Tarana Burke Tresolini Lecture

Left to right: Tarana Burke speaks to Vera Fennell, associate professor of political science at Lehigh, during the 42nd Tresolini Lecture.

Founder of #MeToo Movement Delivers 42nd Tresolini Lecture

Tarana Burke recalls the moment her movement went viral and says, "We still have so far to go.”

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, delivered the 42nd Tresolini Lecture Wednesday, reflecting on her work with survivors of sexual violence and the upcoming five-year anniversary of when #MeToo went viral on social media, prompting people to share their stories of survival.

The movement has since gone global, reaching China, India, Nigeria and other countries.

The last time Burke said she spoke to a group was in 2017, right as #MeToo was gaining national notoriety. At the time, she and her fellow organizers had to request to be on the program. Until #MeToo went viral, “the idea of being able to put this many people in a room to listen to me talk about the public health crisis that is sexual violence was the furthest thing from my mind,” she told those gathered in Baker Hall at Zoellner Arts Center.

“But beyond that, the hundreds and thousands of people who have told me their lives have changed, that they never thought they would find community, that they thought they would go to their grave with this thing buried deep in their heart—that’s what #MeToo made possible.”

A youth worker, dealing predominantly with Black children and children of color, and a sexual assault survivor herself, Burke first used the phrase “Me Too” in 2006. The #MeToo hashtag went viral in October 2017 when actor Alyssa Milano sent a tweet asking those who’d been harassed or assaulted to share stories or just reply “me too,” following revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein.

“As we approach this fifth anniversary, I urge you to have conversations with people about what Me Too has made possible,” Burke said.

After giving an introduction, Burke sat down for a question-and-answer session with Vera Fennell, associate professor of political science at Lehigh. One of the first questions was what a survivor of sexual violence should do if people don’t believe them.

Burke encouraged survivors to focus on those who do believe them.

“What shame does is, it tries to lure you in, keep you in the dark and make you focus on people who don’t believe you,” she said.

The other important part is to believe in yourself.

“I don’t think people who haven’t dealt with sexual violence or this kind of trauma understand how much we as survivors don’t believe ourselves,” she said. “We second guess ourselves, we doubt ourselves. I don’t know how many times I tried to make myself believe these things didn’t happen.”

“But beyond that, the hundreds and thousands of people who have told me their lives have changed, that they never thought they would find community, that they thought they would go to their grave with this thing buried deep in their heart—that’s what #MeToo made possible."

audience

The audience listens to Tarana Burke speak during the 42nd Tresolini Lecture.

A youth worker, dealing predominantly with Black children and children of color, and a sexual assault survivor herself, Burke first used the phrase “Me Too” in 2006. The #MeToo hashtag went viral in October 2017 when actor Alyssa Milano sent a tweet asking those who’d been harassed or assaulted to share stories or just reply “me too,” following revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein.

“As we approach this fifth anniversary, I urge you to have conversations with people about what Me Too has made possible,” Burke said.

After giving an introduction, Burke sat down for a question-and-answer session with Vera Fennell, associate professor of political science at Lehigh. One of the first questions was what a survivor of sexual violence should do if people don’t believe them.

Burke encouraged survivors to focus on those who do believe them.

“What shame does is, it tries to lure you in, keep you in the dark and make you focus on people who don’t believe you,” she said.

The other important part is to believe in yourself.

“I don’t think people who haven’t dealt with sexual violence or this kind of trauma understand how much we as survivors don’t believe ourselves,” she said. “We second guess ourselves, we doubt ourselves. I don’t know how many times I tried to make myself believe these things didn’t happen.”

As far as what universities can do to prevent sexual violence and foster a safe community, Burke said instances of assault should be talked about openly and university officials should be transparent in how they handle accountability.

Students should also take part in the conversation. They should talk to other young people who have experienced sexual violence, including those across the gender spectrum, since assault isn’t just a women’s issue, Burke said.

“I’m passionate about young people and I just feel like we underestimate these students in a lot of ways,” she said. “They should be central to whatever the solutions are."

Burke started her work supporting those who faced sexual violence after she graduated from Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. She went to work for 21st Century Youth Leaders in Selma, Alabama where she started a program specifically for girls.

“I wanted to train another cadre of activists, young activist women,” said Burke, who didn’t know at the time that her focus would shift to addressing sexual violence.

As she developed a relationship with the middle-school-aged girls, they started sharing their stories, and many of them included assault. Burke recalled running into a seventh grade girl after school who said she was waiting for her boyfriend. Burke was shocked when a 25-year-old man pulled up in his car.

“It started becoming increasingly clear we had a real problem,” Burke said. “I would say about 75 percent of the girls in my program had some experience with sexual violence, and this is seventh and eighth grade."

Q&A

Students line up to ask questions during a question-and-answer session with Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and speaker at the 42nd Tresolini Lecture.

Burke said #MeToo came from the idea that she needed to face her own assault to help others.

“I can’t expect these girls to tell me their stories or confide in me, and I don’t share mine,” she said. “These words can be the conversation starter, or they can be the whole conversation.”

Burke recalled when #MeToo went viral. She only used Facebook at the time and didn’t realize the hashtag blew up on Twitter. It was her 20-year-old child who directed her to Milano’s tweet.

“I searched it…and I watched it for hours and hours. The tweets were just never ending,” said Burke, who added that 12 million people used the hashtag in 24 hours.

When Milano made her initial post, she didn’t know #MeToo had already been in existence, though Burke said Milano reached out to her when she realized that was the case. Milano arranged for Burke to appear on “Good Morning America” to bring attention to her work.

“We accomplished more in the last five years than we probably would have in 20 years, and that’s just true because of the viralness and opportunity,” Burke said. “But with that said, we still have so far to go.”

Every 68 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

“It touches so many communities. It does not discriminate, but the response to it does, and we have to pay attention to what our response to sexual violence is,” Burke said.

In addition to #MeToo, Burke was among those recognized as “TIME Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers,” a special edition of TIME Magazine representing people who came forward to report sexual misconduct. She was also named as one of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People of 2018.”

Years before #MeToo became viral, Burke founded JUSTBe Inc., a nonprofit youth organization focused on the health, well-being and wholeness of young women of color.

Burke is now executive director of the me too. organization. She is also senior director of programs at the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity.

The Rocco J. Tresolini Lectureship in Law was established in 1978, in memory of one of Lehigh’s most distinguished teachers and scholars, Rocco Tresolini (1920-1967), who served as professor and chair of the Department of Government.

Burke is the latest in a long line of luminaries to deliver the Tresolini Lecture, including journalist Carl Bernstein, public intellectual Cornel West, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Watergate-era White House Counsel John Dean, Bush v. Gore attorney David Boies, and Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck.

Last year’s speaker was activist, legal scholar and award-winning author Mary Anne Franks who gave a virtual lecture titled, “The Faithless Constitution: Rights and Responsibilities in the 21st Century."

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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