Last Tuesday, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, addressed hundreds of people at theUniversity of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She shared her personal journey, reflected on #MeToo’s foundation and evolution, and offered insight on present cultural contentions.
Burke, a Bronx native and longtime activist, first coined the phrase “me too” in 2006 while working at Just Be Inc. — a nonprofit organization she founded three years prior, dedicated to the wellbeing of young women of color. In 2017, #MeToo became an international phenomenon overnight when actress Alyssa Milano promoted the hashtag on Twitter, encouraging other survivors of sexual violence to share their stories. According to the Associated Press, #MeToo was shared or posted 12 million times in the first 24 hours, catalyzing Burke’s rise to stardom.
In reflecting on #MeToo’s evolution, Burke emphasized the movement’s principle values — “healing and action” — and reiterated that it is not a “witch hunt” against men. Several attendees, including Mia Hsu ’20, appreciated Burke’s explicit articulation of the movement’s original intentions and core values, which are so frequently distorted in today’s public discourse.
“I was really interested in her view that although #MeToo going viral was pivotal and largely beneficial to the movement, the media and the sudden opinions of thousands of people also twisted some of the core values of #MeToo’” Hsu said. “I remember Ms. Burke saying that one of the saddest things that has happened to the ‘image’ of the movement is people thinking that it is a ‘witch hunt’ or ‘war on men’ … I liked that she hit home the original value of why #MeToo was founded: to give a voice to people, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, class, etc. who have experienced sexual violence.”
Burke went on to explain men’s role in the movement, not only as allies but also as survivors themselves, saying, “This is not a women’s movement … there is space for men as survivors.”
At the same time, Burke also highlighted the importance of male allies and criticized “our [society’s] inability to be nuanced,” particularly surrounding public figures like Joe Biden, who — in Burke’s opinion — have been longtime advocates of women’s rights and bodily autonomy, but also crossed boundaries and made mistakes. Logan Smith ’22 found this portion of Burke’s talk especially enlightening in better understanding and engaging in conversations surrounding Biden and others.
“She [Burke] stressed the importance of calling out even the littlest things that the best people do, because if we ignore those ‘little’ things, we open up the doors for greater levels of violence,” Smith said. “In this way, we have to change the way our culture looks at sexual assault and harassment and begin to learn to prevent it at its seemingly most insignificant levels.”
Beyond discussing public figures like Biden, Burke also gave advice and spoke to survivors on a personal level, highlighting the importance of honoring all forms of violence and trauma, and dispelling myths about supposed hierarchies of sexual assault and harm.
“Any violation of your person is violence,” Burke said. “It’s not as much about the act as what it left you with.”
Burke went on to encourage survivors to “lay down” the burden and trauma they carry at the feet of those responsible. This was a statement which resonated with audience members such as Montana Bass ’18, Health Education Paraprofessional at the Wellness Resource Center.
“That [quote] was really impactful for me because I think that for a lot of us, the ‘laying down’ is really hard to do,” Bass said. “We don’t believe that other people will pick it up. Even if I’m not in a place where I’m ready to do that yet, hearing her say that and feel that she believed it brought me a lot of hope.”
Despite the emotionally challenging nature of the night’s subject matter, Burke maintained hope throughout the entirety of her 90-minute address. This continued right up to her closing remarks, when an audience member asked her advice to others interested in starting movements of their own.
“I’ve spent the last 15, 20 years living this vision,” Burke said. “Start where you are; people will come … just do it.”