Tarana Burke's #MeTooHBCU Tour Is Creating a Safe Space for Students to Speak Out

Activist and Me Too founder Tarana Burke sits in the center of the safe circle gathering of campus activists at the Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center in Atlanta on April 9.
Photo: Courtesy of Me Too

It’s no newsflash to us that the broader #MeToo movement has looked very different for black women. National headlines have put a spotlight on convicted comedian Bill Cosby and alleged sexual predator R. Kelly, but black survivors have arguably not been as prominently highlighted or compassionately addressed.

Subsequent to the groundbreaking Lifetime docu-series, Surviving R. Kelly, Gayle King’s interview with R. Kelly overshadowed the trauma of the brave survivors who came forward to speak up, almost making them invisible again. Not having the tools and resources to be seen and heard is one of the many reasons sexual violence continues to thrive in our communities. It’s one of the many reasons Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, insisted on doing the #MeTooHBCU Tour (The Root is a media sponsor of the tour).

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During the tour’s April 9 visit to Atlanta University Center—one of the stops on the five-city tour that kicked off April 2 at Howard University, where her daughter is enrolled, and ends on April 19 with Florida A&M—Burke, who attended Alabama State University (which is also on the tour), shared why this tour was especially important to her.

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“The problem is universal. The response to the problem is fragmented and it’s deeply under-resourced at HBCUs. So I could come and make a speech very easily...and people would be like ‘Oh thank you for coming; I’m deeply inspired,’ but inspiration is fleeting,” Burke told The Root between programs taking place during the daylong event. “It’s April—is that inspiration going to carry you over until August?

“What always comes up is, there are no resources, so we created grants and we got sponsorships so that it would be free. It was important to me that we eliminate any barrier to a no. So, if you don’t want to deal with this issue for whatever reasons, you’re not going to tell me it’s because you can’t afford it.”

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The fireside chat held later in the evening featuring a panel that included Burke and actress Aisha Hinds, among others, is what usually attracts media attention. The earlier gathering of student activists from Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University at the top of Woodruff Library typically doesn’t. In a circle of nearly 20 students, Burke created a safe space where they were free to share how they see the problems, what campus culture is truly like, how school administrations really respond to threats students face as well as what changes needed to be implemented.

Some spoke of how campus policies either portray sexual violence as a cause for concern when it happens to close family members or as something committed by perpetrators who are strangers to their victims. Peer-to-peer violence on campus, as well as same-sex sexual violence, are not being adequately addressed, the students revealed. Some also brought up the fact that many students are coming to these schools with existing sexual trauma and that there were very few resources, if any, to address that reality.

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Students were also extremely conflicted about the larger ramifications of calling their schools out. Some cited the recent financial struggles of Bennett College—which are unrelated to any claims of sexual violence—fearing that any sexual assault scandal would add to the precarious financial states many HBCUs already face.

Speaking to The Root immediately after the gathering of students, Burke expressed empathy for their position. “This is the universal conundrum that we have in our community because, generally, we’re operating under systems of oppression that render us less than, in many ways, with less resources, less access, less opportunity,” she said. “And so the things that we cull together to give us a little more access are vulnerable. So it’s a catch-22.”

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One student noted that, while we are in an age where “social justice is cool, it’s not seen as work.” Burke—who trained under civil rights veterans Rev. James Orange and Rev. C.T. Vivian as part of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Group when she was growing up in the projects in New York City—sees this work as an extension of her longtime civil rights activism.

“People don’t think of sexual violence as a tool of oppression, but it really is. We don’t understand sexual violence, the pervasiveness of it. Folks don’t understand how deeply it impacts individuals, but communities...There’s an economic impact, there’s a heath impact, there’s a personal impact,” she said.

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“When you get into the nitty gritty of it and the work that has to be done, it’s deep and uncomfortable because there’s going to be a lot of upending of things that have become norms.”

It took over a decade for #MeToo to become a catchphrase for awareness about sexual violence against women, and Burke anticipates that changing the culture where patriarchy and misogyny have long been the norm will also take time.

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“You have a hashtag that really is a galvanizing tool. The hashtag, in and of itself, is not a movement. ...What we discussed here today will take 10 years to see actual change.”

And no amount of celebrity is going to disrupt the core of who she is and the work she’s been called to do. “Regardless of what visibility you see me have,” she said, “I’m still committed to this work on the ground.”

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Correction: 4/13/19, 1:13 p.m. ET: Tarana Burke attended Alabama State University and was not a graduate of Alabama A&M.

Editor’s Note: 4/12/19, 10:33 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to note that The Root is a media sponsor of the #MeTooHBCU Tour.

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About the author

Ronda Racha Penrice

Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer who resides in Atlanta. She is the author of "African American History for Dummies."