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#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke on the Rigorous Work That Still Lies Ahead

Twelve years ago, I could never have predicted all that has happened in the past 12 months. Historically, in this country, there has been very little space to talk about sexual violence in ways that focus on survivors and solutions, especially in the media. Cases that should have signaled a serious, persistent problem were reduced to salacious gossip and tawdry headlines; the last year hasn’t done much to change that.

Some might see the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves as bookends to this year. But look closer and you’ll find at both the beginning and the end are survivors and allies refusing to stay silent while people in power inflict harm without recourse. And we’ve just scratched the surface. To many in the public, that seems to translate to the belief that the outing of perpetrators is the main goal of the #MeToo movement when that is the furthest from the truth. Calling out individual bad actors doesn’t get us to the root of the problem. 

It’s no secret that Hollywood runs off power, privilege and access, and because of that it is important in this moment to also examine the ways that unchecked privilege and power accumulate and are wielded against the most vulnerable. We know this doesn’t just happen in Hollywood, so we have to do the same kind of rigorous investigation and analysis of the culture within all our major corporations and communities that consistently allows sexual violence to occur again and again.

What the world recognizes as the #MeToo movement was built on the labor of everyday people who survived sexual violence in a number of forms. Some were harassed, some survived child sexual abuse or other kinds of sexual assault, but all of them endeavored to stand in their truth. All at once starting last October, millions of people raised their hands and voices to be counted among the number of people who had experienced sexual harassment, assault and abuse. More than 12 million in 24 hours on Facebook. Half a million in 12 hours on Twitter. And the numbers kept growing. But as soon as the mainstream media got over the shock of the sheer volume of those who counted themselves in, it immediately pivoted back to what was happening in Hollywood. While that was driven by the dynamic investigative journalism of people like Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker, what was happening around the world was driven by the courage of people from all walks of life. If we don’t shift our focus and actually look at the people saying, “Me too,” then we are going to waste a really valuable opportunity to change the nature of how we think about sexual violence in this country.

If we could pull back from focusing on the accused and zero in on the ones speaking out, we would see common denominators that bridge the divide between celebrity and everyday citizens: the diminishing of dignity and the destruction of humanity. Everyday people — queer, trans, disabled, men and women — are living in the aftermath of a trauma that tried, at the very worst, to take away their humanity. This movement at its core is about the restoration of that humanity.

This is one reason that the weaponization of #MeToo has been so shocking. Several men and some women, many of whom are rich and powerful, have mischaracterized this movement out of their own fears and inability to hold a nuanced perspective. These same folks are quick to assign blame to the victims of violence based on the media’s obsession with who will be “found out” next. So, instead of homing in on the pervasiveness of sexual violence, the focus is on the accused and what’s at stake for them: What’s going to happen to their careers? What are the consequences for the companies that employed them? What are the consequences for the industry they’re in? But how many articles were written about the consequences for the women still working at places like NBC and CBS? The details of those experiences are going to mirror those of so many people. Knowing those stories gives voice to those who survived sexual violence as opposed to the people who perpetrate the violence.

All of the shouting and headlines about who #MeToo is going to take down next creates a kind of careless perception that invalidates the experiences of survivors who risk everything coming forward, whether it’s telling their stories, sharing a hashtag or being transparent and vulnerable about some of the worst things that have happened in their lives.

The din of naysayers has, in many regards, severely overshadowed the beauty of what has happened this year. It has been a year of great liberation and empowerment. Every day I meet people who have moved from victim to survivor by simply adding their own “Me too” to the chorus of voices. They have freed themselves from the burden that holding on to these traumas often creates and stepped into the power of release, the power of empathy and the power of truth. They have looked their demons in the face and lived to see another day, and they have become the empirical proof that we can win the fight to end sexual violence.

Moving into 2019, some concrete things must happen in order to build on the momentum we have gained in the last year, starting with changing how we talk about the #MeToo movement. This is a survivors’ movement created for and by those of us who have endured sexual violence. The goal is to provide a mechanism to support survivors and move people to action. Any other characterization severely handicaps our ability to move the work forward.

