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‘Healing in Action and Action in Healing’

#MeToo Founder Talks to Terps on How to Start—and Sustain—Social Change

By Sala Levin ’10

Tarana Burke

Photo by Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Tarana Burke, one of “The Silence Breakers” who Time magazine named its 2017 Person of the Year, talked to the UMD community last night about the rise of the #MeToo movement.

When Tarana Burke was sexually assaulted as a girl, she didn’t have the language to explain what had happened. As an adult working with young Black and brown women who had experienced sexual abuse, she found the words that have started millions of conversations around the world.

The founder of the #MeToo movement spoke last night to the UMD community via Zoom in an event hosted by Student Entertainment Events (SEE) with the University Health Center's CARE to Stop Violence. During the conversation, moderated by SEE Lectures Director Nabila Prasetiawan ’22 fielding questions from Terps, Burke touched on her decades as a community organizer, how different social justice causes intersect and the ways in which her work has changed—and stayed the same—after international attention.

Burke’s activism began when she was a teenager from the Bronx calling attention to racial discrimination, housing inequality and economic injustice. The seeds of Me Too were planted in the mid-2000s in Selma, Ala., where she supported women of color in sharing their stories and processing their trauma.

Here are some of the insights she shared.

On the early days of “#MeToo”: “In the beginning we gave out information, definitions … nobody used words like ‘molestation’ or ‘rape.’ You heard things like, ‘Don’t let anybody touch your private parts.’ Being able to give (survivors) language to describe what happened and what it felt like, and what they experienced was a big part of our work.” 

On embracing the word “survivor” instead of “victim”: “It’s framing. The framing of having fallen victim to something as opposed to having survived something is very different. It’s very important when you are being intentional about a journey to healing.”

On the most significant change in her work after going viral on Twitter in 2017: “The biggest change is that I spent 15 years or so begging and pleading for people to listen to this topic, going places and asking for five minutes on the agenda, or, ‘Can we set up a table in the back?’ People said, ‘That’s pretty heavy, we don’t want to deal with that.’ And overnight, that flipped on its head and we had this huge global audience.”

On the connectedness of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo: “If we’re going to talk about Black lives, we have to talk about every facet of Black lives. You can’t talk about police violence without talking about sexual violence. Sexual violence is the No. 2 issue raised against police officers. That usually happens by male police officers against women of color. Our movements are all in conversation with one another.”

On the importance of cultural—not just legislative—change: “We have to get some real, legitimate information out into the world about what I call the life cycle of a survivor. It’s not an episode of ‘Law and Order: SVU.’ It’s not tucked away neatly in 45 minutes. If you aren’t a survivor, it’s important to understand this … When questions come up like, ‘Why did you stay? Why did you go back? What were you wearing?’ that should not be something people nod their head to. Those questions should raise a red flag, and they’ll only raise a red flag if the narrative changes.” 

On taking care of yourself while pushing for action: “Doing work to move the needle in this area is particularly hard if you are a survivor. I think that what we don’t realize is that our goal is healing and action—both of those things. There’s this thing I say all the time: There is healing in action and action in healing. If you have to take a step back from the work to take care of yourself, you are still doing the work.”

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