Interviews with Tarana Burke and Laura Richards
On October 15, 2017 actress Alyssa Milano, tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within 24 hours, the #metoo hashtag had been used over 800,000 times.
Stories of women who were assaulted as children to stories of women experiencing injustice in the workplace are now being told all over the world using those two little words.
But Milano didn’t start the #metoo movement. In fact, it started in 2006 when Tarana Burke founded the me too Movement™ through Just Be Inc. to help survivors of sexual violence—particularly women of color from low-wealth communities—find pathways to healing. Her career as a youth worker exposed her to heartbreaking stories about broken homes and abusive or neglectful parents, she says.
Now, Burke says, survivors are feeling seen, validated and supported in ways they never have before.Today, the movement continues to liberate women to declare that they, too, have been sexually harassed or assaulted, including Lady Gaga and Gabrielle Union.
Women of Denver Magazine interviewed Burke and Colorado activist Laura Richards about #metoo, supporting survivors and getting involved.
Tarana Burke: Showing empathy is powerful
WODM: The me too Movement™ was birthed from your organization, Just Be Inc. which focuses on the health, well being, and wholeness of young women of color. Why was that mission important to you?
Burke: Women and girls of color are consistently treated as though our lives and humanity don't matter. We endure violence of all kinds, erasure and criminalization at disproportionate rates and have limited access to the support and resources necessary to navigate those things. As a black woman who is also a survivor of sexual violence, I knew that if I was going to do this work, I had a responsibility to center women and girls of color in it not only because it's the right thing to do, but because so few people and organizations acknowledge our humanity.
WODM: You founded the me too Movement™ in 2006 using the idea of "empowerment through empathy." Why use this method?
Burke: Empathy does far more for people than sympathy, which is the emotion many people pour onto survivors of sexual violence and abuse. Sympathy is rooted in remorse and pity, but empathy is the act of trying to understand what someone has gone through by putting yourself in their shoes.
Being a survivor myself, I remember feeling very alone, like no one understood what I was feeling. Pity doesn't help people move through their pain, but people showing empathy, saying in their own way “me too” and “I see you,” is powerful.
WODM: How did it feel to have Alyssa Milano, promote #MeToo on social media?
Burke: I was very surprised at first. It happened so quickly that I didn't have much time to process it. But Alyssa reached out to me shortly after the hashtag went viral to thank me for the work I have been doing for more than a decade.
WODM: How can we continue to support survivors outside of the me too Movement™ ?
Burke: Each survivor is different and has a different story, a different path to healing and different needs. It's important to not make blanket statements and assumptions about survivors and the kinds of support they need. Approaching survivors with compassion and empathy is key. Listening to them is the best way to learn how to support them.
Laura Richards: I want sexual assault in all its forms to be extinct
Laura Richards, a Colorado activist, decided to make her voice heard about the #metoo movement by organizing a rally at the Colorado state capitol in November 2017. She is a survivor of several sexual assaults. She gathered other survivors and advocacy leaders to bring more awareness to the issue and to highlight resources that are available in Colorado. Here’s what she had to say.
WODM: Why is it important to demand respect and equality for women?
Richards: Women have worked hard to open doors; when we first began in the workplace we juggled everything: career, children, home and marriage. It has been a long hard road.
Before 1993 we did not have the right in every state to press charges against our spouses for rape. We still do not get equal pay for equal work. I once found out a male colleague received more money than me for doing the same job. When I asked for a raise I was told he had to care for a family. At the time, I was a single mother having to do the same.
For me, the question should be, why would you not treat us with respect and equality? We have had to battle for every right we have today. The right to vote, the right to not be beaten by our spouse, the right to have control over our bodies and the right to own property. We must continue to demand respect and equality and fight for what is right. We have to honor the women that sacrificed so much so we can have the opportunities we have now.
WODM: What do you think of the culture for women in Colorado?
Richards: Women in Colorado are proactive, vocal, and engaged in their communities, families and careers. It’s amazing to see them embrace feminism in a way I couldn’t have imagined in the ‘80s. There’s a diversity that is phenomenal to watch.
We have strong, diverse women in our state legislature that bring so much perspective to the legislative process. The women who organized the Women’s March are young and vibrant, and they are carrying on the work of my generation. I am always in awe and have been honored to work alongside so many impressive women.
WODM: You told the Denver Post that you don't want the conversation to go back to the shadows. Can you explain?
Richards: Sexual assault hits the media for a minute then disappears off into obscurity. We make a few changes but can never really move the agenda to changing the culture. Organizations that provide free or sliding scale services get a little bump in donations, but then they fall back to the bottom of the list.
There’s a fear that we have been fighting this fight for so long, that once Donald Trump is not President and the issues (are not covered by the media) it will be like every other time. I think now we can capitalize on this opportunity and not allow it to fall back into the shadows.
WODM: What inspired you to organize the rally outside the capitol?
Richards: Our stories have power, but telling them only moves the agenda so far. In 10 years, I don’t want to hear more stories. I want to see women feeling safe reporting sexual harassment and receiving fair and equitable treatment (so they no longer) fear ending their careers. When rape victims report, I want to see more than 3 percent of of those cases being prosecuted. I don’t want people telling us what we should have done to avoid sexual assault.
I hope that one day, men and women will read history books to know what sexual assault is because the education exists. I want sexual assault in all its forms to be extinct.
That is what inspires me. I am driven by my sad story, but I am inspired by the courage of women who want to end sexual assault, especially for those who haven’t found their voice.
This article was originally published in Women of Denver magazine.