The woman who started the Me Too movement 11 years ago

Ms Tarana Burke founded the "Me Too" movement in 2006 to help women and girls who survive sexual violence.
Ms Tarana Burke founded the "Me Too" movement in 2006 to help women and girls who survive sexual violence.PHOTO: @STRANGEBIRD-PRODUCTIONS

WASHINGTON • Ms Tarana Burke was watching as #MeToo became an Internet phenomenon on Oct 15.

Soon, she started to panic. By the time celebrities were tweeting #MeToo, encouraging every woman who had survived sexual harassment or assault to do the same, she knew she had to do something.

"If this grows big," she recalled thinking at the time, "this is going to completely overshadow my work."

#MeToo, the viral awareness campaign that inspired millions of posts on Facebook and Twitter, did not begin with actress Alyssa Milano. It did not even begin as a response to the dozens of women who have spoken out about the alleged sexual misconduct of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. It did not begin in 2017.

More than a decade ago, Ms Burke was the one who identified the power of the phrase "Me too" as one that could help women.

She founded the "Me Too" movement in 2006 because she, as someone who experienced sexual assault, wanted to do something to help women and girls - particularly women and girls of colour - who had also survived sexual violence.

She is in the middle of working on a documentary, called Me Too, that comes out next year.

On the night of Oct 15, she began to tweet. "I had to ring the alarm," she said in an interview last Wednesday. "One, before my work is erased. And two, because if I can support people, I have to do that."

Viral campaigns such as #MeToo can work like interventions in the news cycle. This one emerged after weeks of growing accusations of sexual assault against Weinstein and has helped to redirect a conversation about one man towards another about women who have survived sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Ms Burke has staged her own intervention as #MeToo spread, with surprising success.

Her "Me Too" work was not well-known beyond the communities where she concentrates her activism, so those who knew her work began to tweet about it.

By Oct 16, Ebony magazine had a short feature on her and her life's work. Other outlets followed and, eventually, Milano, credited in many early media stories for starting #MeToo, also directed her Twitter followers to learn about the movement that preceded the hashtag.

Ms Burke, 44, grew up in the Bronx and has spent most of the past 25 years as an activist and organiser around the country.

In Alabama, she worked at an organisation that ran a youth camp. There was a girl there - Ms Burke publicly calls her Heaven when she tells this story - who clung to her.

"People called her trouble," she said. "And she was trouble because she was a survivor."

Heaven was about 13 years old. One day, she began to talk to Ms Burke privately about the sexual violence she had survived.

"I was not ready," Ms Burke said. "I rejected her."

She sent her to someone else. "She never came back to camp," she said. To this day, she does not know what happened to Heaven.

The guilt she felt became a refrain, a repeated question: "Why couldn't you just say 'me too'? "

In 2006, a year before the movement got its first grant, she started a MySpace page.

"MySpace got us a lot of attention. That was surprising. Our work until then was with young people," she said, "but we had so many women respond to the MySpace page."

One woman, a designer, donated 1,000 "Me Too" T-shirts. Ms Burke still wears one of them when she speaks publicly about the movement.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'The woman who started the Me Too movement 11 years ago'. Print Edition | Subscribe