The 19-year-old catches up with the fellow activist, who sowed the seeds of the movement two decades before Hollywood turned it into a hashtag
#MeToo’s roots can be traced back to 1997 when Tarana Burke was speaking with a 13-year-old girl. The teen was telling her about her experiences of being sexually abused and Burke found herself at a loss for words. A decade later, still upset by the conversation, Burke launched Just Be Inc. – a not-for-profit, African-centred all-girls program. As more young girls came forward with experiences of sexual violence and/or assault, Burke founded a new movement to provide more specific support, named “Me Too”.
In October 2017, those words gained immense traction as a hashtag on social media as actress Alyssa Milano tweeted them in response to the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, encouraging women to share their own stories of abuse as a means of solidarity with one another. Women of colour were quick to point out that the movement wasn’t started by Milano but instead had been going strong – with little support from white feminists – for two decades, courtesy of Burke.
Recently, 19-year-old poet laureate Amanda Gorman sat down with Burke to talk candidly about intersectionality, solidarity, and community. The chat was arranged by Irregular Labs – a self-described think-tank-slash-platform actively run by teens – as part of its second The Irregular Report. Tired of being silenced by an out-of-touch generation of decision makers, Irregular brought together a global network of young women shaking up everything from music to culture, fashion to politics, to lend their insights and opinions. Read Burke and Gorman’s conversation in full below.
Amanda Gorman: It’s an honour to be on the phone with you! Wow, I’m going to tell my mom later. But for now I’m going to ask you a few questions and if there is anything that I don’t touch upon that you would like to add just let me know and we will get that in there.
Tarana Burke: Thank you, okay.
Amanda Gorman: On Twitter, you’ve talked a lot recently about receiving accolades and the mobilisation of the term “me too,” but I also know that, for you, it’s not all about attending the Golden Globes or being on the cover of Time. So, what I’m interested in knowing is what is the impact you’re most glad to see within the last few months of the #MeToo movement?
Tarana Burke: I think that just having the opportunity to have an expanded platform, and to have this conversation be in the national dialogue for an extensive period of time is really pretty amazing. Some of the most impactful things are being able to use the media strategically to spark more conversation around sexual violence. And also to be able to set the agenda or try to set the agenda around how we should move forward and have an expanded platform on which to do so. But I also think that it’s really impactful for black women and girls to have somebody who is a literal voice. In body, and mind, and spirit – a voice for the plight of sexual violence in our community.
Amanda Gorman: I 100 per cent agree. I’d love to talk about setting the agenda because I know that’s something you’ve spoken up about in terms of getting acknowledgement, but also the possibility of being erased at the same time. It’s not all about the accolades or the awards, it’s also about setting the agenda of the movement. For you, what does that agenda look like for the #MeToo movement and how is that different from the perspective that people might have from the way that celebrities talk about it?
Tarana Burke Burke: Well, I think that it’s not just celebrities – the way that it’s framed in the mainstream media restricts the conversation to sexual harassment in the workplace, and it should be far more expansive than that. What people have largely responded to since it started is this need for them to give voice to the trauma they experienced across the spectrum of sexual violence. And so I think that has made some people feel left out of the movement.
Amanda Gorman: Absolutely.
Tarana Burke: In terms of race and the people who are talked about, but even the issue itself has sort of been marginalised – I hate to use that word – but it has been marginalised into this one area. Also the idea that this is a movement about taking down powerful men. It seems that anything that happens in relation to sexual misconduct is now called #MeToo in the media. “It’s the era of ‘me too’ or the ‘me too’ movement,” it’s everything like that and really it’s not the movement in terms of setting an agenda and moving forward to define what should be happening. We should be having large-scale examinations of where the gaps are in our country around preventing sexual violence and around providing resources for people who have experienced this. We should be focused on asking what are the needs of the survivors of sexual violence that already exist? And what are the things we have to do on a local, regional, and international level to provide safety for those who are most vulnerable to sexual violence?
Amanda Gorman: I definitely agree, especially around the agenda being so much more than the workplace, or the frames projected by mainstream media. As a young black woman, I notice at times in the mainstream media framing of the “me too” movement you see a white female face or a white male face, and that type of questioning and interrogation needs to happen. That also got me reflecting and thinking about the sexual violence and trauma that also occurs in the black community and whether we are looking very deeply at that as well. I’m not sure if you had thoughts about that as you were talking about the role of black women in this movement as well.
Tarana Burke: I absolutely do because we have a whole different set of issues within the black community and communities of colour. There is a culture of silence and that’s been a part of us for a very, very long time. So, there is an additional body of work that has to happen and an additional layer of conversation that has to happen in our community around this specifically – which is why I think it’s really good for us to constantly push the issue of representation. Who’s being represented? Whose stories are mentioned? I also don’t want us to get lost so deeply in the quest for representation that we don’t have honest conversations about what’s actually happening. And for us to not wait until it’s validated by CNN in order to address the issue that’s been going on.
“We have a whole different set of issues within the black community and communities of colour. There is a culture of silence and that’s been a part of us for a very, very long time” – Tarana Burke
Amanda Gorman: Very true. So that the conversations can occur internally without the need for mainstream media picking it up.
Tarana Burke: Exactly.
Amanda Gorman: A big topic that’s been brought up by your leadership in this movement is that of intersectionality and also solidarity. For example, in the New York Times piece about you, they referenced a lot of tweets about women writing about intersectionality and the need for representation. So, all that to say I was reading about you and in connection with the movement those two words have been used a lot.
I wanted to dive into what they mean for you. What do intersectionality and solidarity mean to you, Ms Burke? And also, are they different?
