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Tarana Burke and the journey of the Me Too movement


“Our work starts with people who are pushed to the margins.”

For Tarana Burke, these words encompass who she is and, more importantly, what she stands for. 

On Nov. 6, Loyola welcomed Ms. Tarana Burke to the annual Sister Cleophas Lecture. Burke, who was named Person of the Year in 2017 by Time magazine, spoke to a sold-out crowd in McGuire Hall about her journey as a social justice activist. 

For more than 25 years, Burke has dedicated her work to social justice and establishing the groundwork for the “Me Too” movement, which inspires solidarity, amplifies the voices of thousands of victims of sexual abuse, and puts the focus back on the survivors. 

Dr. Camica Royal, a professor of urban education and the co-director of the Center for Innovation in Urban Education at Loyola, moderated the lecture. Royal and Burke have had a close relationship for many years, which allowed the conversation to be casual and free-flowing. 

Born and raised in the Bronx, Burke detailed her rigorous childhood, as she was surrounded by history, religion, and, most importantly, black feminist literature. Voices like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou shaped her early passion for activism, pushing her to join the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement at the age of 14. The organization aimed to create a new generation of grassroot community organizers, and for Burke, it acted as a catalyst into her life as an activist.

“It became clear that we, as young people, had a voice,” she said. 

After her time at Auburn University, Burke touched upon her transition from racial justice to a new focus: sexual violence. While working as a staff member of 21st Century in Selma, Alabama, Burke began to see a disturbing trend among her young female students. 

“While I was working at this school, at least 75% of the girls in my classes had experienced sexual violence,” Burke said. But she noticed no one cared. “The way it was framed was [an] individual issue. It wasn’t framed as a systemic or even community issue, and that bothered me.” 

By 2003, Burke had started a 21-week “Rights of Passage” program in Selma to educate and correct the perception of sexual violence in the community. She had found her “lane.” 

“That felt like home. It felt most comfortable, and of course, when we started doing work around sexual violence, it just felt necessary,” she said. 

Although the “Me Too” movement became a national sensation in 2017, Burke explained how the work to address sexual violence started much earlier—2006 to be exact. 

Burke described the times of desperation to spread their message, knowing such horrific injustices were taking place in their community. 

“I was watching the girls have experiences of sexual violence that they have normalized in their brain, or they were so far removed from language to describe it. That [they were] just experiences in their [lives],” she said. 

In order to reach a wider audience, Burke decided to take the movement to the internet, more specifically, Myspace. After a nostalgic chuckle from the crowd, Burke recounted the overwhelming response online as women from across the country reached out to find out how to implement Burke’s campaign into their communities. 

Yet, the road to national awareness was not a smooth one. In 2013, Burke was laid off and faced a dilemma: “Do I stop?” But she didn’t lose hope. With the help of independent filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Burke received a grant to act as DuVernay’s consultant on the film “Selma.” Her expertise in the area landed her a few more months of multitasking on the film and the movement. 

Eleven years later, a “perfect storm” catapulted Burke and her mission to the forefront of the national news media. First came the Women’s March, then the allegations against Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly and CEO Roger Ailes, which led to their respective resignations. But most profound waves were caused by the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. 

For Burke, the mainstream media severely tainted the perception of the “Me Too” movement. “There is a popular narrative that the white women from Hollywood came in and stole the ‘Me Too’ movement. That’s just not what happened,” Burke said. She acknowledged how the country is conditioned to vulnerability of white women, but she expressed the importance of categorizing the movement’s newfound popularity correctly. 

“The [actresses] came forward, not trying to start or steal a movement. They came forward in hopes that they could stop this monster and confront their own monster,” Burke said. 

Burke emphasized the necessity to avoid needless schisms and to focus on the survivors. “We [survivors] came out of the shadows [to] say, without fear of retribution or shame, that this happened to me too.” 

While reflecting on the impact of “Me Too” and her overall work as an activist, Burke still turns to fellow survivors for inspiration. While people refer to her as courageous, she simply feels like she’s doing the work that needs to be done. 

In her closing remarks, Burke outlined the need for healing and action. Healing is not a destination but rather an ongoing journey. 

“Healing, to me, is that you are building evidence. You are building a tool kit. Everyday that you survive, everyday that you get up, you live, you cry, you breathe.  You are building evidence that it is possible,” Burke said. 

To Burke, the “Me Too” movement’s goal seeks to provide resources to survivors to build their own journey of healing, no matter what it looks like. “It created a community, even if it’s just knowing that 19 million people tweeted ‘Me Too’ knowing that [they] are not alone.”

As a final rallying call, Burke acknowledged proactive engagement as an essential cog in the machine of social activism. “Movements are not spectator sports. You cannot sit on the side waiting for the ‘Me Too’ movement to do something. You have to be in it. We are not a movement unless you move with us.”

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Tarana Burke and the journey of the Me Too movement