Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, has a message for survivors of sexual abuse: “Don’t think you have to put up a hashtag. It’s your story to own.”

An audience of over 200 students, faculty, staff and Columbia locals packed a room in Tate Hall to hear Burke, the keynote speaker for MU’s Black History Month events, speak about how the Me Too movement started and to learn how they can take action against sexual violence on campus and in their communities. Burke said there is value in the hashtag based on the movement she started.

#MeToo is “the start of a journey. It’s permission to start your healing journey,” said Burke, who is a survivor of sexual violence and now serves as the senior director of the nonprofit Girls for Gender Equity.

The founding of #MeToo

Although #MeToo didn’t go viral until October, the Me Too movement is more than a decade old and is rooted in Burke’s lifelong commitment to organizing for change.

In 2006, Burke founded Just Be Inc., a nonprofit providing resources for sexual abuse victims, with an emphasis on helping communities of color. She coined “Me Too” as the organization’s watchword.

“I know I can tell little black and brown girls that they are beautiful, but they go out into a world that tells them the opposite,” said Burke, who said she focuses on building up a sense of self-worth in marginalized communities.

For Burke, the phrase “Me Too” is deeply personal. In 1997, when she was 22 years old, she was working as a youth counselor in Selma, Alabama, when a young girl confided in Burke that her mother’s boyfriend was abusing her. But Burke, who had yet to come to terms with her own experiences, shuffled the girl off to another counselor.

“The thing I wanted to say so badly to her was ‘this happened to me too,’” Burke said, “but it didn’t feel like enough.”

Over the next several years, Burke continued to listen to the stories of women and girls who had experienced the same trauma she had, and she asked herself: “‘What is the thing that I needed at that age?’ ... I needed empathy. I needed someone who heard me and saw me. ... that’s how ‘Me Too’ was born.”

She founded Just Be Inc. to meet that need. She created a Myspace page for it and soon witnessed women — and men, she emphasized — coming forward with their stories.

But then on Oct. 15, 2017, Burke woke up to see the now-famous hashtag flooding social media after actress Alyssa Milano urged women to use #MeToo as a means of publicizing their experiences with sexual assault.

At first, Burke said she was “in full-on panic.”

“I felt like my life’s work was in jeopardy,” she told the crowd. “We’ve seen black women’s work get erased time and time again.”

Although Milano soon credited Burke, a new question emerged: Why did it take a swell of well-connected white women, such as Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence and Angelina Jolie, telling their stories to fast-track the national conversation on sexual assault?

The answer lies in the deep-seated racial mores of American life, said Stephanie Shonekan, chair of the Black Studies Department at MU and lead organizer of Tuesday night’s event.

“When we talk about the ‘damsel in distress,’ you’re not going to see a picture of a black woman. You’re going to see a picture of a white woman,” Shonekan said. “Society has consistently been more comfortable listening to white women than it has been listening to black women.”

But Burke said that after a few hours of seeing people come forward under the banner of #MeToo, her “panic shifted from ‘what’s going to happen to my work,’ to ‘what’s going to happen to those people?’”

She asked herself: “Am I going to be in conflict or in service? I made a decision. I have to be in service.”

And that’s the reality some of the women sitting in the auditorium on Tuesday face every day.

Nikki McGruder has seen this play out in her role as regional manager of the Diversity Awareness Partnership in Boone County. She said that even though she has been working in her position for three years and delivers regular talks on discrimination, “it’s amazing how experts come in and people believe them more.”

“Is it because I’m black?” she said. “Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m a black woman?”

Although McGruder acknowledges the role race played in the eruption of #MeToo, she brought her two daughters, 9-year-old Lyric and 5-year-old Aria, to hear Burke speak because she thinks it’s critical for them to know about sexual violence and not be afraid to talk about it.

“We’re in a season of change,” McGruder said.

While statistics show that women of color and transgender people are at greater risk of sexual assault, Burke’s address made clear that it is a far-reaching social problem not limited by race or even gender: One in six women and one in every 33 men in the U.S. will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, according to a report from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Shonekan’s idea to bring Burke to campus garnered the support of MU’s Black History Month Committee; the Division of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity; Women’s and Gender Studies; and the Women’s Center, the co-sponsors of the event.

#MeToo and Mizzou

Burke, who has been on a nationwide speaking tour since the explosion of #MeToo, pointed out the particular problem college campuses such as MU face with sexual assault.

College-age students, ages 18-24, are the group at highest risk of sexual violence, according to a 2017 report released by MU’s recently formed Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence Task Force.

Joan Hermsen, chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department and co-chair of the task force, noted programs at MU such as the Relationship and the Sexual Violence Prevention Center and the It’s on Us and Green Dot programs play a role in prevention.

Ahead of Burke’s speech, Hermsen said she hopes Burke’s discussion of the movement at MU “contributes to campus conversations about consent and power.”

“But the institutional efforts to create a safer campus must be ongoing,” Hermsen said.

Burke stressed to the auditorium filled with young, internet-savvy students, though, that change doesn’t happen online.

“You have to be committed to changing the school’s culture,” she said as she called for “zero tolerance of rape culture” on campus.

Katie Williams, 22, a women’s and gender studies major at MU, is one of those students Burke’s message might have already reached. Williams said she’s been active in preventing sexual violence on campus since her freshman year and strives to become a social worker.

Burke closed her address with a call to action for those looking to change the conversation on sexual violence.

“If y’all are ready to do that work,” she said, “I can only leave you with two words: Me too.”

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey: brixeye@ missouri.edu, 882-2632.

  • Kathryn Palmer is an education reporter for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate student at the MU School of Journalism. She can be reached at kathryn.palmer@mail.missouri.edu

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