Whether you call yourself a victim, a survivor or a thriver, there are allies who want to help and there
are so many pathways to healing.
“Our work is about healing and action,” said Tarana Burke, who spoke on the Bowling Green State
University campus Tuesday as part of the Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories lecture series, hosted
by University Libraries.
Her campaign, the #MeToo movement, has emerged as a rallying cry for people everywhere who have survived
sexual assault and sexual harassment.
A sexual assault survivor herself, Burke is now working to assist other survivors and those who work to
end sexual violence.
“Every hashtag is a human being, and we have forgotten that. We’re trading on the labor of survivors and
we’re not giving them anything in return.”
There is no silver bullet, Burke said. She is one person who had one idea and knew it was a good idea.
“This is a movement made up of ordinary people who can do extraordinary things. It is going to take all
of us doing what we can at our capacity to move the needle even a little bit.”
The phrase “me too” developed into a broader movement following the 2017 use of #MeToo as a hashtag
following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations.
Since that time, people around the world have raised their hands and said, “me too,” Burke said.
“They’re still waiting. … They’re counting on us. Hell, they are us.
“We have to recognize the urgency of this moment,” she said, comparing this movement to the Black Lives
“But we don’t have the same urgency in this moment, because people can’t see our wounds. … We are
literally the walking wounded.”
Burke described herself as a Bronx nationalist, and said she was sexually abused at age 6.
But the credo in her family was “our business was our business.”
At the age of 14, she got involved with the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement. She said she could
identify injustice, but didn’t know how to get involved.
While at Auburn University, she formed the African-American Student Alliance. She started attending a
21st Century Leadership camp in Selma, where every year the conversation would shift to sexual violence.
“I never told. I listened every year,” Burke said.
By the age of 21, she thought herself as complicit in the crime and created a persona where she told
people “I lost my virginity at 6.”
In 1996, Burke had a girl she has called “Heaven” at camp, who approached her to talk.
“She made a beeline for me. I knew with every fiber of my being what she wanted to talk to me about. And
I wanted no part of it.
“The guilt still creeps up a little bit,” Burke said, explaining that at age 22 she was still trying to
figure everything out for herself.
“This child really pulled a thread. She was about to put a crack in the seam I was not ready for.”
“I listened for as long as I could … I could not deal … and just cut her off and said I could not help
What happened to Burke in that moment, the look of disappointment on Heaven’s face, left a mark on her
It’s not a pretty story, but the words “me too” came from Burke’s inability to say them.
“Survivors so desperately want to be seen, to be validated, for even a second. That’s really what #MeToo
She continued to work with young people and determined if 75% of the girls in the class have been
sexually abused, and 100% came from the same community, then there is a community problem.
That need for community conversation led her to create a MySpace page to show the work being done.
“Imagine the shock we had when mostly women from around the country started reaching out to us to thank
us for starting this.”
The women Burke worked with were all survivors, but it hadn’t occurred to them that other women needed
support as well. This is how the movement started; it grew in communities, schools and rape crisis
“If I could fill a room like this in 2017, trust me I wouldn’t be talking about #MeToo. I’m not surprised
at how much it’s spread. I’m surprised we’re still talking about it.”
She spoke in the Lenhart Grand Ballroom of Bowen-Thompson Student Union, which seated more than 350, with
more standing in the back. Most of the audience was women.
She is not surprised the movement spread like it did, saying sexual violence does not discriminate. Now,
almost two years into this moment, there is an international dialogue around sexual violence.
“But we haven’t seen a culture shift. And I need people to stop saying that. Check the numbers. What we
have is the first layer,” she said. “You know this is just the beginning.”
In the last two years, she has realized people don’t understand what it’s going to take to create a
Calling out people like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein isn’t going to stop systemic violence, she said to
Burke compared it to whack-a-mole.
“It’s a distraction. If we’re going to talk about individual bad actors, then we’re going to talk about
unchecked accumulations of power.”
“#MeToo is for us, not for you. We’re not pouring our hearts out so you can pass legislation.”
Her work also includes stopping sexual violence through community action.
The university is the first community many of the students in the room will experience.
“And you deserve safety on this campus and in this community,” Burke said.
There should be a commitment to making this university less vulnerable to sexual violence. She then
turned to the administrators and challenged them to think about their work to prevent sexual violence on
Burke read off the strategic objectives for BGSU, then added her own.
Student success should be redefined to include the mental, emotional and well-being of each student, so
they have a premium social experience as well as learning experience, Burke said.
“Students feel empowered and supported when they feel safe,” she said. “If you want excellence out of
your students, you need to prioritize their safety and their protection as well.”
Finally, when telling BGSU’s story, include the challenges and the successes.
“Be an example of accountability for your students … on how to do it until you get it right,” Burke said.
“It only looks better for the school to be a school that exemplifies safety for their students.”
Karen Johnson-Webb, on the faculty at BGSU, was seen nodding her head several times as Burke spoke.
“She clarified the message for us, that it’s not about an audience, it’s about the healing of a
survivor,” she said.
Cameron Spitzsaden, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said the message shared is very important.
“There’s a layer that the media is missing, which is how much work this is. There’s not just some magical
fix and it’s not enough to just have awareness.”
He admitted sexual abuse doesn’t affect guys as often, but it is something they should fix, starting with
the way “we talk about sexual assault, instead of ignoring it. As guys we need to speak up if we hear
something has happened.”
Bryce Davis, a graduate student, agreed with Spitzsaden that men need to get involved.
“As a male, it’s important that men are engaged in this work as well. It is my role and my right to stand
up for these issues as well. We need to use our privilege to enact change.”
He agreed with Burke’s message to focus on safety in the school’s mission.
“It’s important, when we talk about safety … and with the conversation around sexual violence, we’re also
talking about other forms of safety,” Davis said. “We’re talking about racial safety, we’re talking
about gender safety, we’re talking about sexual orientation safety.
“I think this institution is working towards that, but I still think it has a lot of work to continue to
“We as individuals need to stop relying on the stories of survivors to push this issue forward. We
already know the stories exist. … We should not be reliant on those stories to continue to do the work,”