Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke: Me Too is a movement, not a moment

In 2006, Tarana Burke was consumed by a desire to do something about the sexual violence she saw in her community. She took out a piece of paper, wrote "Me Too" across the top and laid out an action plan for a movement centered on the power of empathy between survivors. More than a decade later, she reflects on what has since become a global movement -- and makes a powerful call to dismantle the power and privilege that are building blocks of sexual violence. "We owe future generations nothing less than a world free of sexual violence," she says. "I believe we can build that world."


I've been trying to figure out what I was going to say here for months. Because there's no bigger stage than TED, it felt like getting my message right in this moment was more important than anything. And so I searched and searched for days on end, trying to find the right configuration of words. And although intellectually, I could bullet point the big ideas that I wanted to share about Me Too and this movement that I founded, I kept finding myself falling short of finding the heart. I wanted to pour myself into this moment and tell you why even the possibility of healing or interrupting sexual violence was worth standing and fighting for. I wanted to rally you to your feet with an uplifting speech about the important work of fighting for the dignity and humanity of survivors. But I don't know if I have it.

The reality is, after soldiering through the Supreme Court nomination process and attacks from the White House, gross mischaracterizations, internet trolls and the rallies and marches and heart-wrenching testimonies, I'm faced with my own hard truth. I'm numb. And I'm not surprised. I've traveled all across the world giving talks, and like clockwork, after every event, more than one person approaches me so that they can say their piece in private. And I always tried to reassure them. You know, I'd give them local resources and a soft reassurance that they're not alone and this is their movement, too. I'd tell them that we're stronger together and that this is a movement of survivors and advocates doing things big and small every day.

And more and more people are joining this movement every single day. That part is clear. People are putting their bodies on the line and raising their voices to say, "Enough is enough."

So why do I feel this way? Well ... Someone with credible accusations of sexual violence against him was confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, again. The US President, who was caught on tape talking about how he can grab women's body parts wherever he wants, however he wants, can call a survivor a liar at one of his rallies, and the crowds will roar. And all across the world, where Me Too has taken off, Australia and France, Sweden, China and now India, survivors of sexual violence are all at once being heard and then vilified. And I've read article after article bemoaning ... wealthy white men who have landed softly with their golden parachutes, following the disclosure of their terrible behavior. And we're asked to consider their futures.

But what of survivors? This movement is constantly being called a watershed moment, or even a reckoning, but I wake up some days feeling like all evidence points to the contrary.

It's hard not to feel numb. I suspect some of you may feel numb, too. But let me tell you what else I know. Sometimes when you hear the word "numb," you think of a void, an absence of feelings, or even the inability to feel. But that's not always true. Numbness can come from those memories that creep up in your mind that you can't fight off in the middle of the night. They can come from the tears that are locked behind your eyes that you won't give yourself permission to cry. For me, numbness comes from looking in the face of survivors and knowing everything to say but having nothing left to give. It's measuring the magnitude of this task ahead of you versus your own wavering fortitude. Numbness is not always the absence of feeling. Sometimes it's an accumulation of feelings. And as survivors, we often have to hold the truth of what we experience. But now, we're all holding something, whether we want to or not. Our colleagues are speaking up and speaking out, industries across the board are reexamining workplace culture, and families and friends are having hard conversations about closely held truths. Everybody is impacted.

And then, there's the backlash. We've all heard it. "The Me Too Movement is a witch hunt." Right? "Me Too is dismantling due process." Or, "Me Too has created a gender war." The media has been consistent with headline after headline that frames this movement in ways that make it difficult to move our work forward, and right-wing pundits and other critics have these talking points that shift the focus away from survivors. So suddenly, a movement that was started to support all survivors of sexual violence is being talked about like it's a vindictive plot against men. And I'm like, "Huh?"

(Laughter)

How did we get here?

We have moved so far away from the origins of this movement that started a decade ago, or even the intentions of the hashtag that started just a year ago, that sometimes, the Me Too movement that I hear some people talk about is unrecognizable to me.

But be clear: This is a movement about the one-in-four girls and the one-in-six boys who are sexually assaulted every year and carry those wounds into adulthood. It's about the 84 percent of trans women who will be sexually assaulted this year and the indigenous women who are three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group. Or people with disabilities, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused. It's about the 60 percent of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18, and the thousands and thousands of low-wage workers who are being sexually harassed right now on jobs that they can't afford to quit.

