The woman behind ‘Me Too’ knew the power of the phrase when she created it — 10 years ago
‘If you’re compelled to do a thing, just do something’
#MeToo, the viral awareness campaign that inspired millions of posts on Facebook and Twitter, did not begin with Alyssa Milano. It didn’t even begin as a response to the dozens of women who have spoken out about the alleged sexual misconduct of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. It did not begin in 2017.
More than a decade ago, Tarana Burke identified the power of the phrase. Burke has experienced sexual assault, and she wanted to do something to help women and girls — particularly those of color — who had also survived sexual violence.
Burke founded the “Me Too” movement in 2006. She’s in the middle of working on a documentary, called “Me Too,” that comes out next year.
“Me Too” grew out of Burke’s work with young girls. Burke, 44, grew up in the Bronx and has spent most of the past 25 years as an activist and organizer around the country, working to help young people in marginalized communities.
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In Alabama, Burke worked at an organization that ran a youth camp. There was a girl there — Burke publicly calls her Heaven when she tells this story — who clung to her. “People would call her trouble,” Burke said. “And she was trouble, because she was a survivor.” Heaven was about 13 years old.
One day, Heaven wanted to talk to Burke privately. She began to tell Burke about the sexual violence she had survived. “I was not ready,” Burke said. “When she disclosed, I rejected her.” She sent her to someone else.
Heaven never came back to the camp. Burke doesn’t know what happened to her.
The guilt Burke felt became a refrain, a repeated question: “Why couldn’t you just say ‘me too?’ ”
What came next was a lot of thought — about what she had survived, what had helped her, and how that might become something meaningful she could do for others.
“When I started putting the pieces together of what helped me,” Burke said, “it was having other survivors empathize with me.”
This was how “Me Too” started. In 2006, a year before the movement would get its first grant, Burke started a MySpace page for the movement she wanted to create. Neither Burke nor The Washington Post could find that original MySpace page, but Burke remembers its effect.
Adult women began responding to the MySpace page. A designer donated 1,000 “Me Too” T-shirts. Burke still wears one of them when she speaks publicly about the movement. Another supporter made them a real website.
As interest grew, Burke realized that the need for “Me Too” was bigger than she first thought. “This is not just about our small community,” she recalled thinking. “This is necessary. People are crying for it.”
In a week, the viral #MeToo hashtag will no longer be news. But for Burke, “Me Too” is long-term.
The viral campaign created hope and inspiration, Burke said, but “hope and inspiration are only sustained by work.”
One of the things that concerns Burke about the spread of #MeToo is whether those who helped to inspire women to disclose their stories of survival are prepared for what comes next.
“If I had to do it myself, we would be prepared to support people,” Burke said, to emphasize “that you are not obligated to disclose,” and that women seeing #MeToo fill up their timelines should feel no guilt about checking out to take care of themselves.
“I just know what happens,” she said. “I’ve seen it so many times when women feel so emboldened all at once. There’s a cycle that people go through that requires support, even in just saying ‘Me, too.’”
Burke also encouraged survivors activated by #MeToo to get involved with small, local organizations.
“If you’re compelled to do a thing, just do something,” she said. Get trained to volunteer on a sexual violence hotline. Donate to a charity that supports survivors.
For those, however, who feel like they’re drowning in #MeToo, Burke had this advice: “Disconnect, don’t feel guilty about it. . . . Do that work at your own pace. Six months from now if you want to say ‘me too,’ it’s there. It exists forever.”