By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too Movement, has Alabama to thank for the worldwide campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in society.
Burke will be in Birmingham on Tuesday, Oct. 9, from 6-9 p.m. at the UAB Alys Stephens Center to speak about The Power of Me Too, her journey founding Me Too, which developed into a major movement over the past year.
The seeds of the #MeToo Movement were planted in Alabama where Burke worked with grass roots organizations.
Burke accepted the Community Change Agent award during Sunday night’s Black Girls Rock awards show.
“Black women are magic and we rock, mostly because we are resilient. We have a long history of taking what we have to make what we need. That’s how this movement was born,” said Burke, of the anti-sexual violence movement she founded in 2007 as part of her work helping kids in underprivileged communities. The campaign gained force as a global movement in October after actress Alyssa Milano wrote a call-out on Twitter asking followers to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault using the phrase “Me too.”
Toppling The Powerful
Burke, 45, has seen the movement bring down many powerful men, including former NBC Today host Matt Lauer and Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, after sexual misconduct allegations.
“So much has happened but what you all have solidified for me — and by you all, I mean black women — is that no one can take what was meant for us,” she said.
“It can be used by everybody and still be ours,” Burke continued. “Don’t opt yourself out of what was started for you because the media isn’t acknowledging your hurt and your pain and your stories. They never have. This is your movement, too.”
Burke reminded every woman at Black Girls Rock that the Me Too movement is theirs.
“We have the power to move the needle around sexual violence in our community together. We don’t need validation from anyone to do that work, we can validate ourselves,” she said. “I’m here to say to you black women and girls that you deserve safety and you deserve protection, and I’ve committed my life to ensuring that you have it.”
Seeds Planted in Alabama
The seeds of the movement were planted two decades ago in Alabama by a young girl Burke calls Heaven. Burke, a former Alabama State University student, has been doing the work of the movement for most of her life.
A Queens, New York native, she was involved in local organizing and social justice organizations in her early teens. One organization connected with a youth leadership group former Sen. Hank Sanders began out of Selma with veterans of Alabama’s civil rights and labor movements.
“They wanted to make sure there was another generation of young people to carry on the legacy of work they began in that movement,” Burke told the Montgomery Advertiser.
Burke began traveling to the state when she was 14, learning leadership and grassroots community organizing skills with the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement. It was at an Alabama youth camp that she met 13-year-old Heaven, who began to tell Burke about sexual abuse she was experiencing at home.
“I was horrified by her words, the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut, and I listened until I literally could not take it anymore…which turned out to be less than 5 minutes,” Burke writes on her organization’s Just Be website. “Then, right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and immediately directed her to another female counselor who could ‘help her better.’ I will never forget the look on her face.”
Burke was left searching for the right words to help empathize with the countless women and young girls who have disclosed their experiences to her. Ever since, Burke has shared the message with survivors everywhere: “You’re not alone. This happened to me too.”
Burke was born Sept. 12, 1973 in the Bronx, New York. Her childhood was difficult. She grew up in a low-income, working-class family in a housing project and was raped and sexually assaulted both as a child and a teenager. Her mother supported her recovery from these violent acts and encouraged her to be involved in the community. These experiences inspired her life-long passion to improve the lives of girls who undergo extreme hardships. Her daughter, Kaia Burke, was born in Selma in 1998 and Burke raised her as a single mother. Tarana is currently writing a memoir, Here the Light Enters: The Founding of the ‘Me Too.’ Movement, to be released by Simon & Schuster imprint Ink 37 in 2019.
She was named a 2017 TIME Magazine Person of the Year alongside other female activists and has accessed national cultural platforms such as the Academy Awards. She said the increased attention comes with a larger platform for her work, which has been a “blessing.”
In 2018 Burke got the opportunity to release the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. She also accompanied actress Michelle Williams to the 75th Golden Globe Awards in 2018. Both experiences gave Burke a media platform to continue to discuss the #MeToo Movement. In 2018, Burke was the recipient of the VOTY (Voices of the Year) Catalyst Award from SheKnows Media.
Burke was in Birmingham in June to receive the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative (NOBEL) Women’s National Shining Star Award which goes to someone who has had an impact or helped to make history.
“Because of the things she’s done . . . bringing visibility to what women have been enduring and . . . and now that people are taking hold, it is changing people’s lives, because holding it in has an impact on your life,” said Karen Camper, NOBEL Women’s president and State Rep. from Tennessee. “It has an impact on your mindset, it has an impact on everything you do . . . she has empowered so many women. She deserved recognition for her courage to mentor young girls who have experienced this.”
Burke is currently senior director at Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn and engages in public speaking events across the country promoting support for sexual assault survivors. Burke plans to continue to expand the #metoomovement by crafting its current website (https://metoomvmt.org/) into a comprehensive resource tool for survivors.
Huffington Post; Montgomery Advertiser and biography.com contributed to this article.