Tarana Burke, creator of Me Too, believes you don’t have to sacrifice everything for a cause

Tarana Burke, creator of Me Too, believes you don’t have to sacrifice everything for a cause
Image: AP/Paul Sancya
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If any movement has defined the future of feminism, it’s #MeToo. But the Me Too movement did not begin in 2017 as a hashtag on Twitter: It was created by black civil-rights activist Tarana Burke 10 years earlier, born “in the deepest, darkest place in my soul.”

In 1997, Burke was working at a youth camp predominantly attended by children of color. After an all-girls bonding session, one 13-year-old girl privately tugged Burke aside, with “a deep sadness and a yearning for confession that I read immediately and wanted no part of,” Burke recalls. She tried to walk away, but the girl begged her to listen. “She struggled to tell me about her ‘stepdaddy’ or rather her mother’s boyfriend who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body,” writes Burke. “I was horrified by her words, the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut, and I listened until I literally could not take it anymore.” Burke cut the girl off, sending her to another counselor. “I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper… me too.”

A survivor of sexual violence and a life-long community organizer, Burke never wanted another girl—especially a girl of color—to feel silenced by her abuse. So 10 years after that conversation, Burke created Just Be Inc., a nonprofit helping victims of sexual harassment and assault. She named her movement Me Too, and over the next decade, Burke—who is now senior director of Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity—expanded the Me Too movement through after-school and youth-training programs, along with written and multimedia resources helping sexual-abuse survivors of all ages heal through shared empathy.

Burke initially dreaded that the use of #MeToo would co-opt her life’s work, but she now uses her media spotlight to emphasize the Me Too movement’s core mission. ”Too much of the recent press attention has been focused on perpetrators and does not adequately address the systematic nature of violence, including the importance of race, ethnicity, and economic status in sexual violence and other forms of violence against women,” wrote Burke along with her co-activists in advance of the 2017 Golden Globes, which she attended with actress Michelle Williams. “We believe that women of color, and women who have faced generations of exclusion… should be at the center of our solutions. This moment in time calls for us to use the power of our collective voices to find solutions that leave no woman behind.”

Ultimately, Burke’s movement seeks “to radicalize the notion of mass healing.” Speaking days after #MeToo broke, Burked explained, “As a community, we create a lot of space for fighting and pushing back, but not enough for connecting and healing.”

In an interview with Quartz, Burke explains why you shouldn’t sacrifice everything for a cause, how her movement is about joy, not trauma, and the lay-off stories and pregnancy advice that define both her professional outlook and life’s mission.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

Two things: First, I think in order for us to interrupt sexual violence, we have to center survivors in the solution making. I think that there’s not enough focus on the fact that survivors have the unique experience and the ability to craft solutions that will help to end sexual violence. A big part of the Me Too movement is that it’s driven by survivors supporting one another.

The second idea is about healing from trauma. What’s been happening lately around Me Too is that I’m constantly asked about writing books or doing collections of Me Too stories. People want to give survivors the opportunity to tell their stories, and I wholeheartedly believe in that. I believe that, particularly for survivors who have felt silenced and haven’t had an opportunity to tell their story, they should have that opportunity. But I don’t believe that having the repository of stories about trauma is a way to heal. I feel that one of the strongest pathways to healing is releasing your story, and then doing the work required to begin to heal. This is not really a movement about trauma—it’s a movement about joy. It’s a movement about love and about respect, and it’s about finding the ways that we can cultivate those things in our lives so that we can use them to combat the trauma we’ve experienced.

Sometimes we have to tell our stories to help other people and give them permission to tell theirs, right? Sometimes we have to tell our stories for ourselves, or in service of other people. But just having them available? That’s not the solution. Once a book is written about a bunch of trauma stories, what happens then? I really do believe that this movement should be focused on places where we can cultivate joy and love as a means to progress the healing process.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I just don’t believe that “no” is always a final answer—unless we’re talking about consent. There is always a way to get what you need, and I really believe in taking what you have to make what you need. It’s not really about pushing back against “no,” because sometimes “no” is no—but I’ve had to figure out other ways to get what I need. Like in this case of creating the Me Too movement, I didn’t have resources, I didn’t have money. At one point I didn’t even have a car. There were two people, me and my friend, trying to figure out what we could do to support young people, and we took what we had, which at the time was a body of experience, unfortunately, as survivors of trauma. We created what we needed, which was a way to communicate with other survivors about the possibility for healing.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

While it’s not specific, I would advocate for more policies around transparency—more transparency into professional interactions and more transparency in pay so that people understand where everybody stands and why. If there’s an instance where a man makes more than a woman, there should be something attached to it so that nobody is left questioning why.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not an issue that I work on. But I think such conflicts would also be much easier in the workplace if there were more policies that dealt with transparency around sexual-harassment policies and standards. For example, if there’s a complaint about sexual harassment, that should be publicized or known in some kind of way.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

