In the mid-1990s, Tarana Burke heard the confession of a girl at a youth camp who was experiencing horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.
In that moment, Burke couldn’t summon the strength to deal with the information, instead cutting her off and directing her to another counselor.
“I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too,” Burke wrote on her website, justbeinc.wixsite.com.
She was committed to never letting that happen again. In the following years, Burke and a friend worked with young women of color in the south, where they were “constantly encountering” girls who told them about experiences of sexual violence.
Burke and her friend were both survivors of sexual violence, and they grappled with what to do, she said. Burke started looking for resources in the community. She went to a local rape crisis center in Selma, only to be told that they only accepted referrals, so any prospective clients would need to first file a report with the police.
“I thought to myself, ‘What child is going to do that?’” Burke said.
So Burke went “back to the drawing board,” she said. Thinking back to her own healing process, she realized that what she needed most was empathy. The pair started going into schools and community centers, hosting workshops and conversations to give girls the vocabulary to deal with sexual violence.
“‘Me Too’ is so powerful, because somebody said it to me, and it changed the trajectory of my healing process,” Burke says. In 2006, Burke founded Just Be Inc., a nonprofit organization promoting the well being of girls of color.
“Our entry point with young people was like, ‘This is not just us coming to you to talk to you about something we don’t know about,’” Burke said. “We experienced this thing, we get it, we know that kind of pain and trauma.”
“Me Too is about talking to each other. It’s a conversation between survivors,” she said. “In its origin it was about, ‘Hey this happened to me too, and I get it and I understand you and I’m here for you.’”
After accusations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced in October, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged spreading the Me Too phrase as part of an awareness campaign to show the scale and ubiquity of the problem, tweeting, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
After just 24 hours, more than 500,000 tweets and 12 million Facebook posts had been shared with the phrase #MeToo.