ANDY SERWER: The best way to build influence, may be to share it. Tarana Burke is a perfect example.
She has spent her career as an advocate, listening to and empowering young women of color.
In that work, Burke coined the phrase “Me Too.” When the movement took hold years later, she made sure it included the struggles of women outside Hollywood.
In 2017, Time Magazine recognized her as a “Person of the Year” for her efforts.
Burke is here to talk about what “Me Too” achieved and how far our country still has to go.
Hello, I'm Andy Serwer. Welcome to "Influencers," and welcome to our guest, Tarana Burke. Tarana, nice to see you.
TARANA BURKE: Hello. Nice to-- thank you for having me.
ANDY SERWER: So you are an activist, an organizer, and you began this at a very early age from my understanding is when you were a young teen.
TARANA BURKE: Yeah.
ANDY SERWER: So how did you get into this and what set you on this path?
TARANA BURKE: I had a family that was very conscious. I had a grandfather who was really conscious, a Pan-African. My mother was very involved in community work and she raised me-- not necessarily to be an activist, but to be very conscious not-- I could identify injustice really early because of the books that I was given to read and the things I was exposed to.
But then at 14, I joined the organization called the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, and it was a national organization. But it was based in Selma, Alabama, which of course, we know from the history, from the voting rights movement. And so I spent my summers-- actually, I spent my summers in Selma going to leadership camps, and then two other times a year we would also meet in mini camps.
And, yeah, I started being an organizer because of 21st century. The purpose of that organization was to train the next generation of leaders and pass on this a legacy that they had created from the Civil Rights Movement and other movements. So I took this, like, body of knowledge I had from my family, and married that with these skills that I got from 21st Century, and, yeah.
ANDY SERWER: So you were here in New York. In which borough?
TARANA BURKE: In the Bronx.
ANDY SERWER: In the Bronx, and then going down to Alabama back and forth, which-- was kind of been mind-blowing just in itself.
TARANA BURKE: It was very interesting to be 14, 15 years old from the Bronx, and travel through Alabama in the 80s and early 90s. It was a very interesting transition.
ANDY SERWER: So what specifically made you go towards working on young women of color and sexual violence? What specifically brought you to those topics and subjects?
TARANA BURKE: Well, it was a progression. My work has always been focused on racial economic justice. And so that was, you know, like a foregone conclusion. I've done work in and for the black community, you know, from the very beginning.
When I came out of school and I went to work for 21st Century, and I met a child in one of our camps who was a survivor. And that girl shared her story with me, and it was painfully familiar. And I wanted to share my story with her, or at the very least I wanted to say that this happened to me too. And I just had a real inability to do that. I couldn't break past, you know, all the issues that I had.
And I really felt like I failed her in that moment. I failed to be able to be empathetic enough to just even say you're not alone. That failure, if you will-- I know I recognize that it wasn't a failure, but that's how I felt-- propelled me to want to at least do better, you know, in a really minimal sense do better.
And then some years later, my friend and I co-founded an organization called Just Be Inc., and in doing that-- you know, with four girls, and it was four black and brown girls-- it was really particular to black and brown girls because what we saw-- that organization wasn't about sexual violence. It was about leadership development and about developing a tool to help these girls, for them to develop a sense of self-worth, or to further their sense of self-worth.
And for us, it was watching these girls try to thrive in a world that constantly tell them that they weren't worthy. That reaffirm the fact that they weren't worthy in various ways, whether it was through media and music. And we wanted to ground them in a foundation that gave them tools to fight back against that lie, right?
And so it was great. The organization was really successful, and that worked. But we also had so many girls who came through our program who were disclosing in various kinds of ways.
And it just became clear to me Selma's not very big, and our program at that time was centered in the middle school. And so every middle school girl pretty much in the city was coming through our program because they went to the same junior high school. And to have that many children whose lives were touched in one way or another by sexual violence to me was an indication that we had a problem in our community.
I didn't have a real grasp on the pervasiveness of sexual violence worldwide at the time. I just knew that we had a problem locally, and it wasn't-- because it had happened to me in New York. So I knew that it was more than in just one place. And that there's never been, in my experience and community work, or organizing in activism, that just hadn't been a response to it.
There hadn't been a group of people who I worked with who said, you know what? Why don't we examine what's happening, this exposing these young people to sexual violence in these volumes. What's happening in our community?
If it's police brutality, if it's-- everything from, you know, gas prices to corrupt politicians, we were out in the streets protesting against, right? Economic disadvantages, political disadvantages, you know, corruption in politics or in police law enforcement. And to me, this was just as both pervasive and problematic, and it just-- it deserved a community response.
