#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke: 'Jesus Was The First Activist That I Knew'

By Olga M. Segura 9-24-2018
Tarana Burke attends 2018 Time 100 Gala 

“As a survivor of sexual assault,” Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, tells me, “Catholicism was a place, a way for me to gauge how to exist in the world. Inside of this trauma, there was hope.”

Faith has been a part of Ms. Burke’s life since she was a child. Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1973, Ms. Burke was raised in an interfaith home. Her brother and stepfather were Muslim, and, after attending Catholic schools most of her childhood, she decided to become Catholic. In the seventh grade, she received her first Communion and was confirmed.

Growing up in an interfaith home allowed her to explore her Catholic faith and Islam simultaneously. “There was a lot of debate in the house about religion,” she says, adding that it allowed her understanding of Christianity to grow. She also loved the structure of Catholicism growing up, adding that she loved having what she described as “hard-and-fast rules that said, you do this, you’re good, you don’t do this, you’re not good.” Ms. Burke, however, eventually moved away from Catholicism after her grandfather began teaching her about the Catholic Church’s history. After learning about the church’s slave-holding past, she could no longer reconcile her faith and her identity.

Ms. Burke is still Christian — though she no longer identifies as Catholic — and faith is still a pivotal part of the work that she does. In 1997, Ms. Burke founded Just Be Inc, a nonprofit organization focused on helping young girls who have been victims of sexual harassment and assault. “My professional life is motivated by my personal life. My personal life is grounded in my faith,” she tells me. “You can’t do this kind of work without being grounded in a faith that showed possibilities. Christianity is, really, when you take away all the pomp and circumstance, it’s about hope and possibility.”

Along with her advocacy for survivors of sexual violence, at Just Be, Ms. Burke also focused on using arts and culture to change not just the way we talk about sexual harassment and assault, but also the message we give young women in America. At Just Be, she offered young girls workshops that focused on issues like how to navigate romantic relationships; the objectification of women in hip-hop; deconstructing media portrayal of black and brown girls; and sexual violence.

In 2006, Ms. Burke founded the Me Too movement. Like her work with Just Be, the movement is aimed at helping survivors of sexual violence. According to its mission statement, Me Too focuses on the lack of “resources for survivors of sexual violence” and seeks “to build a community of advocates.” Throughout 12 years, the organization has built a community of survivors and paid particular attention to helping young women of color heal.

Despite the lack of coverage her faith has gotten, the influence of Christianity on her advocacy has remained constant. It is often difficult for people to associate Christianity with activism because it has become so weaponized, she says. “Christianity has been co-opted by people who have a political agenda, and have a very particular narrative that is steeped in racism, and classism, and sexism, and all of these other forms of oppression,” she tells me, “I’m the kind of Christian that recognizes who Jesus was — and Jesus was the first activist that I knew, and the first organizer that I knew, and the first example of how to be in service to people.”

When I talk with Ms. Burke, on September 19, it is just under a month before the anniversary of the movement going viral. Last year, on Oct. 15, 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano asked her followers to share their own experiences of sexual harassment and abuse using the hashtag #MeToo. Within days, the movement, along with Ms. Burke’s decades of work, went viral. “I didn’t know that I could carry a message that resonated with millions of people,” she tells me. She has been an advocate for sexual harassment and assault for over two decades, and throughout those years, there were moments where she doubted herself and the work she did. “It’s a privilege to be able to find out that you were on the right track.”

In the past year, the movement has accomplished so much. People are more willing to discuss issues like consent and toxic masculinity; survivors are gaining the public space to come forward; abusers, like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and many others, are being removed from positions of power; and, for what seems like the first time ever, society is beginning to shift away from the assumption that any individual who speaks about being harassed or abused is lying. “There is a spirit of collaboration that is happening amongst people who are doing this work, or amongst people who this work impacts, that I don’t think I’ve seen in my career,” Ms. Burke adds.

I ask Ms. Burke about Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University who, earlier this month, alleged that Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the Supreme Court, attempted to rape her in 1982. I point out that, despite the progress made in the year since Me Too went viral, many individuals and media outlets have been quick to dispute Ms. Ford’s claims, including President Donald Trump, who tweeted last week, “if the attack on Dr. Ford was a bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”

Ms. Burke tells me that Ms. Ford is a perfect example of how survivors deal with their assault. Years before her name and assault were made public, Ms. Ford was in therapy discussing, along with her husband, Kavanaugh and her attack. “She was forced into the public eye, but if you look at her trajectory around it, she’s been dealing with the ramifications of the sexual violence forever,” she tells me.

Last year, Ms. Burke was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Ms. Burke received this honor along with other women, including lobbyist Adama Iwu, actress Ashley Judd, former Fox News contributor Wendy Walsh, and many others nicknamed “The Silence Breakers” for their role in the Me Too movement. And, this year, Ms. Burke will receive the Ridenhour Courage Prize. Ms. Burke, however, remains humble. “I call myself a servant leader so that I don’t ever forget that this is not about me, that this work will never be about me. I’m in service to people, I’m in service to God, and that’s what drives it.”

Olga M. Segura is an associate editor at America and a co-host of the podcast, “Jesuitical.” Her work has appeared at Eureka Street, Shondaland and Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @OlgaMSegura.

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