Tarana Burke isn’t used to all this attention, the cameras, the interviews, the phone calls. To see her life’s work, the “Me Too” movement, displayed on millions of profiles across social media, to see women who’ve experienced sexual trauma or harassment speaking up and empathizing, has left her in awe. Actress Alyssa Milano amplified the message, encouraging survivors to post #MeToo if they’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault. But it was Burke, 44, who originated the idea more than a decade ago through her work, particularly with young women of color. The Globe caught up with Burke by phone Wednesday.
Could you describe the moment when you saw #MeToo begin trending on Twitter?
A girlfriend of mine tagged me in a post Sunday morning and she said, “Look Tarana.” I think she thought I had done it. Honestly my initial reaction was sort of panic for a few reasons. One, I’ve seen things like this happen where it feels like my life’s work is being blown up in a way that is not how I intended or the way I would do it, if I had a choice. But, as I watched it grow, this is exactly what I knew about the power of these words -- that’s why I chose them.
Does the online response having you thinking about what’s next for your work?
In many regards Me Too is about survivors talking to survivors. It was never really about amplifying the number of people who are survivors of sexual violence. It was about survivors exchanging empathy with each other. But when I talk to young people, I use pop culture to promote the idea of Me Too all the time. We have to have something that reaches the masses. That’s what I’ve always known Me Too could do. This viral moment is just confirmation that vision was real and was possible.
How do you control this movement now?
You know? I don’t think I do. I think that my work is my work. And thanks to the media attention and these conversations, I think people are clear that this is work that I started and I hope people realize that I will continue it. It’s bigger than me. But I do think it helps amplify the work that I do and puts it on a larger stage and I’m grateful for that. I actually did talk to Alyssa Milano yesterday. She reached out to me on social media and she seems committed to keep pushing forward.
How how do we tell these stories without traumatizing people?
You literally in this moment cannot go on social media without being bombarded with stories of trauma. So it’s re-triggering and it’s traumatic for people. I’m very concerned about that. I think I would count this as a win in the movement, this moment, but it’s not the whole movement. I think people should recognize there’s so much work to be done.
How do you make sure marginalized voices are included in this conversation?
I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out to be to be quite honest. That’s another big fear of mine. I don’t want that to be lost. You know sexual violence knows no race or color or gender or class. But the response to sexual violence does. And so what we’re looking at right now is a response to sexual violence. And in these moments, the most marginalized voices always get overshadowed. And that’s who I represent in every space I go into, in every room I bring those voices with me. My work will never lose focus on the least of these, on the queer folks, on disabled folks, people with disabilities, what happens when you’re a little black girl, a little brown girl. That is who I champion and I will always.
There’s been a question of whether the “me too” movement is split in two groups: those who’ve been assaulted and those who suffered varied degrees of harassment.
I don’t think it should be split. I think that Me Too is for everybody. I think it’s important that people feel validated. If your “me too” was about sexual harassment versus sexual assault but it’s traumatizing to you, then it’s important for you to be heard and to be seen. I don’t want to get into splitting hairs. Trauma is trauma. I’m not in a position to quantify or qualify people’s trauma.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.