ANDY SERWER: And at some point, you came up with this phrase, which has now taken on a whole other life, and we'll get to in a second, but #MeToo.
TARANA BURKE: Yeah.
ANDY SERWER: Can you tell us the story of how you came up with that phrase?
TARANA BURKE: Well, it was meeting the girl. It was when I couldn't say this happened to me, too. So when literally, this is like a-- not weird story, but literally some years later, we'd started Just Be, and I was trying to think I really wanted to do work about sexual violence.
It was just gnawing at me that we didn't have some kind of program that addressed it, talked about it. I had been doing my own internal work on my issues as a survivor to try to figure out what healing looked like, and I wanted to bring that to the young people. It's like we talk to young people about everything. Why don't we talk to them about this, right? I wish somebody had talked to me about it.
And so, it just-- it came to me these words that I couldn't say to this girl could be healing to other people. So now I can say it, right? And so I remember telling my friend, like-- there was a website that you could go and design your own t-shirts, and I created a t-shirt that said #MeToo, and I sent it to her, and she was like, wow, you know?
And it just took off from there, but very differently from now. So there's some similarities and some differences. One of the similarities is that although it was on a smaller scale, once I started doing work through the lens of #MeToo, everywhere we took that, we found survivors.
Every room we entered and talked about it, people disclosed, and it was in alarming numbers. It just was-- it was hard to get in those rooms back then. It's just much easier now. I just never could imagine we'd get to a place where people would want to talk about sexual violence.
ANDY SERWER: And so that was in 2006, my understanding is around there?
TARANA BURKE: Yeah, 2005, 2006 school year.
ANDY SERWER: And it wasn't until, I think, around 2017, Alyssa Milano tweeted out the phrase #MeToo, which was, you know, in the wake of these allegations of high profile people in media, et cetera. So how did that make you feel when you saw your phrase being taken to this whole other level?
TARANA BURKE: Initially, I was alarmed. I was-- I thought this is a thing that I created and put in a very specific community for a very specific purpose. And you know, like we didn't deal with sexual harassment in the workplace or things like that. We dealt with sexual harassment in schools and sexual harassment in communities.
So I felt like it was going to be in danger of being manipulated and turned to something else, which is still, in many ways, people are trying to do that. And I thought people would not believe that this existed already. That this work was existing already in this effort. This movement had already had a body of work behind it. But, I mean, that was quickly dispelled.
ANDY SERWER: Did the people make you feel welcome? They understood that you were the originator of the phrase--
TARANA BURKE: Oh, yeah.
ANDY SERWER: --and you've done all this work and brought you in?
TARANA BURKE: Yeah, I think people don't realize that Alyssa-- so there's a lot of, like, backlash or just misinformation about how that took place, but people still to this day jump on Alyssa and say, like, try to accuse her of stealing it from me, and that's not what happened at all.
In fact, many-- so people in the black community knew my work, and I've been doing it for so long, and I've been associated with it, you know, so closely that people started coming to me and saying, why aren't they talking about you? Why don't I see you?
And I didn't know what to do, right, because this was becoming a phenomenon. It hadn't quite actually hit its peak, but it was certainly happening fast. And so I just put out information.
I put out a video of me giving a speech at the anti-rape march in Philadelphia from 2014. And I put out a note saying, you know, it's wonderful to see people using the phrase #MeToo. This is where it started. This is our philosophy around, like, empowerment or empathy.
And I just sort of put it out, and then black women around the country came out in force and was tweeting about it. And, you know, people were tweeting at Alyssa Milano, folks were tweeting at the other news outlets saying you're getting it wrong. This is the wrong story, and they started listening.
And Alyssa reached out to me the next day, or, like, two days later, and said, you know, I'm sorry. I didn't know you existed. She tweeted out my website. She invited me on "Good Morning America" with her, like, a few days in. Like, maybe three days in.
So she was super supportive and an ally from the very beginning. She didn't have to be goaded into it. And then the rest was-- I think what was happening too is this was one of those kind of sweet spots, you know? A perfect storm.
Because the phenomenon happened so fast, and I think so many people didn't know how to respond to it, but I was perfectly poised to respond to it because it was my work, you know? It was connected. It wasn't just, like, two words. It's, like, a whole thought behind-- thought process behind it.
There's a whole way that we do this work and the reason why we use these words. And so being able to articulate that for people, I think, helped them understand why they were so drawn to either both saying #MeToo or watching the phenomenon take place.
Somebody can give it context and say this is not just so people can have something to say on the internet. It's just not another flash in the pan kind of thing. This is a movement that is led by and for survivors of sexual violence.
