‘Keep telling the truth:’ #MeToo founder empowers crowd in San Jose
Tarana Burke delivers a presentation onstage to students at San José State University as a distinguished lecturer for the school's Spartan Speaker Series. Photo by Kyle Martin.

    One of the world’s most powerful campaigns against sexual violence began when Tarana Burke mentored girls at a summer camp more than 20 years ago.

    That’s when the #MeToo movement was born.

    “When you gather people together and create safe spaces, what happens is disclosure,” said Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement and Time’s 2017 Person of the Year. During summer camps with young girls, Burke heard countless stories of sexual violence from “sister-to-sister sessions.”

    She and her girls developed a trust in each other. They wound up sharing trauma together in open discussion.

    A ‘conscious’ upbringing

    Before the #MeToo movement, Burke grew up in The Bronx and came from “a very conscious family.”

    “I was raised very, very aware of who I was as a black girl and a black person in the world,” Burke, a distinguished speaker in the university’s Spartan Speaker Series, said Monday night. “I didn’t even know words like ‘molested’ or ‘raped’…I didn’t have the language.”

    In 2006, Burke founded the #MeToo movement, which in 2017 caught fire as a viral social media movement after a tweet — written by actress Alyssa Milano — caught the attention of thousands of sexual assault survivors, who responded in solidarity with #MeToo hashtags on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

    Burke said that #MeToo started when she volunteered with young girls at a summer camp who shared stories of their own sexual violence. She found a purpose, stemming from her own experience as a survivor herself. She did not disclose details about her sexual abuse Monday.

    “Intellectually, I’m thinking, ‘I’m not a therapist,’” Burke said. “In my heart I’m thinking, ‘this happened to me too.’”

    That’s where the words ‘Me Too’ came from, Burke said. It started when seventh and eighth-grade girls began trusting Burke to share stories of sexual violence that they didn’t know were crimes. Burke said she recognized normalized abuse “that they didn’t even recognize themselves.”

    A global movement

    Now, the movement Burke started has reached around the globe. But the 45-year-old founder told the crowd of more than 200 gathered on Monday that the movement has more work to do.

    “Watching someone powerful having to answer for their behavior, that’s pretty new,” Burke said.

    Burke said her work has always focused on empowering survivors and empathizing with their recovery. Too often, however, Burke said, the perpetrators take away from the #MeToo movement.

    What’s worse, she added, is that perpetrators in America are empowered systematically — throughout industries, cultures and people.

    “You don’t get a (Harvey) Weinstein or an R. Kelly without a system in place,” Burke said.

    ‘Keep telling the truth’

    Burke said it is a “moral imperative” to actively empower those “who have been historically pushed to the margins” and who “are working with multiple layers of oppression” — which she said often begins in queer and trans communities.

    And the work doesn’t stop there, she said, repeatedly challenging students, faculty and members of the San Jose community to get up and organize — and to “think outside the box” in how to combat sexual violence.

    “Ultimately, sexual violence doesn’t discriminate, so we don’t either,” she said.

    Her words galvanized attendees, who honored her with multiple rounds of applause and standing ovations. In attendance were several of Burke’s family members, including her niece, 21-year-old Christyn Meehleib, who came from Hayward to see her aunt.

    “These are the topics people should be talking about,” Meehleib said. “These are the subjects that should have more attention.”

    During the ending Q&A segment of her presentation, Burke gave students tips on organizing and activism.

    “Don’t be afraid of it being small,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Operate with integrity.”

    She levied her thoughts on the music industry, speaking on how it relates to her work and the empowerment of women, and she also stressed that she hopes schools begin “comprehensive sex education” in kindergarten.

    Valerie Gonzales, assistant director of alumni relations and community engagement for SJSU, said Burke’s speech was “the first time in 17 years that I’ve seen this type of dialogue on campus.”

    “For some of the hundreds of students [at the presentation], this is the first time they’re having this conversation,” Gonzales, 47, said. “There’s pride in this.”

    In the end, Burke left the audience with an important message: To speak the truth in their experiences.

    “Truth is truth,” Burke said. “Keep telling the truth. Somebody is listening.”

    Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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