When Tarana Burke first used the phrase ‘Me Too’ in 2005, hashtags didn’t exist. Little did she know that, over a decade later, it would inspire a viral online movement that’s shifting perceptions and becoming part of an important and widespread discourse across the globe. 

In the third of our exclusive Q&A series spotlighting this year’s Ministry of Ideas speakers, we caught up with Tarana to discover whether today’s movement is aligned with her original intention; how she wants to change the narrative around sexual abuse and harassment; and, in a post-#MeToo world, what’s next for its founder.

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Tarana Burke, image by TIME Magazine

You first used the phrase ‘Me Too’ in 2005 as part of your work with young victims of sexual abuse and assault in helping them craft their healing journey at Just Be Inc. In the days before hashtags and social media, what was its context and purpose?

It was about building empathy. Myself and my co-founder from Just Be, who helped me do this work, we both have different kinds of stories that traumatised us in different ways, and we wanted to use the power of our stories to build empathy with these young people so that they understood that they weren’t alone in this and that, unfortunately, this is a common occurrence; but also that people live full, rich, whole lives after dealing with sexual violence. So, that was the whole point of having that phrase – the quickest and most efficient way to build empathy with someone is to connect with them over some common occurrence.

Actress Alyssa Milano first tweeted #MeToo on 15 October 2017 and the hashtag went on to be used millions of times. What was your initial reaction? Is the viral online campaign aligned with your original intention?

Actress Alyssa Milano, who first tweeted #MeToo

The online campaign was about people standing up and being counted; it was about people saying that this thing had happened to them, to show the sheer volume of the issue around the country and around the world. Our work, originally, was not about showing the volume necessarily, but it’s aligned in that it’s the work of lifting and shifting the shame of sexual violence away from the survivors themselves – so that’s the common thread between the viral campaign and the work we started back in 2005.

A lot of people just started contacting me and asking me about it on the first day because they saw the hashtag, but they didn’t see me associated with it and they were curious about what was happening. My initial reaction was panic and confusion, not knowing where it was coming from – I didn’t know that Alyssa was involved – but that was dissipated when I realised there were so many people coming forward and finding power and solace in these words, and I knew it was important for me to give context to the moment – so that’s what I attempted to do.

You were quoted as saying, “Social media is not a safe space” – what do you mean by this? In what ways has sexual harassment and abuse been abetted by social media? In what ways has it been hindered?

The tweet that sent the Me Too campaign viral on social media

I think that we are lead to believe or made to feel that we have a safe space because we put on our privacy and we have our own, individual pages and we communicate with other people, but the internet is still the internet and social media opens you up to a kind of criticism – or trolling, if you will – that you probably wouldn’t encounter in real life. In real life, if you stood up in a room and said, “I was sexually assaulted”, nobody’s going to say to you, “Who would sexually assault you? You’re too ugly” – nobody would heckle you or troll you in real life, but social media gives people cover. So on the one hand it can be a safe space for people to connect and to create relationships – in the case of #MeToo there was some safety in numbers, in just the sheer volume of people who were coming out and saying it, so, again, it gave some cover for survivors and allowed them to be protected by so many others around them saying the same thing; but ultimately it’s not safe because you don’t control it – you don’t control who sees your stuff, who has your stuff; you think you’ve cultivated a safe community and it’s not, because there are just too many safety loopholes that social media experts are forever trying to perfect… I’m sure they’ll get it in the next couple of years, but it does feel really awful to come forward and have somebody discount you, or discredit you, or say negative, mean things to you when it may have taken so much courage just to get to that place.

All of the social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have tools that are built in to make our spaces as safe as possible – this is not necessarily a criticism of the social media companies as it is an indictment of the craftiness of the people who are intent on being mean. These people who get it into their heads that they want to be cruel and attack folks will find new ways to evade those systems, or look for people who are vulnerable. So I think we have to be really diligent about monitoring our social media spaces. I don’t want to sound like some kind of weird conspiracy theorist, but it is a way for people to get information about you in the spaces that seem intimate and personal – you have to always remember that you’re online. I tell this to people, whether it’s regarding social media or not: I think we have to protect our stories. This is a moment when people are being pushed and encouraged to share, share, share – and it may feel cathartic in the moment to share – but I think that everybody doesn’t deserve our stories; so I think we have to be really careful about how we share them.