Thousands of women in Los Angeles joined the #MeToo Survivors’ March in November.
MediaPunch/REX/Shutterstock

We also need to have a more intentional public dialogue about accountability, and not just the kind that focuses on crime and punishment, but on harm and harm reduction. Narrowing our focus to investigations, firings and prison can hinder the conversation and the reality that accountability and justice look different for different people. We need to refine our approaches for seeking justice to reflect that diversity. Sexual violence happens on a spectrum, so accountability has to happen on a spectrum. And that means various ways of being accountable are necessary. Survivors have to be central to that accountability, and they must be the ones leading and dictating what that accountability looks like. Without that, there’s no clear path for people, especially public figures, to regain the trust of those they’ve harmed and let down. This is playing out publicly as many of the celebrities and entertainers whose behavior was exposed are now attempting comebacks without having made amends to those they harmed, publicly apologizing, or acknowledging how they’re going to change their behavior, industries, or communities to help end sexual violence.

Apologies, in and of themselves, are not work. They precede work. The men who are trying to come back have not done any work. Not that I have seen. Oftentimes it’s about intent versus impact. So even if you think you’re innocent of the actions you’re being accused of, human decency dictates that you say, “OK. I want to hear what your experience in that moment was.” Terry Crews is a perfect example. He said, “My experience with this thing was that you made me feel that I was humiliated. I was overpowered. You took away my dignity.” There is not a plot to excommunicate people for life, but the accused should have the respect, at least, to show that they’re committed to change. Show your work.

It is also necessary for us to expand the scope of the movement in the mainstream. In 2006, I launched the #MeToo movement because I wanted to find ways to bring healing into the lives of black women and girls. But those same women and girls, along with other people of color, queer people and disabled people, have not felt seen this year. Whether it was the near abandonment of Lupita Nyong’o when she revealed her experience with Weinstein, or Lena Dunham’s support of the man Aurora Perrineau accused of rape, there was a sharp difference in the response to black women coming forward. Russell Simmons has 18 accusations of rape, sexual assault and sexual misconduct against him, largely by black women, and yet there is no media frenzy around him or his accusers. The depth and breadth of sexual violence in this country can’t be quantified, but it definitely doesn’t discriminate, and we won’t begin to really understand its impact unless we look at the whole story.

TARANA BURKE Variety Cover Story
CREDIT: Nyra Lang for Variety

I can’t stress how critical our next steps are. It’s been almost 30 years since Anita Hill testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she endured at the hands of now Justice Clarence Thomas. It is so disheartening that we’re here again, but it’s just another reminder about where we are as a country and how this movement still has to be powered by everyday people who vote, who are vocal, who are active, who are tuned in and aware of how it’s bigger than Hollywood, and bigger than politics.

For our part we are building out our work both online with the October launch of our new comprehensive website and on the ground through programming and partnerships. We have also partnered with the New York Women’s Foundation to create a #MeToo movement fund that will raise $25 million to put toward working to end sexual violence over the next five years. Our goal is to keep expanding the work and building the movement.

For too long women and others living on the margins have managed to survive without our full dignity intact. It can’t continue to be our reality. The work of #MeToo builds on the existing efforts to dismantle systems of oppression that allow sexual violence, patriarchy, racism and sexism to persist. We know that this approach will make our society better for everyone, not just survivors, because creating pathways to healing and restoration moves us all closer to a world where everyone knows the peace of living without fear and the joy of living in your full dignity. I intend to keep doing this work, from within this amazing movement, until we get there.

#MeToo: The Year That Rocked Hollywood
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As told to Debra Birnbaum

Longtime civil rights activist Tarana Burke is the founder of the nonprofit Just Be Inc., which promotes the health and well-being of young women of color. She launched the Me Too movement in 2006 to raise awareness about sexual harassment and abuse. When the phrase “Me too” went viral as a hashtag on social media in the days after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, Burke stepped into the national spotlight for her work on behalf of survivors of sexual violence. Variety celebrated Burke as one of our Power of Women honorees in May. “It is a mistake to think of this as a moment,” Burke said at the event. “Movements are long, and they are built over time. Movements are made from moments.

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