“When is the last time you attended a community conversation on sexual violence?” Tarana Burke asked a crowd of over 400 in the Sidney Gelber Auditorium. “It wasn’t very long ago that those of us who do this work had to do so almost covertly.”
Burke, the founder of the widespread #MeToo movement, shared her experiences as an activist and survivor of sexual assault at a public forum on Sunday, Jan. 27. The event organized by i-tri — a group promoting women’s empowerment through triathlons — and L.I. Against Domestic Violence sought to bring the national discussion on sexual assault back down to the local level.
#MeToo went viral in October after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to share their stories about sexual harassment on Twitter. Although the Twitter hashtag has helped introduce many to Me Too, Burke originally coined the phrase in 2006 as a part of her own campaign to empower women of color who have experienced sexual harassment.
“At first I was terrified that my work was going to be erased,” Burke said. “The initial sentiment [on Twitter] was really around sexual harassment in the workplace, which was not the work that I was engaged in.”
Burke’s friends encouraged her to speak up and take credit for Me Too, but she wasn’t sure how to approach the situation.
“I had to decide, am I going to be in conflict or in service?” Burke said. On Oct. 15, she responded by posting an old video of her explaining what Me Too is and what the movement’s goals are.
In the months since, thousands of survivors have shared their stories with the hashtag Me Too, and the movement has evolved to include a whole host of issues related to sexual assault.
One of the moderators of the forum, i-tri alumna Maria Chavez, shared her own Me Too experience with the audience.
“There was a day in my journalism course, we had to discuss if it is okay for comedians to make rape jokes,” she said. “Like I said before I am a sexual assault survivor, and I just couldn’t find a way to say something.”
Filled with anger and frustration, Chavez took to Instagram to share her story.
“I said that yes, I was raped in the eighth grade on a school stage,” Burke continued. “And yes, I was molested at seven years old. And no, that it’s not funny and all we can do is be there for the people who have gone through it or are maybe going through it.”
Burke admitted that the attention she has received because of the movement has been overwhelming for her at times. “I cannot describe what it feels like to daily be inundated with people asking for help,” she said. “I spent probably the whole month of November feeling crippled, feeling like a failure even.”
Burke is now working with a team to devise an 18-month plan to turn the movement into something more than just a hashtag. Her first goal is to build a website that will provide resources and information for survivors as well as allies. Once the website is up and running, Burke wants to bring Me Too into physical spaces as well, creating Alcoholics Anonymous-style group counseling sessions for survivors.
“One of the gaps in services is that people can’t afford therapy,” she said. “We need to find ways to help people right now so we’re creating a curriculum for people and a process where they can be trained to do healing circles.”
Although the heart of the Me Too movement is centered on healing through community action, Burke also highlighted the importance of fighting sexual violence and harassment on the governmental level.
In the hours leading up to the public forum, Burke met with a host of elected officials and community leaders including New York State Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino and Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn for a closed legislative roundtable. They brainstormed how to curtail sexual violence and provide resources for survivors through policy initiatives.
“It’s so important to ensure that this hashtag turned viral moment turned movement, turns into lasting social and cultural change that will actually reduce victimization,” said Hahn, who revealed that she too was a survivor of sexual assault.
“My hope is that these conversations don’t end and that they’re not predicated on having somebody like me to bring people together,” Burke said “This is a pandemic. There’s no part of our lives that sexual violence doesn’t touch whether it’s harassment or murder. We have to really have open honest dialogue that leads to action.”