Tarana Burke doesn’t recognize #MeToo anymore, or at least the version of it she sees in the media these days.
“Suddenly, a movement to center survivors of sexual violence is being talked about as a vindictive plot against men,” Burke said during a TED Talk Wednesday in Palm Springs, California.
Burke started the #MeToo movement more than a decade ago. That was long before it became a hashtag — and a rallying cry — for women and men who’ve survived sexual harassment and assault.
Now, she wants to set the record straight on what #MeToo really is.
“This is a movement about the 1 in 4 girls and the 1 in 6 boys who are sexually abused every year and who carry those wounds into adulthood,” the activist said at the conference, TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up.
“My vision for the #MeToo movement is part of a collective vision to see a world free of sexual violence,” she said. “I believe we can build that world.”
In her talk, Burke pondered how Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings colored the world’s view of #MeToo. While many public figures used the emotional hearings to telegraph to sexual assault survivors that they’d been heard, President Donald Trump focused on defending the accused, calling it “a very scary time for young men in America.”
Burke rejects the idea that #MeToo has turned into a witch hunt targeting men. Instead, she told the TED audience, the world must focus on the main ingredient that sustains sexual violence: those with power and privilege preying upon others.
“We reshape that imbalance [of power] by raising our voices against it in unison, by creating spaces that speak truth to power,” she said. “We have to re-educate ourselves and our children to understand that power and privilege doesn’t always have to destroy and take — it can be used to serve and build.”
How #MeToo came to be
Burke was working as a youth camp director in 1996 when a 13-year-old girl asked to speak to her privately, she has recounted in explaining how #MeToo began. The girl was trying to tell Burke about sexual abuse she’d endured at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.
“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 five minutes,” she wrote in a blog post. “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.'”
Burke never forgot the look on the girl’s face, she wrote.
“The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed again — it was all on her face,” Burke wrote. “I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper … me too.”
That was the origin of a movement that aims to help young women of color who have survived sexual abuse, assault and exploitation, Burke told CNN last year.
“On one side, it’s a bold, declarative statement that, ‘I’m not ashamed,’ and ‘I’m not alone,'” she said. “On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says, ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.'”