MeToo’s Tarana Burke: Laying groundwork for the long haul

NEW YORK — Not long ago, Tarana Burke took the podium in a hotel ballroom full of admirers — a scenario that’s become somewhat familiar this past year — and told a favourite childhood tale about the time she was forced to run a three-legged race with a cousin who wasn’t, like her, competitive or athletic.

She wanted a different partner, because she didn’t want to lose. But her grandfather told her sternly: “We don’t leave anybody behind.” And so she ran the race with that cousin, and lost, but learned a memorable lesson about taking care of those less powerful.

Burke took that lesson into her career as an activist and organizer, especially her work with survivors of sexual violence — work that led her to coin the phrase “Me Too,” more than a decade before it exploded as a global hashtag and a slogan for a sweeping social movement.

Now, with more visibility than she ever dreamed possible, Burke finds herself in another race — to get the next phase of her own #MeToo work up and running before the spotlight dims. And an important part of that, she says, is to put the focus back where it started — before Harvey Weinstein and the movie stars and red carpets — on survivors, especially women and girls of colour, who she says have always been disproportionately impacted by sexual violence.

“The #MeToo movement is a survivor’s movement,” Burke says. “And it’s for everybody. I just want to make that point extra clear.” In other words, the movement doesn’t leave anybody behind, just like her grandfather told her.

But beyond that, how do you take a cultural moment with a powerful mantra, and turn it into a sustainable, working movement? That’s what Burke, 44, is concentrating on now, nine months into the #MeToo era. She’s spending the summer working on final plans for programming at “me too.,” her organization that’s housed at the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity , the non-profit where she’s a senior director. The immediate goal: Launching a new online community in the fall, full of resources for survivors across the country.

In a recent interview, Burke decried what she called a persistent false narrative about #MeToo.

“After all this time, I still run into people every day who say, ‘You’re anti-men,” Burke said from France, where she was speaking at the Cannes Lions Festival. “They say, ‘All you want to do is make people lose their jobs.’ And it just takes the focus away from what we’re doing.”

“These misconceptions are out there, no matter how much visibility I have, and they’re super harmful, because people believe them,” she added. “So the work I am doing with the visibility I have is to try to give people a broader perspective.”

Burke has been on a head-spinning ride since the day last October, shortly after the Weinstein story erupted, when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged survivors of sexual assault or harassment to tweet #MeToo.

The hashtag spread like wildfire, and it was quickly pointed out that the phrase had originated with Burke. Since then, she’s been balancing her work at Girls For Gender Equity with countless high-profile appearances, where she’s been hailed as a standard-bearer for the movement: the Golden Globes, the Oscars, the Time 100 gala where she was honoured as one of the year’s most influential people, and many others.

“Part of the challenge is trying to balance all these things,” she says, “managing this level of visibility and also knowing that we have to do a lot of groundwork.”

Essential to that groundwork is fundraising. Whereas the legal defence fund of Time’s Up, the Hollywood-based group advocating for gender equity in the workplace, has raised upward of $20 million, Burke’s own group has nowhere near that kind of money. Tennis legend Billie Jean King and TV host Robin Roberts each gave $100,000, and Google has given a $250,000 “Google Rising” grant. But the biggest boost came in May, when Burke received a $1 million commitment — and plans to raise twice that, annually — from the New York Women’s Foundation.

“I think a lot about what would have happened if we had been fully funded 12 years ago,” she told a cheering crowd at the foundation’s breakfast, where the grant was announced.

With its new funding, “me too.” is not only launching the membership-based online community — with a planned October start date — but also developing programming, for later in the year, that will include elements like survivor healing circles. The group also plans to spend about half its resources supporting community-based groups across the country fighting sexual violence.

Burke herself is constantly travelling and speaking, working to put the focus back on survivors, especially in marginalized communities, and away from figures like Weinstein, whose accusers have largely been white, famous actresses. “That’s what her work has been out in the world right now,” says Joanne Smith, Burke’s colleague and founder of Girls for Gender Equity. “To remind people — or tell people who never knew — why it is that we have to be so specific about girls of colour and black girls in particular being impacted by sexual violence. Because those stories don’t get told.”

Burke is aware that the celebrity component of the Weinstein story has in some ways fed a perception that #MeToo — the broader cultural movement — has left some communities out.

“There’s a lot of black women who don’t feel like they have a place in this #MeToo movement that ironically was started by a black woman,” says Nupol Kiazolu, a student activist in New York City, who took the stage at the Women in the World conference this spring and called on white women to stand with their black counterparts. “I don’t feel like this movement is inclusive enough as it should be. We have a long way to go.”

Similar sentiments were explored at Brooklyn’s Billie Holiday Theatre in March, where actresses including Pauletta Washington and Simone Missick performed from the writings of 50 women and girls of colour for a theatrical piece entitled “Our Place in the Movement.”

“In so many (past) social movements, the voices of black women are almost non-existent,” said Indira Etwaroo, the theatre’s executive director. “And so with the #MeToo movement it begs the question, where do we belong, what place do we have?” She noted that when three actresses — and Weinstein accusers — took the Oscars stage to present a segment on MeToo and Time’s Up, a black woman was not among them.

Burke says it’s logical that #MeToo exploded into view when high-profile celebrities became involved. “That’s what the media does, cover celebrities,” she says. “That attention has caused people to make this connection that #MeToo is about white women in Hollywood.” But she also points out that when hundreds of thousands of women began using the #MeToo hashtag, “it went viral because of people — everyday people.”

Ana Oliveira, president of the New York Women’s Foundation, says she’s been heartened both by Burke’s extensive experience with survivors of sexual violence, and her clearheaded plans.

“Tarana is very clear that this is not about demonizing men,” Oliveira says. “And she’s not interested in building an empire, or a big national organization. She is interested in the sustainability of efforts that happen locally.”

Burke says she tries to impress on people that this is an opportunity not to be squandered.

“I suspect that in a year or two, it won’t be as newsworthy,” she says. “The thing that WILL be newsworthy will be the ways that we’re moving the needle to end sexual violence.”

And for that to happen, the focus needs to shift back to where it started, she says — away from the accused, and onto the survivors.

“Millions and millions of people literally raised their hands nine months ago to say #MeToo … and their hands are still raised,” she says. “Because nobody is responding to them.”

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