Twelve years before the hashtag phrase went viral, Tarana Burke was helping young Black girls in Alabama heal from sexual violence.

The first time Tarana Burke presented a wellness program for middle school girls in Selma, Alabama in 2005, she distributed sticky notes to each child. Then she asked the girls to write one of two thoughts: things they learned from that day’s session or “me too,” indicating that they had experienced sexual violence.

Burke and Cohen
Tarana Burkę and Professor Cathy Cohen

“Me and my home girl went back to our room, dumped the sticky notes,” Burke told Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, before more than 100 people at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, “and there were all these ‘me toos.’ Seventy-five percent of these girls wrote, ‘me too.’ We just cried. We were ill-equipped.”

Those were the early days of the original me too movement — and a dozen years before actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase in response to a friend’s Facebook post suggesting that women who’d experienced sexual abuse or harassment post the words to show the magnitude of the problem.

When Burke discovered how rampant sexual assault was among middle school Black girls in Selma, she struggled to figure out how to respond, even though she’d been working in community organizing for nearly a decade at the time.

“Then I realized what had helped me,” Burke told Cohen during the hour-long onstage conversation in March. “The women who wrapped their arms around me, literally and figuratively, and just improvised, just showed me deep amounts of grace and empathy, made me feel so safe and made me feel like I was okay, like I was a person, like what happened to me mattered.”

Burke's Book
Copies of Burke's Book were sold by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore

Burke has become a prominent activist for racial, economic and gender equality. Her acclaimed memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement (2021 Flatiron Books), in which she recounts her personal story of sexual assault, is a New York Times bestseller.

Burke and Cohen covered an array of issues related to the topic of sexual violence—from Burke’s own experience to Milano’s co-opting of ‘me too;’ from the importance of discussing sexual violence in the Black community to a more productive way to fight.

From fighter to leader

“I did not identify as a survivor,” Burke said of her sexual assault, which occurred when she was seven years old and from ages 9-12. “For all those years as a child, I felt complicit in my abuse. The men who molested me, in my mind, were not wrong or bad. I was a bad girl who had done a bad thing.”

To compensate, Burke tried to be “the perfect little girl” for many years. She ran track; was on the school honor roll; participated on the debate team. She regularly attended confession at her Catholic school, fabricating modest sins because of her shame, then doubling the penance the priest recommended.

Burke also read books that offer unflinching looks at Black history in the U.S, including Roots and Before the Mayflower. When she got to high school, “my religion became Black power,” she told Cohen. “I just decided to embrace anger as a new form of power.”

Fighting became an outlet for her rage. She was suspended 11 times in ninth grade before transferring to a different high school. By then, she’d grown tired of fighting, joined 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement and became active in civil rights in college.

After graduating from Auburn University at Montgomery, Burke went to work for 21st Century in 1996 in Selma.

Several events in her life drove Burke to begin the “me too” movement in Selma. Particularly powerful were her declining to share her own sexual assault when a young girl who shared her sexual victimization with her, and revelations of criminal charges against civil rights leader James L. Bevel for sexual abuse.

She was shocked and distressed to discover the vast, celebrity-driven social media storm that occurred immediately after Milano’s 2017 tweet, which the Associated Press reported was shared in more than 12 million Facebook posts, comments and reactions by 4.7 million users around the world in the first 24 hours.

And Burke remains agitated about the hashtag version of me too.

“When people hear me, they want to talk about court cases and Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly,” Burke said, referring to prominent court trials of the two celebrities, “and I’m like, ‘That’s b—t y’all. That’s just smoke and mirrors to confuse you.’ I am hoarse from yelling at the top of my lungs, ‘Stop being diverted. Stop being confused.’ They put a hashtag in front of the s—t I’ve been doing for 20 years and told y’all something else and y’all run behind it.

“And [they] keep celebrating me,” she added. “Stop celebrating me and talking about that nonsense. That’s not my work.”

"I don’t want to be in movement spaces with people who do not believe in politics that include love and grace and hope and accountability.”

Today, Burke leads me too., a global nonprofit that supports sexual violence survivors with several programs. Stopping sexual violence against Black girls and women remains a central effort.

In response to Cohen asking what the Black community should do to tackle the issue, Burke said the broader subject of sexual violence in the Black community must be discussed, even if it is “one of the most difficult things to do,” largely because sexual violence has been weaponized specifically against Black men.

“We have seen it over and over again,” Burke said. “We’ve seen it in the media. We’ve seen it in our communities. We’ve seen it in the most horrific ways actualized in our community.”

But, she noted, Black people must accept that the issue carries many truths.

“It is also true,” she said, “that R. Kelly is not Emmett Till.”

Sexual violence against Black women, Burke said, remains an undisclosed crisis. Serious discussions about human rights, mass incarceration, and police violence must include conversations about sexual violence against Black women, she said.

“You have to unpack these numbers,” Burke said, after sharing statistics on violence against Black women. “They’re not just numbers that we’re throwing out. This is adversely affecting us.”

During a brief question and answer session, a survivor of sexual violence submitted a question seeking advice for those who have declined to share their stories. Burke said that a survivor’s “first and highest responsibility” is to themself.

“I get people all the time who want to start a movement or join a movement,” she said. “They want to immediately jump to activism, and my first question is always, ‘What have you done for yourself?’ I think we underestimate the load that it is to carry survival.”

That point resonated with Harris student Umama Zillur, MPP Class of 2023. Born and raised in Bangladesh, Zillur works with organizations fighting gender-based violence and strengthening women’s rights there. Zillur also was impressed by Burke’s discussion of people on different journeys, even though they all are under the ‘me too’ umbrella.

“I’ve been following her work for a while,” Zillur said of Burke, “but I think it was so relieving to hear a completely new conversation. Even though we were so many people in the room, it just felt super intimate and real. That was very important to me.”

Accountability and love

Bozeman, Burke, and Cohen
Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Dana Bozeman, Burke, and Professor Cohen

Burke said her next book, Revolutionary Grace, might be controversial, in part because her vision of “a politic of liberation” includes “a politic of grace.” She’s been watching the way we fight, and thinks we need more grace, humility, and hope – but not in a way that equates those features with weakness and people who are pushed aside.

“I have decided that I don’t want to be in movement spaces with people who do not believe in politics that include love and grace and hope and accountability,” she told the audience near the close of the conversation. “But you cannot be accountable if you don’t believe in love.

“So, that’s where I’m at,” Burke said, “and you can hold me to those words.”