MeToo leader urges people during UC Irvine appearance to remember the ‘walking wounded’ of sexual violence

Tarana Burke, leader of the MeToo movement against sexual abuse, arrived at the Irvine Barclay Theatre to a standing ovation Monday night.

Burke — currently senior director for Girls for Gender Equity, a nonprofit based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that focuses on “the physical, psychological, social and economic development of girls and women” — was invited to speak at the UC Irvine campus as part of the Perspectives on Bias, Prejudice and Bigotry Lecture Series organized by the university’s Office of Inclusive Excellence. The conversation was facilitated by Douglas Haynes, vice provost for academic equity, diversity and inclusion.

Haynes described Burke as “a leader of a social movement that is transforming our society.”

“The movement she launched now more than a decade ago is global as much as it is local and national,” Haynes said in a statement. “It is a movement that derives its power and purpose from the possibilities of empowerment through empathy to support survivors to heal and repair their lives on their own terms.”

The dialogue focused primarily on the movement’s history and development, the emergence of #MeToo as a social media hashtag and how to move beyond it.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, nearly one in five women experiences sexual assault or attempted assault as an undergraduate student and 31% of females ages 14 to 18 report being a victim of sexual assault or violence.

The issue “is no less about dismantling and repurposing power and privilege — not to ‘destroy and take,’ but rather to serve a vision where every individual has the right to walk through this world with their humanity intact,” Haynes said.

Burke founded MeToo in 2006 with a focus on helping victims of sexual violence heal, particularly young women of color who lived in lower-income neighborhoods. It spun out of another organization that Burke led called Just Be Inc., which focused on empowering young women of color to “set or reset the trajectory of their lives.”

“Our intention wasn’t at first to deal with sexual violence. It was all this other stuff, but the violence was just there,” Burke said. “I realized we can’t keep plugging away at worthiness and leadership development without dealing with this gaping hole in our children.”

The movement is working to reframe the conversation around sexual violence to include “a broader spectrum of survivors.”

The phrase “me too” went viral in 2017 after sexual abuse allegations surfaced against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a request for her followers to reply with “me too” if they had experienced sexual harassment or assault.

“Alyssa actually to me is an example of what allyship looks like,” Burke said.

“Fifteen million people [responded] to a hashtag in 24 hours. ... Every hashtag is a human being. That’s people, literally, saying, ‘My life has been affected by this thing too,’” Burke said.

She encouraged student activists to be “authentic” in their work and to continue the fight well after media attention disappears.

“Forget about the headlines … and recognize we are the walking wounded and we have 15 million people,” she said. “That means we have so many people right next to you [who] every single day are holding onto this thing, who have this pain, who are trying to recover.

“I want to urge people to see the urgency in this moment. This is human lives that we’re talking about. Sexual violence is connected to so many other ways that people’s lives are destroyed every day … directly from the violence or the repercussion of the violence.”

Annie Le, president of Associated Students of UC Irvine, said Burke was “empowering” and that she was glad the campus invited her to speak.

“Tarana is the black woman who started and leads one of the most important movements of contemporary time, the MeToo movement,” Le said. “It’s important to acknowledge her work, remember her name and further examine the moral implications of our time.”

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