When the #MeToo movement went viral last year after a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano, nobody was more surprised than Tarana Burke. More than a decade earlier, Burke had begun using the term as a way to help survivors of sexual assault speak up and heal.
Suddenly, the work and activism she had led for years in quiet anonymity had gained a global audience that she could have never imagined. And yet, after fighting for a cause mainly aimed at African African girls and women, she saw the baton being seized by famous white women, and then watched as its intentions were distorted by the media.
“This movement is being defined by the media and by the corporations,” she said. “It’s dangerous to reduce what we’ve seen in the past year as mob justice.”
On Sunday, Burke arrived in Munich to deliver the keynote address at the Bits & Pretzels technology conference, which embraced the theme of diversity this year. Burke’s story of social media’s role in the movement underscores the complexities of the how such technology intersects with grassroots politics, particularly when race and gender are central factors.
In describing how she reacted to #MeToo’s virality, Burke said that rather than wanting to battle over ownership, she felt the need to put the mission first. Since then, she has been trying to push the issue forward by riding its social media wave while simultaneously fighting to keep the focus on its original mission of helping sexual assault victims.
Burke described herself as a “regular degular schmegular girl from the Bronx.” Her life was changed as a teenager when she read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography that recounts the author’s experience as a victim of rape. By that time, Burke said she had already suffered two sexual assaults, and she found tremendous relief in knowing that she was not alone.
As an adult and activist, she continued to hear stories from young African Americans. In 2006, she began using the phrase “Me Too” as a way to get girls and women to open up and discuss their experiences.
“I did that because these girls didn’t have the words to describe the pain,” Burke said. “And you can’t heal a pain if you don’t have the words to define it.”
That effort grew gradually, by word of mouth, in-person organizing, and fundraising efforts to develop more resources and educational material and services. Eventually, the organizers created a MySpace page, which shocked them by bringing in an outpouring of emails and stories.
“We learned two things really quickly,” Burke said. “Social was getting ready to be [a] wave. We explained what we were doing, and people started reaching out to us and saying thank you for starting this. Can you bring this to my community? How can I be involved? And the second thing was that it confirmed that we were onto something. We knew we had something that people needed.”
Still, she continued to build the movement brick by brick over the years. Then she woke up on an October morning last year to Milano’s tweet and the ensuing uproar. Initially, she was confused.
“There were a flurry of Twitter messages saying ‘Congratulations!’ and ‘Is this you?’,” she said. “And I didn’t know what people were talking about. Then within a few hours, my social media pages were flooded.”
Considering the impact of this new twist almost immediately caused anxiety.
“I just thought, ‘The white people gonna take my stuff away from me’,” Burke said. “This was a weird thing, seeing this thing I had created for black and brown girls spread to the whole world. I watched it grow and panicked and worried about how I was going to save my work.”
Her longtime friends and supporters rushed online to defend and speak up for Burke, demanding she be given credit. Watching all this play out, she came to her own decision about how to react.
“I could have definitely had a fight about this,” Burke said. “I could have spent the next few weeks talking about how this is about me, me, me. But then the question came to me: Are you going to be in conflict or are you going to be in service?”
So the next day, she made a video about herself and the movement, asking people to embrace the #MeToo cause. That video also went viral, and since then she’s been flooded with non-stop interview requests and been gratified to watch the movement go global.
“That’s because I stuck to the vision,” she said. “I didn’t try to change the work we’d done for the last decade. I used the vision and tried to explain what #MeToo was really about. They weren’t just two words. They were two words that helped these women open up and heal.”
Despite the global recognition and acclaim of the movement sparked by that hashtag, the work remains as challenging as ever, in some ways even more so. In part, there is the challenge of making sure those original communities of African American girls and women remain a vital part of the movement, and benefit from it.
But perhaps an even bigger challenge for Burke is figuring out how to address the way the mission and its goals have been distorted, particularly in the media. As famous and powerful men were toppled by accusations of sexual assault, those stories increasingly became central to stories about #MeToo, which Burke says incorrectly seemed to define that as its central mission.
“We’re in the midst of the backlash,” Burke said. “People say, ‘Oh, I’m so tired of hearing about #MeToo’. And that’s because they think about it all wrong. They think we’re a movement about taking down powerful men. But not only is that not sustainable, it is contrary to our values.”
12 million people engaged on the MeToo hashtag on Facebook the first day. Every single one of those hashtags is a human being. And every one of them has a story about sexual violence. What the media has done is pivot away from them. But we’re focused on the survivors of sexual violence and not on which powerful man the #MeToo movement is going to take down.
This is a global movement of survivors who are trying to heal from sexual violence, and trying stop the scourge of sexual violence. I’m not invested in seeing us win. I know we will win. But I don’t have to see it happen. I’m more interested in planting the seeds to see it happen.
Going forward, Burke has decidedly mixed feelings about her internet-fueled fame and what activism means in the age of social media.
“Without social media, I was doing that work for 13 years, very slowly,” she said. “Prior to #MeToo going viral, the people I was working with around the country couldn’t see a time where there would be a national, sustained dialogue around sexual violence. Social media and this hashtag were great opening points. Social media can be a gift and a curse. But in this way, it was a gift.”
Still, she worries that people just see the social media part and think that was the whole movement without appreciating all the work that led up to that moment.
“One of the problems in the era of social movements is that people don’t feel what they’re doing is valid unless it is big,” she said. “You don’t have to be validated by ‘likes’. Telling your story is the first step to recovering. And that can be done by just talking to a friend. I would like us to remember that. I can do more with 10 really hardworking people who share the vision I have than I can going on Facebook and getting a bunch of likes.”
Disclosure: The organizers of the Bits & Pretzels Conference paid for VentureBeat’s travel to the event. Our coverage remains objective.