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Tarana Burke: Me Too movement can't end with a hashtag | Elizabeth Wellington

Tarana Burke is grateful for the way Alyssa Milano's tweet galvanized survivors and inspired empathy. But she doesn't want the movement to end with a hashtag.

Tarana Burke is the originator of the Me Too movement.
Tarana Burke is the originator of the Me Too movement.Read moreKaia Burke/Strange Bird Productions

Sexual harassment and assault survivors' response to actress Alyssa Milano's social media call to tweet #MeToo last week was as swift as it was breathtaking, astonishing, and heartbreakingly sad.

So many women. So many stories.

By week's end, the hashtag that went viral in response to numerous allegations of sexual assault by producer Harvey Weinstein had been tweeted 48 million times, Twitter told the Associated Press.

The #MeToo movement was started by onetime Philadelphia artist, fashion blogger, and agent for social change Tarana Burke on her MySpace page 10 years ago.

Burke is grateful for the powerful way Milano's tweet — the celebrity acknowledged Burke's connection to #MeToo a few days later —  galvanized survivors and inspired empathy. But she doesn't want the movement to end with a hashtag.  That, she says, leaves too many survivors with nowhere to put the raw feelings unearthed by those two powerful words.

"Imagine your social media timeline is filled with sexual violence and you, too, are a survivor," Burke, 44, now of the Bronx, told me last week.

"That is traumatizing. … If you make something [like this] viral, you have to be prepared to help people deal," Burke said. "You have to give people something else besides the disclosure."

Burke knows.

She's a three-time survivor of sexual violence. She was raped when she was 6 by the child of a friend of her mother's. She was molested off and on for three years by a teenager who lived in her Bronx neighborhood. She was raped as an adult.

"It was an acquaintance rape," Burke said. "It was a first date with someone."

And, she said, that doesn't account for all the street harassment she's endured.

While living in Selma, Ala., during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Burke worked with young people, many of whom shared stories of sexual violence.

One day, she looked into a young woman's eyes and instantly knew what the young lady was going to tell her. Burke, who hadn't quite fully dealt with her past yet, avoided the young woman. Later, she felt horrible.

"I cut her off," Burke remembered. "She was so hurt and devastated. That moment taught me the power of empathy. All she needed was to hear the words, 'Me, too.' "

She decided to seek advice from a local rape-crisis center. These girls needed help. But when she got there, she was told rather coldly that the center would work only with girls who were referred from the local police department after they filed a police report.

She thought to herself: "Who is going to do that?"

In 2003, she started Just Be Inc., a nonprofit that helps women heal from sexual assault. She named the movement Me Too in 2007.

"The work is more than just about the amplification of survivors and quantifying their numbers," Burke said. "The work is really about survivors talking to each other and saying, 'I see you. I support you. I get it.' "

Burke moved to Philadelphia in 2008 and worked at a number of nonprofit jobs, including at the Art Sanctuary. While here, she connected with community activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who helped her connect with young women who needed help. Through the Me Too movement, Burke facilitated workshops in workplaces, places of worship, and schools.

Much of Burke's work has been focused on helping women understand they are not to blame for what happened to them. Women are taught, she said, to follow the rules that include dressing modestly and staying out of certain neighborhoods. The reality, however, is that all too often women — and young  girls — are attacked when they are following the rules. Or before they even know there are rules.

"I want the women I work with to find the entry point to where their healing is," Burke said. "Violence is violence. Trauma is trauma. And we are taught to downplay it, even think about it as child's play."

I grew up in Queens, on a block with predominately young  boys. (It wasn't until I was a tween that the girls moved in.)  We used to play in the street, swing on the swing set in my backyard, play skelly. We all learned to ride our bikes together.

They were all a year or two older than I was.

One Saturday afternoon, about  two weeks before my first Holy Communion, they started roughhousing with me. I knew I should be scared, but I didn't know why. They pinned me down. I kicked and fought. I remember bumping the back of my head. I think my shirt ripped.

Then one of the boys' mothers yelled out: "Get. Off. Of. Her!"

Just like that, they scattered. I got up, dusted the leaves out of my hair. And the child's mother mumbled about me being too old to play with the boys on the block now. She told me to be careful. She told me I didn't want to ask for trouble.

When I walked back to my house around the corner, my hawkeyed mother immediately knew something was wrong.

"What happened?" she asked.

I started to cry.

"Did they try to pull your pants down?" my mother asked. Looking back, I could tell she was frightened.

I was afraid to say anything. I knew I was going to get in trouble. I knew it was my fault. I didn't want to get my friends in trouble.

I stopped going out to play after that. When the guys saw me, they teased me for about a year. I felt dirty. Eventually, it was forgotten. Those boys grew into high-top faded teenagers and later men. We stayed friendly; after all, it was no big deal, right? Yet the older I got, the more I understood what could have happened to me. My heart would beat fast. My hands would get cold. So I pushed it down very deep.

And last week I was reminded why I feel skittish around groups of men — even ones I know.