Tarana Burke: The #MeToo leader spoke to a packed house of captivated Brown RISD community members during a Valentine's Day event on Wednesday, Feb. 14. Nicholas Dentamaro / Brown University

Date February 14, 2018
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#MeToo leader urges focus on systems, not celebrities, to confront sexual violence

Four months after the movement she originated gained global visibility, Tarana Burke spoke to a Brown and RISD crowd about the realities of supporting survivors and interrupting sexual violence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Matt Lauer. In the two months last fall after the #MeToo movement took the world by storm on Oct. 13, the list of high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct grew longer by the day.

As the originator of the #MeToo phrase that became a rallying cry, Tarana Burke found herself in the news media’s crosshairs. She likened the onslaught of accusations and the resulting uproar to a game of Whac-A-Mole — and every time a new individual was accused, reporters rushed to track down her reaction.

But often, the focus on celebrity obscured the systemic nature of sexual violence, Burke said.

“I don’t want to keep talking about individuals,” Burke said. “You are all going to keep making boogiemen when we should be talking about systems. A person like Harvey Weinstein doesn’t just exist in a vacuum.”

Burke shared that perspective and more with a packed house of captivated Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design community members on Wednesday evening during a Valentine’s Day event at Brown’s Salomon Center for Teaching.

#MeToo launched into global prominence last October when actress Alyssa Milano urged those who had experienced sexual harassment or violence to share their stories using the phrase. Yet Burke has dedicated more than two and a half decades of her life and career to laying the groundwork for a movement initially created to help young women of color who survived sexual abuse and assault.

The phrase originated when Burke struggled to find the right words to reassure a young girl who confided in her about sexual abuse. As a sexual assault survivor herself, Burke wished she’d told the young woman: “Me too.”

Responding on Wednesday evening to questions from moderator Emily Owens, an assistant professor of history at Brown, and from the audience, Burke spoke about the spotlight she’s encountered recently, the anxiety that it’s induced and the opportunities it’s created. Despite the increased attention, Burke was quick to point out that the pervasive problem of sexual violence hasn’t been solved.

“In the history of the United States and all of the things that we know about sexual violence in this country, we have been having a sustained conversation about sexual violence for four months,” Burke said. “And people are like: ‘What’s next? What now? Did we win? No. No, we didn’t win! We have work to do.”

VIDEO: Highlights from "What's Next in Healing and Activism," with #MeToo leader Tarana Burke.

Burke said that the simplicity of employing the #MeToo hashtag to share stories of sexual violence has its drawbacks, too. The permanence of a public declaration of sexual assault is not always evident, she said, and she finds herself often encouraging survivors not to say #MeToo, at least until they’re ready.

“There’s a way in which this moment has made people think that unless their story is public, it’s not valid,” Burke said. “That’s not true. Sometimes you haven’t even told it to yourself.”

Burke shared stories about her childhood in the Bronx, her mentors, her work as an organizer and how attitudes toward the mere acknowledgment of sexual violence have shifted over her three decades of work. She also counseled students on how to “actionize” the empathy they have for survivors, noting that the work required to eradicate sexual violence will take a long-term effort.

“The way that this becomes a sustained movement and not just a moment is that we don’t wait for one individual — one person that we’ve deemed the media darling or the hero of the moment — to drive this conversation,” she said. “We have to tell our own stories. We have to be drivers of this conversation. We can’t just care about it when it’s in the media cycle... We have to put this at front of our minds, keep it there, and do the work that’s necessary to interrupt sexual violence.”

BWell, Brown’s office of health promotion, organized the visit from Burke, which was sponsored by a wide range of groups from both Brown and RISD.