The Big Issue : Edition 556
COURTESYOFFAKTUM/INSP.NGO.PHOTOBYPONTUSHÖÖK THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 23 FEB–8 MAR 2018 19 FAIRY LIGHTS ARE floating above the streets and at the Brooklyn Bridge Bistro in New York the speakers are bursting with loud music. Tarana Burke enters the restaurant wearing a bright red coat. The long-time activist and senior director at Girls for Gender Equity tells me that her life has become divided into before and after #metoo. It began one Sunday morning at the end of October. A friend tagged Burke in a Facebook status using #metoo. The friend wanted to know if she was behind the post. She wasn’t. But it was hard to ignore the fact that someone was using Me Too virally. Burke went on Twitter and immediately panicked. “I thought all the work I had done the past 10 years would be overshadowed and that people wouldn’t understand that it’s not just about words. I didn’t know what to do,” says Burke, stirring her mint tea. On the other side of the country, actor Alyssa Milano had borrowed the phrase Me Too. Following The New York Times’ and The New Yorker’s exposé of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults, Milano encouraged anyone who’d been sexually harassed or assaulted to tweet #metoo to spotlight the “magnitude of the problem”. Within 24 hours it had been used online by more than five million people around the world. Milano later acknowledged Burke as the founder of the #metoo revolution. The two are now friends. As a 21-year-old, Burke was a leader at a youth camp. While there, a 13-year- old girl disclosed that her stepfather had raped her. Burke found it difficult to respond; it had triggered memories of rape she herself had repressed. That time she was unable to say “me too”. “I felt guilty and ashamed,” she says, “but I have also realised that I was only 21 myself.” Ten years after meeting the girl, Burke founded Just Be Inc, a non-profit youth organisation focused on the health and wellbeing of women of colour. After one workshop, she asked the students to write down two things they’d learned, as well as the phrase Me Too, if they’d been victim of sexual assault. “When we got home we saw how many people had written Me Too. Almost everyone. It was horrible and we weren’t prepared for it,” Burke recalls. She had given the survivors a voice. It was 2006, before hashtags, so they posted about it on the group’s MySpace page. Their aim was to start conversations, and provide “empowerment through empathy”. They were overwhelmed by the response. After Me Too was reborn as a hashtag last year, Burke spent the first two weeks giving more than 60 interviews for radio, TV and print. At the same time, she struggled to find her place in #metoo; her Me Too was different from the hashtag. The Me Too of Tarana Burke is a platform for survivors of sexual assault, while #metoo has a wider use. But one makes way for the other, Burke says. She draws an imaginary line on the restaurant table to demonstrate the broad spectrum of gender-related violence; from sexual harassment to deadly violence. “Sexual harassment creates an environment where sexual violence can thrive,” she explains. “Workplaces, for example, need to have strict limitations on what’s acceptable and what’s not.” I ask her about the backlash against the movement, of complaints that #metoo is excessive and taking the fun out of flirting and the joy out of sex. “How about learning how to flirt? It doesn’t have to involve touching or harassing anyone,” she says. “Think of all the women who have carried shame, guilt and fear for decades, who have looked at themselves in the mirror and felt that their value has been reduced. Sit in it! “That’s how change happens, by staying in what’s uncomfortable,” she says, slapping her palm against the table: “Sit in it! Burke is aware #metoo has been criticised for leaving behind the people it set out to protect. The movement she pioneered to empower young black women had been co-opted by a coverage of #metoo testimonies that prioritised the experiences of famous white, rich and cis women. And Burke admits she’s afraid that marginalised groups will be left out, not keeping up with the movement. “The people with the strongest voices have to invite the rest,” she says. “Some of them understand that, other people think that they can speak for ‘those who have no voice’. But we all have voices, some are just too loud for the others to be heard.” For Burke, Me Too has always been about making change. She is working on a durable plan for the organisation. They are going to offer online tools to help people host Me Too events in their home towns, covering lectures and workshops with the purpose of preventing sexual violence. She also wants to introduce human rights-based sex education into schools, starting in preschool when children are aware of gender and able to understand the meaning of boundaries. The clock is almost at 10pm. Burke yawns and picks up her phone to check if her daughter Kaia has tried to get in touch. “You should have met her,” she says, leaning forward to show me a photo of the 20-year-old. She met Kaia’s dad in high school. He was the only person she could imagine starting a family with because she trusted him, trusted that he would protect her. But not enough to tell him that she, as a child, had been raped multiple times. “For a long time I blamed myself. I didn’t distrust men, I distrusted myself. To others I could say ‘it wasn’t your fault’ but I couldn’t say that to myself. But loving has been hard for me, I just haven’t found the right one,” Burke says. Kaia knows what her mother has gone through, and has had a rough time herself. “I’m glad that we get along so well and that I can offer her the kind of support that my mother didn’t show me,” says Burke. “This is a battle we can win and the achievement will be for the good of all humankind.” With that, we take a selfie outside the bistro, before she takes a cab home to Harlem. by Sandra Pandevski » Translated from Swedish by Liv Vistisen Rörby TEN YEARS AGO, TARANA BURKE FOUNDED ME TOO TO SUPPORT YOUNG GIRLS OF COLOUR. TODAY, #METOO HAS BECOME A GLOBAL MOVEMENT AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND ASSAULT.