In front of a packed audience, Tarana Burke — founder of the “me too” movement to end sexual violence and a 2017 “Time” Person of the Year — explained the origin of the simple, yet powerful, phrase: “I really want to give you a heroic story about how I bravely stood up one day and made a bold declaration, but really it came from my inability to say it,” she admitted.
Burke’s intimate remarks kicked off the University of Vermont’s 12th annual Blackboard Jungle, a two-day symposium designed to support UVM faculty, staff, and students in developing skills, knowledge and a deeper understanding of inclusivity and diversity, as the keynote address on March 21.
More than 20 years ago, on the day Burke faltered to say “me too” to a young girl who was looking for support and to share her story of sexual abuse with her, the lifelong activist decided she never wanted to disappoint a child or herself like that again. So, she made a deal with herself: “If I'm truly committed to the work that I'm saying I'm committed to, then I have to do something to shift this. I have to do something internally to shift this. And that's when I started.”
Her path to illuminating the pervasiveness of sexual violence began by first allowing herself to heal from her own personal trauma, which she says is essential for all social justice activists who have experienced trauma. In her work, Burke fosters healing and inclusivity among organizers and staff by placing an emphasis on language and trigger sensitivity and interpersonal relationships, which affect everyone differently. Over the years, she’s been able to incorporate these standards of inclusivity into the fabric of her community.
Burke reminded the audience that college is the first community in which many young adults choose to actively engage. She then did something she does at every college campus she speaks to: reads the university’s mission statement back to its community. UVM’s mission statement is to create, evaluate, share and apply knowledge and to prepare students to be accountable leaders who will bring to their work dedication to the global community, a grasp of complexity, effective problem-solving and communication skills and an enduring commitment to learning and ethical conduct.
“To the administrators in the room, I challenge you to think about how your work to prevent sexual violence on this campus is reflective of that mission,” she said, after praising the mission statement. “And students, the solutions should be built around you…they should be built around your lived experiences on this campus.”
She concluded her keynote address by imploring the audience to be accountable for each other. Whether to change the status quo around sexual violence or any other social justice issue in a community, Burke suggested concerned community members start by reevaluating policies, changing behaviors, talking to family members, speaking up for others' actions—and doing these things with intentional urgency.
“This is our moment. This is our time. This is our movement, and if you are ready to do this work, ready to work together, ready to heal together, then I can only leave you with these two words: Me too,” she said to a standing ovation.