Tarana Burke brings #MeToo to Tulane

Kila Moore, News Editor

Adelaide Basco | Art Director

In January 2018, Tulane University’s campus-wide climate survey revealed that two out of every five undergraduate women had experienced some form of sexual assault — one of the highest rates in the nation.

Since the release of this data, the university has launched several initiatives to address students’ needs. In addition, student organizations have used their resources to increase and change the conversation around sexual violence.

On Monday, March 11, Tulane University Campus Programming hosted a lecture by the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke. According to TUCP Direction Chair Sydne Klein, the talk served as an important resource in changing the conversation around sexual assault, especially for the Tulane community.

“As Tarana discussed in her talk, the #MeToo movement isn’t a movement designed to raise awareness, it’s a movement dedicated to rethinking the way we talk about sexual assault,” Klein said. “I think encouraging our student body to develop a strong vernacular when it comes to discussing the issue is so important in making this campus safe for all members of our community.”

During the lecture, Burke detailed her beginnings as a community organizer in the Bronx. She first began her social justice career as a teenager by getting involved in the nationally-publicized trial of the Central Park Five, a case against five Black and Latino boys falsely accused of raping a white woman.

“I was thinking about the fact that it was a case about sexual violence, but my interest in it was really about racial injustice,” Burke said. “And most of my work around that time is really focused on racial justice. You have to understand that nobody talked about sexual violence. Nobody talked about it as a social justice issue.”

Burke later continued her social justice work at Auburn University in Alabama and poured herself into issues surrounding sexual assault. Though Burke was heavily involved in organizing, she realized that as a survivor of sexual assault herself, she did not have the language to advocate on her own behalf.

“I started getting this gnawing feeling, if you will, because through all of this work, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m a survivor, but I don’t have survivor language yet,” Burke said. “I don’t call myself a survivor. I don’t act in that way. I actually didn’t even call myself a victim. I just didn’t say anything.”

Following college, Burke worked at a leadership development camp for Black and brown high school students. The camp offered a judgement-free zone for the students by separating them by gender in “Brother to Brother” and “Sister to Sister” sessions. It was then that she became aware of the veracity of sexual violence afflicted upon teenage girls.

One particular camper, Heaven, is renowned for being the inspiration for Burke’s establishing the eventual #MeToo movement. After hearing the young girl’s own testimony with sexual assault, Burke said she was faced with the reality of her own trauma.

“The whole time she was talking, I was thinking to myself … I’m not a counselor. I’m not a therapist … I don’t know what to say. And I don’t want to say the wrong thing, because I actually do care about this,” Burke said. “What I really wanted to tell her was … ‘this happened to me too.’”

Energized by the need to feel supported and to feel heard, Burke went on to start the MeToo program. She focused mainly on young girls for a few years, but after making a Myspace page, several adults started to reach out thanking Burke for creating the community and asked how they could get involved.

It was in 2016, however, almost 20 years after its initial creation, that the movement saw a worldwide surge. After several celebrities accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged any women to respond to her tweet if they had ever experienced any form of sexual harassment with the words “me too.”

Thousands of women from across the globe responded with the words and stories about their experiences, and the #MeToo hashtag became the most trending topic nationwide.

“It’s been amazing to watch. It’s amazing to watch to see that we have a national really international dialogue about sexual violence,” Burke said.

“My challenge to the administration is: I challenge them to think about how your work to prevent sexual violence on this campus is reflective of [the Tulane mission statement],” Burke said. “Do you have consistent sustainable policies and practices that actively work to meet the needs of the student body? And do you recognize that in order to prepare students to be global citizens, in order to prepare students to lead with integrity and wisdom, [they have to] see integrity and wisdom reflected on this campus all the way through from top to bottom?”

According to Meredith Smith, the Assistant Provost for Title IX and Clery Compliance, the university has created new policies to ensure students feel as supported by administration as possible.

“Our reporting process centers the victim, allowing them to choose what the best path forward is in terms of support and resources for their healing,” Smith said. “Of particular concern for marginalized communities is the role of the police.”

Additionally, the university has undertaken steps to assure support for LGBTQ students and students of color.

“We hired two outside researchers to conduct qualitative research into the experiences of LGBTQ and students of color who experience sexual violence,” Smith said. “The climate survey told us a lot of ‘what’ but not ‘why,’ and this qualitative data will be so important in improving services for marginalized communities.”

At the conclusion of the talk, Burke called for hope and unity among survivors and activists alike.

“Let’s work together us. Let’s heal together,” Burke said. “And if you’re ready to do that, I can only leave you with these two words: me too.”

Sydne Klein previously served as a staff reporter, but is no longer affiliated with The Hullabaloo.

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