DETROIT — Ten years before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein became public knowledge, Tarana Burke was already helping young women talk about sexual assault. Working with girls at an organization she co-founded called Just Be Inc., she heard a lot of reports of sexual violence, and she wanted to offer young survivors what she needed in the aftermath of her own assault: empathy.
So she started the Me Too campaign “to spread a message for survivors: You’re heard, you’re understood.”
Burke was at the Women’s Convention on Friday, where she spoke just ahead of Rose McGowan, who has become one of the most public critics of Weinstein and the culture she says enabled him. The Weinstein allegations also inspired women to share their experiences with harassment and assault under the hashtag #MeToo, encouraged by the actress Alyssa Milano, who wrote, “if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
As the hashtag gained steam, some noted that Burke’s work had been mostly left out of the discussion, and that the experiences of a group of mostly white actresses seemed to draw more public attention than the harassment and assault of women of color. “Early on in the conversations that spurred ‘Me Too,’ there was a sense it wasn’t for us,” wrote Zahara Hill at Ebony.
Initially, Burke says she was worried there might be a disconnect between the hashtag and her work on Me Too. But she soon realized “it also was an opportunity to talk about the spectrum of gender-based violence,” she said. “Although my work was centered around sexual assault mostly, sexual harassment is an entry point to sexual assault.”
“I’m grateful for this viral moment that we can parlay into an opportunity to amplify these issues,” she said.
Sexual harassment was much-discussed in convention programming on Friday, and while the #MeToo hashtag may have been inspired by the experiences of actresses, several speakers made it clear that the problem goes far beyond Hollywood. Tipped restaurant workers are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, said Alicia Renee Farris, the state director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, who spoke on a panel about the future of work. Restaurant workers are often told to “suck it up, if you want a good tip,” she said. And with the tipped minimum wage in Michigan currently just $3.38 an hour, food service workers need tips in order to survive.
The conversation around harassment in Hollywood will broaden to include other industries “if we force it to,” said Burke. “It’s not going to do it on its own.” Americans will need to be reminded that “for every Harvey Weinstein, there’s a hundred more men in the neighborhood who are doing the exact same thing.”
“Sexual violence really doesn’t know a race, a class, a gender,” she said. “It can happen to anybody.” The response to sexual violence, on the other hand, “can be highly racialized and highly gendered.”
“What we’re seeing, at least for now,” she said, “is a unity of survivors, a community of survivors that have grown out of this #MeToo viral moment, that I’m just hoping and praying that we can sustain.”
Burke spoke on Friday wearing a black T-shirt reading “me too” in pink letters. She’s been giving out the shirts ever since a fellow survivor contacted her via Myspace years ago and offered to help with the campaign by making T-shirts. Burke wasn’t sure she’d ever hear from the woman again — until she received a box of 500 T-shirts.
“Because of her astonishing generosity, I’ve never sold these shirts,” Burke said. “When I go to speak somewhere, when I give a workshop, when I talk to survivors, I give them away.”
“When a survivor’s ready to wear this T-shirt,” she said, “it’s kind of like with the hashtag. It’s a statement to tell the world that they are a survivor and they are bold about it and they’re not going to hide.”