ANDY SERWER: Were you surprised that in this kind of modern incarnation of #MeToo that the focus seemed to be so much on men, and women who were victims. I mean, men who were the abusers in the media and Hollywood.
TARANA BURKE: I mean, yes and no. I was not surprised because of what was happening, right? Coming off of the Swanson case, it was such a big media hit, right? It was just everywhere.
And the high profile actresses-- you're talking about A-list actresses from Hollywood, or actresses who we loved and didn't hear from again. And all of a sudden, these things are starting to come together.
We love celebrities. Like, culturally, we love celebrities. And so, I think that, you know, media is driven by viewers and by readers. And so I think that the media kept pointing back to celebrities to say this is the story.
I think the big misstep in that moment is that there's a math equation happening here, and you're like missing the x component, you know? That, yes, this is big, powerful men, and yes, these are celebrities. But this is one story, and what you've just been given is like 12 million stories, right?
You have this-- this story wouldn't have continued to carry with the kind of depth that it had if these millions of people hadn't of come forward and said my life was affected by this too, and those stories were never told. They were just sort of skipped over to keep coming back from the celebrity stories.
Which is-- it's like a weird phenomenon. You're feeding these stories to the people who said, yes, I know what happened to them because it happened to me, too.
ANDY SERWER: I mean, you would hope maybe that because those stories are high profile, it would empower women, just in everyday situations, to be able to say my boss, my co-worker, my relative--
TARANA BURKE: And it did.
ANDY SERWER: --and it did do that, though.
TARANA BURKE: Yeah, absolutely, it did do that. But the other part to it is that the people who were saying #MeToo on the internet were not just talking about being harassed at work. They were not-- and even the call that Alyssa put out was if you were assaulted or harassed to say #MeToo. It didn't have any qualifiers on that.
And so to narrow it to just like, oh, you've been harassed at your job, you know? It really does a disservice to these millions of people who are talking about child sexual abuse or being assaulted on campus or, you know, like these various ways of intimate partner violence.
Like, the sexual violence shows up. It released people to talk about these really deep, dark secrets they had been holding, you know, out of shame and fear, and it stunted them.
ANDY SERWER: Right. How has the movement addressed the role that race and class play in sexual violence?
TARANA BURKE: So our work in the movement is particularly around that because I say this all the time. That, you know, sexual violence doesn't discriminate, but the response to sexual violence does. And so when you see-- you know, right now, people are looking at this R. Kelly case, and it caused a lot of media attention.
It took 20 years to get this level of attention about a person who has had consistent accusations against him for the last 20 years. It took two articles to bring down Harvey Weinstein. And when you look at the difference in those responses, different people, different kinds of things. But in some ways, not, you know?
So even within the Weinstein case, you know, you had all of this sympathy and empathy for the women who came forward. And then Lupita comes out and tells her story, and she got-- people responded because it's the only story that he pushed back against, right? So there's just these little nuance things.
I think another example of that is native women, indigenous women in the country. The indigenous-- the missing and murdered indigenous women in this country far exceed by percentage, far exceed any other group-- far exceed. And yet, we don't talk about that.
These are native women around the country, indigenous women, whether they're on reservations or in community pockets, who are consistently experiencing sexual violence and other types of violence. And yet, those stories don't get told. So there's just certainly a different response to sexual violence based on the community and based on the class of the people.
ANDY SERWER: I guess that leads to this question, which is what have you-- what has the movement accomplished and what is yet to be done?
TARANA BURKE: Yeah. I think that what we've accomplished is certainly broadening the conversation about sexual violence. Moving-- letting people understand that it's a spectrum, and that we have to look at the entire spectrum. In order to really get to the root of the problem, you have to look at the breadth of the problem.
And what we've done a lot of this year is try to shift the narrative. So that people understand and-- when somebody says #MeToo, they could be talking about so many different things. And we have to unpack that, and we have to really look at why we-- how we got here.
And it's always fascinating to me that so many people could have used a hashtag in such a short period of time. And there wasn't a story that said, what is going on in the world? What is going on in our country that we have this many people whose lives are affected by a thing, and we don't have, like, a national task force, you know?
I draw comparisons sometimes to it being an infectious disease, you know? If you woke up tomorrow and 12 million people had randomly caught an infectious disease that was lying dormant for years, right? That people could have found a cure for before it exploded.
The world would stop. The world would stop, and #MeToo did stop the world for a second, and then it kept spinning on its axis in the same way. As opposed to saying how did we get here? How did we get here, and how do we stop it, and how do we make sure it never happens again?