At the start of my career—not just Me Too, which is not the totality of my career—I wish I would have known that you don’t have to sacrifice everything for a cause. And that self-care and self-preservation is also a tool that is necessary to do the work. It doesn’t make you more loyal to the cause or down for the movement if you sacrifice parts of yourself that you don’t want to.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

In 2013, I was the managing director of a black arts organization in Philadelphia, and we had a severe crisis in funding. Many of the staff tried to warn the leadership that it was coming. We kept saying, “We can’t keep spending this way, we’re going to run out of money,” and we were ignored. As a result, the organization laid off 90% of the staff. That was work that I had really poured myself into and was really, really deeply connected to. I was completely devastated when it happened.

At the same time, I was still doing my work with kids, Just Be, and Me Too. The first positive thing that happened to turn the situation around was that I kept going with my personal work, even though there was no money in it. I didn’t have a contract around Me Too or a contract for Just Be in schools—I just did the work. I left my job in May, so the school year was about to be over, but when the school year started up, we started up again. I had been funding the work from my pay from my last job, and now I didn’t have any pay, I only had unemployment coming in, which was very little money. It was a very hard time. But we kept doing it, and then the school started to pay us. They gave us a contract. That was our first contract in Philadelphia—we had a contract in Alabama from years ago—and I realized, y’know, sometimes you just got to keep going. I could have just stopped after getting laid off and put my whole focus on finding another full-time job. I could have just been like, “I can’t do this cause-oriented work right now—I got to get a ‘real’ job.” But we had a commitment to the children and the women who really loved the programs, so we kept going.

You have to do what you believe in. I know that people think that’s cliché or corny, but it’s true. You just have to. I never did this work expecting that one day there was going to be this huge pay day, or there was going to be some huge movement happening, or media attention, or anything like that. And if all of this #MeToo attention never happened, I’d still just be doing what I’ve been doing all along.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

Oh, I’m really, really, really adamant about having the kind of work culture in which everybody feels respected and heard. Whatever position I’m in in my job—and I’m currently an executive, the director—that doesn’t mean that I’m better than anyone else. Everybody has to be respectful on the same level. Everybody is a human being first before they’re an employee, and that understanding creates the strongest relationships.

I’ll tell you a true story. I once had a job where I had to lay somebody off who was our administrative person. She had two kids, both in college, and it was tough to make that decision. We pushed it for a year, knowing this person wasn’t really qualified for the position, but also wasn’t happy in the position. And we could tell she wasn’t happy. So when I laid her off, we had a real conversation. I was like, “I understand this is going to be a hardship for you, and maybe I’m in a position of privilege to say this because I’m still an employee, but it does not serve you to stay somewhere where you’re not happy, where you don’t feel productive, when you’re not living your best life. You’re dying here. You want to stay because you want to keep a job—but you’re not happy.” And she was like, “No, I’m not happy. You’re right.”

We let her go, but I gave her six weeks of career counseling, which we paid for. We helped her fix her resume and do some soul-searching. And she found a wonderful job. I literally ran into her on the street a year or so ago, about a year after the layoff happened, and she was like, “I never got a chance to tell you how much I appreciated it. I’ve never been let go from a place in such a way that was so caring.”

I just believe you have to cultivate a culture of really deep respect for people, particularly at a nonprofit, because you don’t pay scale and it’s grueling work; it’s work that’s above and beyond the call of duty nine times out of 10. And you spend more time in your day with these people than you do with your family most of the time. So I don’t want to come to an office where I feel miserable, or I feel like I’m making somebody feel miserable. I mean, unless you’re genuinely busy, you don’t need people to, like, go get your coffee. That stuff is ridiculous to me.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was 23, I’d just finished school, and I was involved with an organization where I had to travel a lot internationally for work. The work we were doing was being highlighted, people were really into understanding youth leadership development, and we were on this really great trajectory. When I got pregnant, people were just like, “Oh my god, you’re too young,” or, “This is going to ruin your career.”

One of my elders in the company said to me, “You want to be a revolutionary. You want to change the world. This is the way you do it. The most revolutionary thing you can do is to raise this child to be the kind of human being that you want to live in the world. Raise her to be an example of what you want the world to be. Raise her to be a model for the possibility for humanity.” I was able to realize that if I never staged another protest or organized another movement, this human is my contribution to the world.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on is… that there’s no better borough than the Bronx.

I wish people would stop telling me… how “good” they are. I wish men would stop telling me how they are not “bad guys”; how they’re “an exception to the norm.”

Everyone should own… a sewing kit and a blender.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.