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Me Too Movement founder speaks about sexual violence

Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too Movement, speaks to a room of about 800 people last week during a fundraiser for Our Voice in Buncombe County. Ariel Shumaker Photography Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too Movement, speaks to a room of about 800 people last week during a fundraiser for Our Voice in Buncombe County. Ariel Shumaker Photography

In 24 short hours, more than 12 million people posted a personal message on social media using the #MeToo hashtag. It was one of the most powerful moments in history in the fight to end sexual violence, but the movement’s founder Tarana Burke said the moment will pass by without any real change unless supporters stay focused on the real message.

“We have work to do. We’re in a unique historic moment but we can’t stop. We’ll squander it if we focus on the wrong things,” she told a room of about 800 people in Asheville last week.

In order to achieve the cultural change needed to end sexual violence, Burke said there needs to a sense of urgency that’s just not there yet with the Me Too Movement.

“With Black Lives Matter, we were seeing bodies dead in the street — there was a sense of urgency, but with Me Too, they can’t see our wounds,” she said. “We need to recognize the urgency of this movement — I don’t know how much time we have.”

As the national media outlets continue to focus on the high-profile perpetrators, Burke encouraged those in attendance to stay focused on the survivors and giving those survivors an understanding and safe place to turn for support in their respective communities.

That’s what Our Voice — Buncombe County’s rape crisis and prevention center — did last week when it welcomed Burke to be the speaker at the nonprofit’s inaugural Break the Silence Speaker Series. As Our Voice Executive Director Angelica Wind told the audience, the need for services has only increased since the Me Too Movement went viral in 2017.

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“We’ve seen a 26 percent increase in calls since the Me Too Movement exploded,” Wind said. “I don’t think there’s been an increase in violence, I think there’s just more people coming forward because we’ve created a space where survivors feel they can come forward.”

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds and every five minutes that sexual assault victim is a child. One out of every six American women has experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

Burke is one of those women — she survived sexual abuse as a child and as a teenager growing up in the Bronx. Raised in a strong Afro-American family, Burke had a mother that exposed her to Black feminist literature at an early age and a grandfather that made sure she read the Bible as well as a black history book.

While Burke grew up in a very socially conscience household and was involved in social justice causes at an early age, she said the unspoken rule in her house was “our business is our business,” which is why she kept her abuse a secret for so long.

As a young woman, Burke worked for 21st Century at a Youth Leadership Camp in Selma, Alabama. A young girl came to her one day desperate to share with her what had happened at home. Burke said everything about the girl felt so familiar to her, she knew what she was going to tell her.

“She talked to me about the things her mother’s boyfriend had done to her and my body felt sick and I started feeling lightheaded and in my mind in that moment I didn’t know what to say. I was so scared. In my heart and what was on my spirit was to say ‘this happened to me too,’” Burke recalled. “But, I had never said it out loud — not to anybody and I definitely wasn’t going to say it to this child. It felt selfish and it felt like it was not enough. I finally said ‘I can’t help you’ and I saw the disappointment in her face just for second and then I saw her switch gears and put that tough girl back on and walk away.” 

Now looking back on the moment, Burke wishes she would have just said, “Me too” because it’s what she was feeling — it was all she had to offer at the time and it was more than anyone had ever said to her about what she had gone through. So when people tell her how courageous she is now, Burke thinks about the courage it took for that 12-year-old girl to come to her that day and put into words what had happened to her. 

In 2007, Burke created Justbe Inc., an organization committed to the empowerment and wellness of black girls. The nonprofit was focused on giving young girls the language they needed to be able to come forward and say something when they were being abused, but what she found was that adult survivors of abuse were looking for the same support and acceptance as well. All of a sudden people were talking about it and finding their own ways of healing and moving forward.

Fast forward to present day, organizations like Our Voice and other sexual assault and domestic violence organizations in communities are working hard every day to bring attention to the issue and help survivors. Burke said Me Too has helped push the conversation to the forefront but that she’s still waiting for more change to come, including the reauthorization of The Violence Against Women Act.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expired in December amid the government shutdown and never got reauthorized because the legislation became tied to a larger budget debate over funding for a border wall. VAWA helps fund a number of local programs for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, which is why Burke encouraged everyone to call their congressmen and demand it be reauthorized.

At the heart of the Me Too Movement is getting society to reach a deeper understanding of sexual violence and what it means to be a survivor. Burke said we have to take a closer look at the systems of oppression that have been allowed to perpetuate in our culture and why.

“We have to pull back the narrative and stop the misperceptions. Me Too is not about bringing down powerful men. It’s about unchecked power and misused privilege — these are the ingredients of oppression,” she said. “We have to start asking ourselves how did we get here, how do we stop in and how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

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