me too.’ Movement Founder Gets Real During On-Campus Event

May 03, 2019

“An Evening with Tarana Burke” brought together survivors and allies, as well as campus resources and organizations, in Mitchell Auditorium to get to know Burke as more than just a face of a movement.

Photos by Charles Shan Cerrone.

The ‘me too.’ Movement is not a hashtag, and neither is its founder, as an audience of Drexel University students, faculty and staff found out on April 26.

An Evening with Tarana Burke brought together survivors and allies, as well as campus resources and organizations, in Mitchell Auditorium to get to know Burke as more than just a face of a movement or a founding force behind a viral hashtag. Instead she shared personal history, questions and answers, and lots of laughs with the audience attending the event organized by the Campus Activities Board, The Good Idea Fund and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Drexel.

“I've had the honor and pleasure of working with so many people throughout the Drexel community the past couple months to put this event on, to make it happen,” said Christian Maxey, a second-year organizational management and operations and supply chain management student and CAB’s culture and discovery director, to start the sold-out event. “We're so excited it has come. We're so excited all of you are here to enjoy it with us.”

Maxey then invited Mary Ebeling, PhD, director of the Women's and Gender Studies program and an associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, to introduce Burke and the event’s moderator, Maori Karmael Holmes, founder of the BlackStar Film Festival. Ebeling also mentioned that Holmes curated the Assemblage exhibition currently on at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery.

Of Burke, Ebeling said her more than 25 years of social justice work laid the groundwork for the ‘me too.’ Movement, which was initially created to help young women of color who survived sexual abuse and assault.

“The simple yet courageous ‘me too.’ Movement has emerged as a rallying cry for people everywhere who have survived sexual assault and sexual harassment and Tarana Burke's powerful, poignant story as creator of what is now an international movement that supports survivors will move, lift up and inspire you tonight,” Ebeling said.

Homes and Burke then took the stage, quickly confirming something that was left out of their respective introductions.

“I will say up front that Tarana and I have been friends for over a decade,” Holmes said. “So if we kiki a little bit, I apologize in advance.”

Several times throughout the night, Burke also apologized for her longwinded answers to Holmes’ questions, but the audience enjoyed getting to know Burke, and learn about both her personal and activism backgrounds.

Burke spoke of the origin of her people (one side from South Carolina, one side from the Virgin Islands) and her name (her mom took the popular ‘70s name Tawana and subbed an “r” for the “w”).

It was more than 15 minutes into the event when Burke first referenced the ‘me too.’ Movement, describing how she believes the “spiritual founding” started when her mother allowed her to read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou at age 12.

“I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse and I was in that situation and she was the first person, any human being that I knew that had also experienced it,” Burke said of Angelou approaching the subject in the book. “I knew she was a real person and I was just like, ‘Oh God, there’s two of us!’ you know. I carried that with me, thinking me and Maya Angelou had a secret.”

At age 14, Burke started getting involved in activism through the organization 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement which she also went on to work for after college. She also demonstrated around cases against of racial violence and false convictions in her hometown of New York City, including the murder of Yusef Hawkins and the trial against the Central Park Five.

Burke said the activism of the ’80s and ’90s when she was growing up is often overlooked today, as it wasn’t as documented as the Civil Rights Movement before it or the student activism of today. 

“So it's like we go from Dr. King to Black Lives Matter,” she said. “But, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was so much political activity happening, particularly in New York.”

After college in Alabama, Burke became the leadership camp coordinator for the 21st Century organization, and interacted with a lot of young people in the role. It was one young girl, though — who Burke calls “Heaven” publicly to protect her anonymity — that came to Burke with a confession that hit all too close to home.

“At some point during the summer she shared with me that she had molested by her stepfather. And she did so because she trusted me,” Burke recalled. “I didn't know what to do with this information, particularly because it opened up my stuff now. Like, ‘You’re bowling down my alley.’ I shut her down and sent her away. … The story for people who ask, ‘Where did you get the words from?’ The words came from my inability to say them. When she was telling me her story I was just thinking intellectually, like ‘I'm not a social worker. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to say the wrong thing.’ But in my heart, I was just thinking like, ‘This happened to me too,’ you know, and nobody ever said that to me. Nobody had ever said, ‘I share this with you.’”

As the moderated portion of the event winded down, Burke outlined the central mission of ‘me too.’ and some of its misunderstood aspects. With the publicity garnered since the phrase was adopted following the fallout in Hollywood from allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein 2017, Burke said one of the hardest things has been holding on to the ‘me too.’ narrative as people apply their own definitions to and uses of the movement. 

“You can slap ‘me too’ on anything nowadays, right? And they do,” she said. “You know, sometimes it's in ways that they don't mean any harm. People want to elevate an issue in their area, like #MeTooDrexel to fix something that’s happening on campus. I'm just making that up; I don't know about what y’all are going through.”

But Burke reinforced that ‘me too.’ is “a global movement of survivors and allies and advocates working to make sure that individual and community healing around sexual violence happens.” If it’s not about healing and action, she stated, then it’s not a movement, and it’s not about hashtags, but rather about human beings.

“But if you are engaged in the work of ending sexual violence in the framework that we work from, which is a framework that centers on marginalized people and makes sure that it’s survivors at the forefront and leading the work, then that's the ‘me too.’ Movement,” she said.

The mic was then turned over to the Drexel community for an audience Q&A. Ahsan Sarwar, a second-year student majoring in biomedical engineering, asked how important it was for Burke to bring male sexual assault survivors into the ‘me too.’ Movement.

“I’m so glad that you asked this question because this is another misconception,” she said. “My answer to this all the time is men's first role in ‘me too.’ is as survivor. The way that we talk about it, we only talk about men as allies and advocates and how their behavior should change, and we skip over the fact and start with them as survivors. This is not a women's movement.”

Chloe DeOnna, a first-year law student at Drexel, asked Burke how she could get involved with ‘me too.’ legally or otherwise. Burke explained that the organization would be launching a huge campaign in the fall around how people could get involved and engaged. Until then, she said that working in any area of social justice would inherently have a sexual violence element that is touched, too, whether through environmental issues, health care or ending mass incarceration or homelessness.

“The most important thing I think ‘me too.’ has done has been to elevate the conversation about sexual violence, so it's not hard to have these open conversations,” Burke said. “I could never fill a room like this five years ago talking about this thing, but it's so pervasive.”

Anaya Mitchell, a first-year marketing student, helped round out the event on a lighter note asking for Burke’s thoughts on enthusiastic consent.

“How can we have a good conversation about consent, and that it’s not going to kill the mood if you do it, or that approaching a woman in the right way is not sexual assault?” Mitchell asked Burke.

Burke responded with a message for the young women and young men in the audience.

“This is for everybody out there, but particularly heterosexual women dating heterosexual men: if a man says to you he doesn't know how to date now in the age of ‘me too.,’ don’t mess with him,” she said, prompting resounding claps from the audience. “Because my question is always, ‘What were you doing before?’ It was never OK.”

She went on about how consent can be “sexy if you think about it.”

“This idea that the man has to be the pursuer? Young men, let me just tell you something, young heterosexual men,” she continues. “You want a girl that’s gonna be like, ‘I want it. I want it.’ That’s not a bad thing.”

Check out more scenes captured at the event below: