#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke on Working Through Trauma to Create Joy

The activist on the misconceptions surrounding the movement, why every platform is powerful, and how she moved beyond mindfulness.

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Sep 11 2018, 4:24pm

Photo by Anna Ritsch

In 1997, Tarana Burke experienced a life-changing moment while mentoring a group of teens. When one of her mentees, a 13-year-old girl, disclosed that she had been sexually abused, Burke wanted to offer words of encouragement by admitting that she, too, had been a victim of abuse—but she said nothing. Burke never forgot the distinct feeling of wishing that she had the courage to respond, “Me, too.” Since that moment, she has dedicated her life to supporting sexual assault survivors, calling her movement “Me Too.”

Today, Burke is the Senior Director of Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization working to combat harassment and abuse in schools through mentorship, extracurricular programming, and community organizing for young women and gender non-conforming people of color. In April 2018, Burke appeared on the cover of TIME, which named her one of the100 Most Influential People” (after much online criticism from Black women and others when the publication failed to include her in its 2017 “Person of the Year” issue, the cover story for which was titled “The Silence Breakers” and featured celebrities involved in #MeToo, but not Burke).

Photo by Anna Ritsch

Today, Burke continues her work, even as the #MeToo movement faces challenges of its own. Recently, after allegations that actor and prominent #MeToo activist Asia Argento paid off a man who accused Argento of sexual assault, Burke responded quickly—and publicly—saying, “There is no model survivor.” For Tarana Burke, the movement is ongoing.

Here, she discusses the intergenerational strength of Black women, crafting her joy, and #MeToo’s new social platform.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On campaigns vs. movements
Some people have said that the #MeToo movement is wavering, but I think it’s what people have been calling the #MeToo movement that’s been taking hits in the last year. The naming and shaming of high profile perpetrators of sexual violence is not the movement. That’s not to say that this prominent takedown hasn’t been very cathartic for survivors to see, but this has been a media event, for the most part. This public campaign, although quite immediately successful in its work, is not a movement.

I hope people begin to recognize what a movement actually is. A movement is a group of like-minded people working together for a common cause. #MeToo has no color, religion, gender, or socioeconomic status. Above all, it’s about helping survivors heal by building a sustainable support system. Making institutional change takes time, and for the last year, we’ve been working behind the scenes to make that happen.

On how the birth of her daughter changed her life
I spent most of my life up until the birth of my daughter [in 1998] thinking that joy was just not possible for me: that I could be smart, funny, or athletic, but I’d never be happy. When I got pregnant, my main concern became protecting my daughter. I didn’t want her to feel burdened inside by my lack of joy. So I set out on a journey to see if I could do more than just fake it. My journey around healing, which is still ongoing, is centered around finding joy. I found that, for me, joy wasn’t “eat, pray, love.” I couldn’t afford to travel the world. But I did find that picking up my daughter from daycare brings me joy. It might be for only 30 seconds, but it’s a 30-second thing that I look forward to every single day.

"We must figure out how to curate joy in our own lives. I have to practice and work at it everyday. I had previously decided that the trauma was my identity, but that isn’t true. Joy can be my identity if I want."

On creating your own identity
We must be strategic and vigilant [in] curating joy in our own lives. In the 90s, everyone was really getting into mindfulness. We were listening to Oprah and Deepak [Chopra] and reading Iyanla Vanzant. I was heavily into all of that stuff, but it wasn’t helping me in the same way it was helping everyone else—though it did help me start thinking more critically about happiness and peace and made me push harder to find out what methods would work for me. I started writing and documenting what joy felt and looked like for me and, most important, what preceded that feeling. We must figure out how to curate joy in our own lives. I have to practice and work at it everyday. I had previously decided that the trauma was my identity, but that isn’t true. Joy can be my identity if I want. Once I realized that this was a necessary part of my healing process I wanted to share it with everyone: This thing isn't you. Your trauma isn't you.

On drawing strength from other Black women
I have always said that Black women saved my life. My mother, my aunt, my grandma—all wonderful examples of what resilience is, and this resilience poured into me. Black women have been finding new and inventive ways to save ourselves and everyone else for what feels like forever—Black women are finally stepping up and saying, “We’re living, but we’re also dying.” We must continue to raise our voices about the abuse occurring within our own communities. It’s life-affirming for Black women.

On her role as Senior Director of Girls for Gender Equity
GGE provides girls with the necessary tools needed to fight sexism, racism, interpersonal violence, institutional violence, homophobia, and transphobia in schools and on campuses. Joanne Smith, the executive director of GGE, has been around a long time working with young women of color, so we’d always been in close proximity of each other. Last year, when I was thinking of making a job change, I saw that they were hiring and thought it’d be dope to work with her, so I called a mutual friend. I’ve been working with them since February 2017, and I’m mainly focused on the programs dealing with sexual violence.

Photo by Anna Ritsch

On landing the cover of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People” Issue
[My] current level of visibility, I take it for what it’s worth. It’s still quite hard for me to open up to the public and stay vulnerable about my personal struggles. I’ve had to adjust, but even with the challenges, I am fully committed. Representation is important, and it’s important for other Black women and girls to see us get our recognition. It’s necessary, in fact, because this is our issue as well—not just a white women’s or Hollywood issue. It’s universal and includes us. Our voices matter.

On what’s next for #MeToo
#MeToo and Girls for Gender Equity are collaborating to launch a social platform. Right now, the #MeToo website is essentially a holding space for what soon will be a beautiful, robust online community of survivors supporting each other, with ample resources and assistance for those in need. That will be rolling out sometime this fall. #MeToo—alongside the New York Women’s Foundation—hopes to soon raise $25 million to fund grants given to groups advancing the #MeToo movement’s cause. In October, we’ll be announcing our first $500,000 donation.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.