ANDY SERWER: Well, let me ask you those questions.
TARANA BURKE: Well, I mean how we got here is because sexual violence has been-- is connected to these larger systems. It's connected to patriarchy. It's connected to capitalism. It's connected to these larger systems that can be oppressive and create space for people to have an unchecked accumulation of both, of power and privilege.
And so when that happens, it creates the dynamics, whether it's in powerful rich white men, or you know, men in your neighborhood who have authority. If it's priest, if it's, you know, if it's a coach, it can be any number of people that have these power dynamics.
Obviously there's a depravity involved in that as well. But this mix of that is what creates the conditions for sexual violence to happen. What has to happen now is for us not just to continue to diagnose and say, oh, this is also a problem.
Like, call it out. We have to name it. We have to say child sexual abuse is a problem in this country. We have to say, you know, missing and murdered indigenous women being sexually assaulted is a problem. We have to say that black and brown girls who cannot safely walk to school without being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted is a problem.
We have to talk about trans women who are dying, right? We have to name these things. Get it all out on the table, and people take their parts. There's no, like, I say all the time this hashtag is not a magic wand. This hashtag is not going to change. It's not going to cure anything.
It will galvanize people, it'll create awareness, and then we have work to do. We have tons of work to do, and that's not me as an individual or us as an organization. It's the world. People have to pick their poison, figure out where you fit in here.
There are so many gaps in the work to end sexual violence and interrupt sexual violence that can be filled, right? Right now. And then beyond that, there has to be a cultural examination of why we're here.
And not just, you know, why we're here, but what are the ways that we can start looking at making our communities less vulnerable to this thing? That these conversations have to happen on high levels. They're happening in the community, right? I didn't invent conversation around sexual violence by any stretch of the imagination.
They're happening on local levels and regional levels. There are whole scores of people. There's like conferences of people who come together to talk about sexual violence every year, but we talk to each other, you know, and the conversation has to be outward.
ANDY SERWER: You mentioned capitalism. So I've got to ask you, what role does-- can companies and businesses play in addressing this problem?
TARANA BURKE: You know, I remember years ago when I said when there was this whole controversy about companies being people. Like, companies are made of people and they have to have a larger dose of humanity and humility when addressing these kind of issues, right? Which means that you have to create work environments-- we throw around safe space all the time, but really examine what safety looks like.
And that has to be based on the lived experience of the people who are making your company work, your employees and your staff people, and folks have to have honest conversations about what real safety and what people actually need and what they've experienced, and be unafraid. I just think-- what I do think that corporations have the ability to do is to be far more courageous than the government. Far more innovative, far more cutting edge and avant garde to try new things.
Because at the end of the day, let's say you only care about the bottom line. That's fine, but this increases your productivity. You'll be surprised how many more people you get, how many more qualified women you get into your jobs. How many more, you know, groups of people who can work together because you have invested in their safety and their soundness while they're at work.
That's what corporations need to be doing right now. We need to be looking deeply at these issues.
ANDY SERWER: As far as the government goes-- you mentioned the government. Does having a president like Donald Trump, or just does Donald Trump make all this work that much harder?
TARANA BURKE: Yes. Yes.
ANDY SERWER: Why?
TARANA BURKE: Well, I mean, he's a self-admitted sexual predator. People don't want to say that or call that thing a thing. But out of his own mouth, he talked about the ways in which he assaults women at will. That is how we define a predator. Somebody who does this without regard for another person's humanity.
And so having some bias-- that is a clear indication of how you think, how you regard women, how you regard people, how you regard boundaries. It's hard to set an example for young people, or even for people, when you don't have leadership that reflects any of those values.
And so, you know, you take that and then you marry that with how to get policy change. And I think, you know, we've seen the wave, right, with this last midterm election. We've seen a wave.
We're certainly progressing in government, and the government is not all just revolved around Donald Trump. So I don't want to create that impression, but it definitely doesn't make it easier.
ANDY SERWER: Speaking of maybe change coming, there's going to be an election coming up.
TARANA BURKE: Yes.
ANDY SERWER: Have you given any thought to which candidates are appealing to you?
TARANA BURKE: No, I think it's super early. I think that, you know, this field is going to be big, clearly. It's already pretty big. I think-- I wonder, I would love to know historically how this matches up to other presidential elections in this time period, of people vying for office already.
But there's so many people that there's no clear, to me, front-runner. And they all have good qualities, but also qualities that could be questionable, that should be questioned, and should be examined and, like, interrogated before we make that kind of decision. So I haven't made that kind of decision yet, but you know, there's a few people I'm a little excited about.
