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Tarana Burke visits Behrend, discusses

"Me Too" movement


Maddie Hepler, Staff Writer

Social justice activist and founder of the Me Too Movement, Tarana Burke, spoke to over 100 students and local community members as the keynote speaker of Penn State Behrend’s 12th Annual Gender Conference on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. in McGarvey Commons. This year’s conference titled "Engendering Cyberspace: Bullying, #MeToo, and More" focused on providing a “free, thoughtful forum for individuals from all academic disciplines to engage in discussion on issues of gender,” according to Penn State Behrend’s website.


Burke’s contribution and presence at the conference this year educated those in attendance about the history behind both herself and the Me Too Movement. Additionally, she spoke about how she hopes that the movement is understood with the message and intention of healing through harmful experiences while aiming to reduce this harm through the provision of resources and support to sexual violence survivors.


Looking back on her roots, Burke was born in the Bronx, New York to a “politically conscious” family, and she explained how on Sundays, she and her family spent their time listening to lectures per her grandfather. Her mother was very involved with her children’s personal growth and education by providing them with the work’s of black women authors to study and admire. Because of her familial structure and the fact that her family gave her an “incredible sense of self and an ability to recognize injustice,” she began her work as an organizer within her community at the age of 14.


She was introduced to the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement which, as posted on their website, “envisions a safe and just society where people and communities are respectful, cooperative, self-sufficient, charged and free to develop their potential and celebrate their differences.” Her first organizing moment came with the Central Park Five when five, young Black and Latino teenagers were falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in Central Park in 1989.


Burke attended Alabama State University at the start of her higher-education career, however, she transferred to Auburn University where she continued organizing through her on-campus efforts. Although her collegiate work was not centrally focused on sexual violence, her fervent efforts striving for social justice were present while she was in school and after she was out. Burke said that she thinks the necessity of social justice work comes from the need of the resources and the help being offered; she believes that the foundation of the work that she does comes down to “the fact that people need the work that we’re offering and putting out there.”

She went on to become a counselor for campers within the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement in 1996 where she came in contact with young people who left unforgettable impressions upon her. The inspiration that contributed to the curation of Me Too, and the work that came before the virality of #metoo, came through her work with 21st Century. It should also be noted that while the #metoo is a movement born from the ideas presented by Burke’s Me Too Movement, she clearly discussed the differences between what #metoo has provoked amongst the general public and what the Me Too Movement’s mission is: harm and harm reduction. And, put simply, Burke explained how the “work of the Me Too Movement is about healing and action.” She also explained that the Me Too Movement is not how it is seen on television or in the news, but “the movement is the work that we do to make sure that survivors have resources and the work that we do to call people to action to end sexual violence. She continued on to say that since #metoo has gone viral, “[the hashtag] has been a galvanizing tool and it’s been a way to provide cover for survivors in many ways so that they have the space to come forward with the protection of the millions of people around them who have also come forward.”


When asked about how or if culture surrounding sexual violence has shifted, Burke simply responded that it has not even though progress has been made: “It’s a misconception to say that culture has shifted. If it did, then we would see numbers dropping. The culture is in the process of shifting, maybe. We’re seeing policies change, but the baseline of the culture that allows sexual violence to happen has not shifted drastically.”


Burke explained that throughout the last two years since the 12 million shares of the #metoo within a 24 hour period, people have become “more responsive to the idea of shifting, but as we really dig into what it’s going to take to shift culture, people get uncomfortable.” When it comes to actually seeing a cultural shift, though, Burke said that it is going to take everyday people actively advocating throughout their everyday lives in order to strive for justice amongst all people. Because sexual violence is not as easily detected as other forms of violence, Burke explained that when it isn’t seen, people have a “harder time responding to it.”


She explained that, over the last two years, she has noticed how people have little understanding of what sexual violence is and what it looks like; and she believes that it’s every day, small parts that add up to enacting change all around:  “What everyday people can do is have a conversation with your family, have a conversation with your friends, have hard conversations; don’t be a bystander. Learn about what sexual violence does to people in order to develop that empathy muscle.”


RuthAnn Dave, a senior at Harbor Creek High School, attended Burke’s lecture on Wednesday evening. Dave, who is planning to attend Penn State Behrend in the fall majoring in Fine Arts, believed that Burke’s presence and talk was thought-provoking and powerful. “While it covered a serious matter, Ms. Burke did an amazing job keeping the lecture relaxed,” said Dave.


Penn State Behrend alum, Kymberly Drapcho, 23, who will be attending the University of Maryland’s graduate school in the fall, said that the most interesting part about Burke’s talk was her “focus on healing and restoration rather than revenge.” As a scholar studying, researching, and producing literature regarding sexual violence, Drapcho touched upon the fact that Burke emphasized a cultural shift that “hasn't yet happened, though we've been doing a fair amount of uncovering "bad actors" across different professions.”


Drapcho said that Burke’s appearance at Behrend is not only important for those who are educated when it comes to the Me Too Movement, but it’s also important because “sexual violence is so often misunderstood. Hopefully, [the lecture] opened some eyes that night about the struggles within sexual trauma that go beyond physical, and hopefully, those eyes stay open to these issues.”