Tarana Burke: Yeah, in general, they get used a lot nowadays, right?
Amanda Gorman: Definitely.
Tarana Burke: They are just like the new sexy buzzwords used to make people feel like they are a part of the current wave of whatever. But I think at this moment what intersectionality looks like is an acknowledgement – that the people coming forward revealing their experience of sexual violence have multiple identities and we all have multiple realities. So, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am a survivor. I have several different entry points into this work and I’ve had experiences with sexual violence across those different identities. And so, since I’m doing the work with other people, all of that has to be taken into account. That’s really intersectionality. It’s about the acknowledgement of our various identities that we bring with us wherever we go. And if you’re going to build allyship, or what have you, particularly in this movement, you have to acknowledge the fact that people come to the work with different realities. I think that in general white women have become more aware of those things and have become more cognisant of what they bring when they come into those spaces just because there has been so much work that women of colour have done via social media and things like that. For instance, definitely, it was black women who rang the alarm and said this woman started this movement and we should acknowledge her etc. etc... But white women had come in large numbers saying the same thing, that this woman's work should not be erased and you should support her. To me, that is an example of the direct impact that the labour so many women of colour have put in over the last several years has had. To provide an education to white women and white people about how you have to approach being an ally. I feel like I’m seeing some progress in that area but, of course, we also see people who are just using those words as an access code, use the right words here and there, and then they want access into your world.
Amanda Gorman: Yep, it’s the passcode, I agree. This is why I wanted to bring it up. I actually am writing my thesis on the buzzword of intersectionality so that was interesting. And I was glad that you brought up thinking about what those active allyships mean because I was so happy and excited to see that you were on The View, was it yesterday?
Tarana Burke: Yes, yes, yes!
“If you’re going to build allyship, or what have you, particularly in this movement, you have to acknowledge the fact that people come to the work with different realities” – Tarana Burke
Amanda Gorman: I saw it and I was like WHAT!!! They had a Women’s March co-chair, and they had Patrisse Cullors from Black Lives Matter, and they had you!! Can you tell me more about what that was like and maybe more of your views about allyship across these movements – which we see have, of course, different hashtags, they are different movements but it was just really great to see you all represented on a stage. So, what was that like for you?
Tarana Burke: Yeah! You know what, like the folks at The View were saying this was the genius of a sister who came up with the idea to have all three of us. We all three know each other and we’ve all three interacted, all three, separately. It was the first time that we had all come together and we had a discussion about black women in leadership and to talk about our various work. It was a great feeling, it was a great conversation, and I will tell you, both of those women have supported me in ways behind the scenes that other people don’t understand. This is a unique place to fit in, to become suddenly visible to the world and so that means scrutinised and criticised and pulled in some many different directions. They are very good people who understand that and I have not felt an iota of, and I want to say this really clearly because in contrast to what people think happens with women and particularly black women – I’ve not felt an iota of anything but comradery and support. And I’m just thinking about it right now, Tamika and the women from the Women’s March put me on a national stage within days, within a week of me going viral. And the sisters from Black Lives Matter, both Patrisse and Alicia, have consistently made sure to call my name in public spaces and national public spaces and to amplify the work and to keep people aware of our history and the work we’ve done here. And they did that without us having long, deep personal relationships. So, there is an example of the natural and innate allyships that have happened and that I’ve seen happen in many other ways in less physical spaces.
And in terms of working across issue lines, I think what we understand, specifically, black people and people of colour, is that our issue lines are blurred because we really have so much commonality in terms of what we have to work for and against in order to bring justice into our communities. Whether you work on reproductive justice or police rights or women’s rights or voting rights or whatever. There’s still these overarching systems of patriarchy, these overarching systems of the idea of white supremacy, all of them, all of that is something that affects every one of our issues. And so we have to work across issue lines. It’s not just across race, it’s not just across class, it’s across all of that because sometimes we can get siloed into our own particular issues but I think that the gravity of our situation in the country right now is really going to push people to understand that we must work across issue lines in order to really move the needle in a way that benefits us all.
Amanda Gorman: Yay!! I got so excited seeing that.
Tarana Burke: Hahaha, yeah! That conversation was good.
Amanda Gorman: I hope one day that episode becomes a video I have to watch in my sociology class.
Tarana Burke: Awwww.
Amanda Gorman: I know you’re short on time, so I have one last question. We will have a lot of young people reading this report and I was wondering what advice you would give to young people who want to get involved with one of these movements of this contemporary era?
Tarana Burke: Well, Patrisse said this yesterday on The View and I totally agree: in organisations, and grassroots organisations specifically, I believe in the power of community. And so I would say that if you can find a local community organisation to join that is in line with the work you’re trying to do and if you can’t find one and if one doesn’t exist find some like-minded people and get together. I’m not saying you have to build a whole organisation but you can do work within your community with people who think like you think and get a lot done. So I think that’s one thing and also for young people, it’s really important that they are studying right now. Right?
Amanda Gorman: Yes, of course.
Tarana Burke: Study the history of movements that came before you and talk to elders and people who can provide another layer of wisdom to what you’re doing. We live in a new world and there is a new way of doing things. There is digital and all that kinda stuff that they have a handle on but I think that it’s really important that young people starting to do this work know that this is connected to something. There is a thread that runs through decades and there is wisdom to be gleaned from the past, both triumphs and challenges. So they should not come into this thinking that they are inventing the wheel but to have the knowledge of prior movements and to carry that with you while you do your work.
Amanda Gorman: So understanding the broader tapestry, the legacy.
Tarana Burke: Exactly.