This is a movement about the far-reaching power of empathy. And so it's about the millions and millions of people who, one year ago, raised their hands to say, "Me too," and their hands are still raised while the media that they consume erases them and politicians who they elected to represent them pivot away from solutions. It's understandable that the push-pull of this unique, historical moment feels like an emotional roller-coaster that has rendered many of us numb. This accumulation of feelings that so many of us are experiencing together, across the globe, is collective trauma.

But ... it is also the first step towards actively building a world that we want right now. What we do with this thing that we're all holding is the evidence that this is bigger than a moment. It's the confirmation that we are in a movement. And the most powerful movements have always been built around what's possible, not just claiming what is right now.

Trauma halts possibility. Movement activates it.

Dr. King famously quoted Theodore Parker saying, "The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice." We've all heard this quote. But somebody has to bend it. The possibility that we create in this movement and others is the weight leaning that arc in the right direction. Movements create possibility, and they are built on vision.

My vision for the Me Too Movement is a part of a collective vision to see a world free of sexual violence, and I believe we can build that world. Full stop. But in order to get there, we have to dramatically shift a culture that propagates the idea that vulnerability is synonymous with permission and that bodily autonomy is not a basic human right. In other words, we have to dismantle the building blocks of sexual violence: power and privilege. So much of what we hear about the Me Too Movement is about individual bad actors or depraved, isolated behavior, and it fails to recognize that anybody in a position of power comes with privilege, and it renders those without that power more vulnerable. Teachers and students, coaches and athletes, law enforcement and citizen, parent and child: these are all relationships that can have an incredible imbalance of power. But we reshape that imbalance by speaking out against it in unison and by creating spaces to speak truth to power. We have to reeducate ourselves and our children to understand that power and privilege doesn't always have to destroy and take -- it can be used to serve and build. And we have to reeducate ourselves to understand that, unequivocally, every human being has the right to walk through this life with their full humanity intact.

Part of the work of the Me Too Movement is about the restoration of that humanity for survivors, because the violence doesn't end with the act. The violence is also the trauma that we hold after the act. Remember, trauma halts possibility. It serves to impede, stagnate, confuse and kill. So our work rethinks how we deal with trauma.

For instance, we don't believe that survivors should tell the details of their stories all the time. We shouldn't have to perform our pain over and over again for the sake of your awareness. We also try to teach survivors to not lean into their trauma, but to lean into the joy that they curate in their lives instead. And if you don't find it, create it and lean into that. But when your life has been touched by trauma, sometimes trying to find joy feels like an insurmountable task. Now imagine trying to complete that task while world leaders are discrediting your memories or the news media keeps erasing your experience, or people continuously reduce you to your pain. Movement activates possibility.

There's folklore in my family, like most black folks, about my great-great-grandaddy, Lawrence Ware. He was born enslaved, his parents were enslaved, and he had no reason to believe that a black man in America wouldn't die a slave. And yet, legend has it that when he was freed by his enslavers, he walked from Georgia to South Carolina so that he could find the wife and child that he was separated from. And every time I hear this story, I think to myself, "How could he do this? Wasn't he afraid that he would be captured and killed by white vigilantes, or he would get there and they would be gone?" And so I asked my grandmother once why she thought that he took this journey up, and she said, "I guess he had to believe it was possible."

I have been propelled by possibility for most of my life. I am here because somebody, starting with my ancestors, believed I was possible.

In 2006, 12 years ago, I laid across a mattress on my floor in my one-bedroom apartment, frustrated with all the sexual violence that I saw in my community. I pulled out a piece of paper, and I wrote "Me Too" on the top of it, and I proceeded to write out an action plan for building a movement based on empathy between survivors that would help us feel like we can heal, that we weren't the sum total of the things that happened to us. Possibility is a gift, y'all. It births new worlds, and it births visions.

I know some of y'all are tired, because I'm tired. I'm exhausted, and I'm numb. Those who came before us didn't win every fight, but they didn't let it kill their vision. It fueled it. So I can't stop, and I'm asking you not to stop either.

We owe future generations a world free of sexual violence. I believe we can build that world. Do you?

Thank you.

(Applause)