ANDY SERWER: Would the #MeToo movement ultimately endorse a candidate, do you think?
TARANA BURKE: I don't know. I think what we would do is-- like I say pretty clear of politics in that way because it is nonpartisan. There's no delineation on who is a survivor and who isn't. But I think what we would do is provide guidance for people in selecting candidates, right?
We should absolutely survive as our constituency, and we're a constituency that crosses every demographic. We cross across every demographic you can name, you can find people who are survivors. So I think we could provide guidance in how to vet politicians and make sure that you're holding them accountable for their track record on making communities less vulnerable to sexual violence. I could see us doing that.
ANDY SERWER: Is the #MeToo movement-- does it continue to unfold going forward? I mean, you see new stories of new ways of looking at this problem, maybe solutions. Is that right?
TARANA BURKE: It is. I mean, you see-- a lot of the stories we see are still a little bit salacious, a little bit individualistic. I think that it definitely continues to unfold because like I said, we're still unfolding the issue. And as the issue unfolds, we have to continue to add onto the conversations about solutions. So this will be unfolding and unfolding for a long time to come. So that's, without question, the movement is still unfolding.
ANDY SERWER: I mean, does the media need to pay more attention to those undercovered stories?
TARANA BURKE: Absolutely.
ANDY SERWER: Because you see-- you know, the latest story in "The New York Times" that I saw, for instance, was indie rock musicians. Again, it was a celebrity, and it was an interesting story, and maybe an important story. But you know, they did that-- "The New York Times" also did that one story about the women working in factories in Michigan, I think it was. So there was fewer of those, more ordinary people's stories.
TARANA BURKE: Yeah. I would love to see more ordinary people's stories, but I would also love to see more stories that look at systems. That look at how these things are allowed to happen. That look at people who are on the ground, trying to figure out a solution because, you know, none of us have absolute answers, or we'd be implementing them.
But a lot of us have different answers that we're trying, and we're trying to see if this works. And it'd be great to elevate both the people who are on the ground doing the work. Because what happens is that, you know, I've had a lot of visibility in the last year, and I absolutely feel proud to represent #MeToo and to represent our work.
But #MeToo, for me, represents a very particular lane. We are-- we exist to help survivors connect to resources that they need, to help them understand that these resources are available, and that they deserve to have them. That healing is possible and we can help you start crafting that journey.
And we're here to activate people into advocacy and action to end sexual violence. Those are two very clear buckets. We're also here to change the narrative so that people think about, talk about, react to, and respond to sexual violence differently. That's a lane.
There are-- Time's Up has a lane. People doing work on the ground have a lane, you know? Like, there are several different lanes to occupy, so it would be great to look at how the work of interrupting sexual violence is unfolding and how it's been impacted in the last year.
Because the other thing that hasn't happened is resources have not been redistributed to the people doing the work, but the volume has increased because people feel ashamed to talk about it now. So as they feel less shame, they're going out to find help. And the people who are providing that help aren't getting the resources they need to meet the value. So there's lots of interesting questions that could be great stories.
ANDY SERWER: One final question. Are you concerned about, or have you seen a backlash to the movement? And do you ever interact with people who think-- don't think kindly to what you're doing? Have you been able to have conversations with them and convince them? Can you talk about the other side a little bit?
TARANA BURKE: Well, there's tons of backlash. We deal with backlash every single day. I can't say that I've-- the kind of person that I would sit down and try to convince that we're doing good work are people who are maybe middle of the road, you know, who are-- who have bad information about the work. And if they had-- who I can tell if they had better information, would understand and be supportive.
But it does not behoove me to have conversations with people who are just contrary. Who have made up their mind that this is a bad thing, who have made up their mind that the old guard is what they want. They are comfortable in their misogyny and sexism and patriarchy, and sexual violence is, like, just, well, this is how the world works.
I don't have the time, the space, the mental energy to engage those people to convince them to be human beings. To convince them that my humanity, and the humanity of everybody is important enough to value-- to not violate them. We have much more work to do on the other side.
So the backlash is hard, and it's part and parcel, you know, with the work clearly. But we kind of deal with it as it comes. I think a lot of the narrative work that we're doing is helpful with the backlash, because I do think there's some of it is just not misinformation, not really understanding, right?
If you see big headlines that say "this person, that person, this person," you start feeling like, oh, this movement is just about, like, calling out these people. And then, you know, a lot of times people know, like, what they see in the news doesn't match their lived experience.
ANDY SERWER: Great, all right, thank you very much.
TARANA BURKE: Thank you.
ANDY SERWER: I'm Andy Serwer. You've been watching "Influencers." We'll see you next time.
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