Now, you’re the senior director at Girls for Gender Equity – a non-profit “committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women”. What does your role there involve? How has the increased exposure of the ‘Me Too’ movement impacted your work, if at all?

My role at GGE is perfectly aligned with the work that #MeToo is about, because GGE does work around street harassment, around gender-based violence… So it was the most obvious choice for where #MeToo would be housed. Essentially I was guiding the programmatic and policy work for the organisation as a senior director, but I’ve had to take a step back from my day-to-day responsibilities to focus on what it looks like to grow this movement to be at capacity for the number of people who are asking for help – so that’s a whole undertaking by itself. But GGE and #MeTo are inextricably linked, because the work is so aligned. So I’ve shifted into a more thought partner position with the organisation and with the leadership – it’s been great that they’ve given me space to do that.

Our big priorities in this moment are two things: one is narrative change. The work we’ve been doing in the past few months is to shift the narrative nationally and globally about how people talk about the #MeToo movement: right now, people frame it as a movement to take down powerful men who’ve done bad things – and while we are a movement about dismantling systems, beyond that it’s about centring on survivors, so we want to get people the resources that they need to craft their healing journey. That’s another part of the work: building an online space for survivors to come and get the resources they need. It equalises things by being on the internet because there’s no hierarchy based on race, or class, or gender – it’s just information that’s open to everybody. And we centre on survivors who are the most marginalised, so we would pull them out for whatever kind of highlighting is necessary. Our work is on narrative change – it’s online, by building this comprehensive website; and it’s an offline effort to help people get trained for doing this work in their communities (which will happen in the latter part of this year and the beginning of next year).

In 2017 Time Magazine featured you and other ‘Silence Breakers’ as ‘Person of the Year’. As someone who has expressed being uncomfortable with being a figurehead, what did this mean to you?

That was just an amazing honour to be named in that group and to be highlighted and singled out as the founder of the movement, so I was delighted by it, and certainly honoured – and it’s done so much to help elevate this platform and to give me the space to talk about the work from the perspective of how we look at it. But what I meant about being a figurehead is that I have been observant of how people will celebrate me as the founder of the movement, but don’t look to me for leadership or vision around how the movement should move forward.

For example, we should be in conversation with organisations who are working around gender-based violence; we should be in conversation with people who do work across the spectrum of sexual violence, because #MeToo really provides a framework for how to do the work. It’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel ­– there are tonnes of organisations that exist that work to end gender-based violence, but there aren’t a lot of organisation that exist to help people craft a healing journey (not nationally, at least) and help them get active in the social justice space. I’ve taken on sexual violence as a social justice issue, so I have thoughts and vision around that and intend to lead my work, at the very least, in that direction; so it would be wonderful to be in collaboration with some of the larger organisations who have a wide constituency that we can get this message to.

In advance on the Golden Globes, which you attended with Michelle Williams, you wrote, “Too much of the recent press attention has been focused on perpetrators and does not adequately address the systematic nature of violence, including the importance of race, ethnicity, and economic status in sexual violence and other forms of violence against women.” Can you explain a bit more what you mean by this? How would you like to see those fighting for equality adjusting their views and actions accordingly? 

Tarana Burke and Michelle Williams at the Golden Globes

Sexual violence knows no race, class or gender – and we’ve seen that, we know that it affects people across all of these various identities – but the response to sexual violence does. I think as a country – certainly in the United States, but I’m sure globally – we are conditioned to respond to the vulnerability of white women. There have been major cases – I can think of two, in the case of Bill Cosby and the case of R. Kelly – of big name, black celebrities or artists: Bill Cosby is going to trial and there’s a criminal element to that, but his victims were largely white women; meanwhile, R. Kelly has been publicly preying on black and brown girls for almost 20 years and there has not been a public outcry, there has not been a public ostracising of him – the response to those claims has been completely different, but the girls, the accusers, look completely different. I think we have to pay attention to that. One of the big reasons we needed to have a #MeToo in our community was because the things that existed didn’t speak to the needs of the girls we were serving.

