For years, Tarana Burke worked to support survivors of, and to raise awareness around, sexual violence. Then, in 2017, the name she had given her movement, Me Too, became the viral hashtag used in the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse case and quickly the identity for a global wave of action against sexual assault and harassment.
Burke’s leadership and activism has been hailed and recognized many times since then. On Wednesday, Burke was in Cambridge to receive another honor: the Gleitsman Activist Award, a $125,000 prize awarded annually by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. Past winners include civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis; Gloria Steinem, the women’s movement activist; and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
“Tarana Burke has been working at the intersection of racial justice and gender equity for nearly three decades. She started as a child fueled by a commitment to interrupt sexual violence and other systemic issues disproportionately impacting marginalized people, particularly black women and girls,” said Wendy Sherman, director of the Center for Public Leadership and professor of the practice of public leadership.
Burke’s visit to Harvard came just days after the conviction of Harvey Weinstein in his sexual abuse case. Burke addressed the wider question of justice for survivors of sexual violence, how society treats the abuse of the least powerful, and how the pain of sexual violence doesn’t discriminate.
On sexual violence as a social justice issue
“When there's gun violence and drugs or these other kinds of things that are in our community, we feel some personal responsibility. And this is why people don't fight around sexual violence the way they should, because we don't see it as a social justice issue. It's an individual issue. It's go get counseling go get therapy … get all the things that you need. But when one person loses bodily autonomy in the community, that whole community suffers. And if we don't start thinking about it from that perspective, we will have survivors just out here trying to fend for themselves and that's not the way this is—not our burden to carry.”
On the symbolic and real value of the Weinstein verdict
“The thing that happens to most survivors is when you get the thing you think you want, you realize you needed something else. And so, this is a moment where we need to be clear that we can't put all our eggs in this basket.”
On the unique challenges facing minority communities
“The reality is most survivors won't see the inside of a courtroom. But absolutely most women of color won't even get to the process to file a claim or to go through any sort of judicial process at all. … Whether white men, black men, black women—we have been socialized to respond to the vulnerability of white women, and because of that we put aside so many things and we push forward.”
On how sexual violence doesn’t discriminate, but the response does
“What I found out in these last two years, the white women in Hollywood who came forward, who have all the privilege, and all the money, and all the blah blah blah, they needed the same things that these little black girls in Selma, Alabama, needed when I started this work. It's not really different, this trauma. It is blind. This is why I say all the time, sexual violence doesn't discriminate, it's the response to sexual violence that we have to pay attention to.”
On what justice looks like to victims of sexual violence
“Our justice looks different. It just looks different for different people. But what we want more than justice—and there's data to back this up—is healing. We want a pathway back to ourselves and feeling whole. Most survivors don't think punitively, the first thought is not, ‘I want to get him or her,’ it is, ‘I want to get this thing out of me.’”
On the power for change that students can wield
“The thing I say to college students all the time is: ‘You have power now, you don't have to wait until you graduate. … You got a power in your pocketbook because you pay tuition. There are so many different ways in which you have power. You need to sit down and examine what those are and use that power to push back.’”