Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement in 2006, came to New York City this week to let us know how we can be of value to the movement and how to protect everyone from “the disease of sexual violence.”
She gave a moving speech Friday at the star-studded Power of Women luncheon, hosted by Variety magazine. Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and many of the most powerful women in media and entertainment showed up to support Burke’s mission and take up the gauntlet of activism.
Although I didn’t attend the Variety event, I had the privilege of hearing Burke speak at an intimate cocktail party the night before, hosted by Manhattan philanthropist Derek Anderson, owner of Zirkova One + Together Vodka, who has personally pledged to help Burke raise some $2 million in the next six months to further the work of the #MeToo movement.
The first thing on Burke’s agenda was to clear up misconceptions about the mission of her life’s work, which began with healing her own trauma from sexual assault, and which then grew into a grassroots movement for black and brown girls who were also survivors of sexual violence but had no recourse for justice and nowhere to go for services in the wake of the crimes committed against them.
Misconception No. 1 on Burke’s list: the common perception that the movement is “about taking down powerful men.” In the aftermath of movie-industry honcho Harvey Weinstein’s removal from his company after decades of repeated allegations of sexual assault, Burke told the room full of women that what happened to Weinstein was a “corporate response” based on disassociating themselves to protect both the company’s image and its profits.
“#MeToo is a survivors’ movement,” Burke explained. “It’s about standing with and standing up for survivors and allowing them to heal physically, emotionally and spiritually and to seek justice against their crimes.”
When the hashtag went viral, Burke said with the utmost humility, “12 million people around the world engaged with the hashtag in 24 hours.” It’s a startling number given that, as Burke noted, “each one of those numbers is a person who fell victim to the disease of sexual violence.”
We know, as women, it’s a silent epidemic that will be silent no more thanks to the bravery of women like Burke who have come forward. “If 12 million people reported overnight that they were affected with a communicable disease,” Burke continued, “we would drop everything and put all of [our] resources behind finding a cure.” She reminded us, “Sexual violence is a disease.”
Many of us have the tools in our own hands, Burke assured us, and it starts with “closing the gaps.” She asked, “How many of you actually know what the sexual harassment policy at your job covers?”
I, for one, do not, but I should because I have the power to read it and rewrite it on behalf of myself and the other women in my company, should it be necessary, in order to protect my co-workers and those women who will come after us.
How many of us are “aware of all the different adults who pass though your child’s day? Who vets those people?” Burke continued.
I’m on top of that one for sure. The #MeToo movement is about women joining hands to create policy and, at home, educating our girls and boys so that they know that, as Burke says, “If an adult touches you in a sexual manner, the adult is wrong. Always.”
The growth and success of #MeToo activism depends on making it part of everyday life. It’s about creating policy at the workplace. It’s about knowing the policy at the your child’s school for sexual misconduct between students and teachers as well as between students. It’s about knowing how to look for the signs of abuse in others and believing them.
Burke closed the night by saying, “It’s not a celebrity cause. It’s not about me, the person standing in front of you. Do not celebrate me. Interrogate the reason why you even know who I am.”
She ended by letting us know that anyone could be standing in her place one day as a survivor, and that right now, each one of us standing directly where we are has the power to be an activist.