I talk about marginalised people and that’s just sort of a catch-all, but I’m very specifically meaning people of colour, queer people, trans people and disabled people who are often just left out of the larger conversation – and there are nuances in our communities that make our interactions with sexual violence different.

I think people have to be conscientious about it, it has to be something that you’re proactive about – it’s about who’s in the meetings and who’s making the decisions; making sure there’s representation in your leadership that covers those groups; making sure those people who are represented have spaces to freely speak about where the gaps are in our community and what the differences look like. I think it’s about vulnerability and transparency – we have to be open to criticism and push-back, and to somebody shining a light on the things that we may just not see.

Most people have some level of privilege, but there are groups that just have way more; so if you recognise that you have privilege and the power that comes with that, it’s about being proactive about how you use it. I don’t think privilege is inherently bad; I think the way we use it is problematic. So I think those people who have privilege – whether it is race privilege, or class, or gender, or ability – have to make sure we centre on those who don’t have the same kind of privilege. That’s also why we have to talk about dismantling systems and structures and making sure that the leadership in these organisations and companies and non-profits, and wherever the decisions are being made, is truly representative of marginalised communities. That’s one of the ways we start to dismantle those systems, because we interrupt those common narratives around who gets to have and who doesn’t – and that’s an important way to start shifting culture. It’s all interconnected.

Tarana Burke was among a host of activists who accompanied stars to the Golden Globes

Among many others, the hospitality industry has come under the spotlight in the #MeToo movement – several attacks by Harvey Weinstein and others occurred in hotel rooms; Dana Lewis, a hotel hospitality coordinator, and Juana Melara, a hotel housekeeper, were named among the Silence Breakers; and in October the Chicago city council reactively passed an ordinance requiring hotels to provide panic buttons to employees who work alone in hotel rooms. In your view, how can the hospitality industry do more to safeguard against sexual harassment and support equality?

I think representation is a really big part of that. The leadership in those spaces should be representative of not just women (sometimes I think we think that adding more women solves the problem), but women who have a level of conscientiousness about things. There might be women you hire who don’t open the door for pay equity for other women, so I think it’s about hiring people with a consciousness and a conscientiousness around these issues, who are also representative of the community you’re serving – whether it’s the immediate community, or the outward-facing community. That’s a huge part of it for hotels: to have people in leadership positions, but also to actively examine their policies and look for the gaps that people can slip through and not be helped adequately – and then you lose some talented person because they just didn’t understand.

Tarana Burke marching against sexual assault and harassment in Los Angeles, 2017

If there were one message you could communicate – one thing you could make people understand or do – what would be your lasting legacy?

I want people to know that this is a movement that is about survivors and it is about interrupting sexual violence, and that our work in this movement is to make sure the survivors – the people who actually had to endure having someone use their bodies, or touch their bodies, or engage with their bodies without their permission; those who lost the right to make decisions about their body – are always the ones who are centred in our thinking and conversations and work around sexual violence.

I think of it like this: when the #MeToo movement went viral, within 48 hours almost 15 million people engaged with the hashtag worldwide. If there were a worldwide epidemic that broke out and 15 million people caught this disease within two days, all things would stop around the globe and we would be fully focused on a cure. We would be having conversations about the cure, we would be trying to understand where it came from and what the root causes of it are so that we can figure out how to put a stop to it. We would be trying to take the people who had been affected by it and figure out what they needed in order to be comfortable until we found a cure. These are the ways we would act as a global community to a communicable disease that touched so many lives.

I think about that when I think about the movement because we had 15 million people in less that 48 hours saying that their lives have been affected in this way, yet our focus it on, ‘How do we date now?’; ‘How can we hug now?’; ‘What are the new rules?’; ‘Maybe I won’t even deal with women at all…’ – as opposed to saying, ‘What caused this?’; ‘Those people who are speaking out: what do they need? How can we get them resources? How can we help them? And, furthermore, what do we need to do as a collective global community to put an end to this?’. That’s the conversation that needs to happen – all this other stuff is just a distraction from that.


Katie Palmer
Katie Palmer is Editorial and Content Manager at Beyond Luxury Media Ltd.