#MeToo founder Tarana Burke talks the movement, surviving, finding joy
Founder of the #MeToo movement Tarana Burke took the stage at the Wharton Center's Cobb Great Hall Thursday evening and answered questions about the movement she helped create while she discussed the future of healing for sexual abuse survivors.
Burke's appearance at MSU came as part of the "Transformative Justice Speaker Series." Xhercis Méndez, an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and the African American and African Studies program, introduced Burke.
Those who have experienced sexual assault, abuse or harassment have used #MeToo to signify to others they are not alone.
Burke coined the term "Me Too" in 2006, long before the phrase would be popularized by Alyssa Milano in a tweet following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse reports in 2017. Burke said she has worked for 12 years to promote healing among sexual abuse survivors since first using the term.
"I had no idea that my work would be thrust into the spotlight six months ago, and that people would listen, and that people would even believe that a 44-year-old black lady from the Bronx had created a thing that could help people all over the world," Burke said. "But they did. Who knew?"
Burke touched on a number of topics during her appearance, such as the intersectionality of the movement, institutional change in systems such as MSU and her journey in coping with the trauma of sexual abuse.
Burke also fielded questions during a press conference prior to the event. She discussed the characterization of the movement by some as a "witch hunt," defining justice for individual survivors and MSU's response to the sexual abuse of ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
Burke said it's important to be careful and honest about the language of "surviving" sexual abuse. She said young people have told her often "I can't wait to be like you," and "I can't wait to heal," but surviving is never truly that simple: It's hard, daunting and not pretty.
"We don't talk enough about survival, every day, what survival looks like," Burke said. "Being a survivor is an act of deciding every day that you're going to wake up and survive."
Even now, Burke said one out of seven days, she can't do it. But surviving is better than victimhood and being wrapped in your trauma, she said.
Burke refers to #MeToo as a "joy movement." She explained why joy was necessary to her healing process: Very early into her healing, she realized she had allowed her trauma to define her personality, she said.
"It was not just what happened, it's the kind of person I thought I was because of it," Burke said. "I am a three-time survivor of sexual violence, and by the third time I had decided, 'Oh, I'm just the kind of girl this happens to.'"
When Burke was pregnant with her daughter, it became very important for her to find a way to "save" her, to help her live a life of joy even if Burke couldn't, she said.
By writing in a journal when she felt depressed, Burke was able to "curate" joy in her life.
"I used to think joy was fake and the trauma was who I really was," Burke said. "And then I discovered, 'Oh my God, this is who you are, and if you would just lean into the joy more than you do the trauma, you could do this for real.' And so it became a practice, like a muscle. I became obsessive about it."
Burke said she feels a deep responsibility for the lives she encounters, to scream something that works from the rooftops even if it only works for five people.
"This is what the movement is about, it's about filling in the gaps," Burke said, tearing up. "All of these programs and services, they can't all help. Sometimes we've got to figure out how to help ourselves, and when you figure something out, even if it's just a little thing, tell somebody else."
Burke said she prays somebody will figure out something that helps sexual abuse survivors even more than #MeToo, whether it's in two years, five years or six months. She entered and exited the stage to a standing ovation.
"My prayer is that somebody will be touched by this moment and this movement so much, and they'll figure out some next thing that I never thought of, and then they'll help another generation of people," Burke said.
"It's not about me."