People & Places

'Me too' movement founder speaks to hundreds at University of Iowa

What happens after 'me too': Action, culture change needed, says Tarana Burke

Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette

Tarana Burke speaks Tuesday evening at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Burke is credited with creating the original “me too” concept that took over social media in 2017, giving voice to women affected by sexual violence and harassment. The “me too” movement, she said, is about what happens next.
Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette Tarana Burke speaks Tuesday evening at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Burke is credited with creating the original “me too” concept that took over social media in 2017, giving voice to women affected by sexual violence and harassment. The “me too” movement, she said, is about what happens next.

IOWA CITY — The country — in fact, the world — in recent months has been captured by the power, and perhaps the healing value, of simply saying “me too.”

Tarana Burke, the woman credited with creating the original “me too” concept in the mid 2000s, spoke to hundreds at the University of Iowa on Tuesday evening.

“The movement is actually about what happens after you say ‘me too,’ ” she said.

At the time she came up with “me too” campaign, she also launched a “me too” social media page and printed the first “me too” shirts.

She also founded Just Be Inc. — an organization focused on the health, well-being and wholeness of young women of color — all out of a passion for youth, a history of activism, and a twinge of regret she felt following a conversation with a young girl in 1996.

The teen had confided past sexual abuse. Burke didn’t say “me too.” But she could have. She wishes she would have.

“After I finished talking to her, and she walked away, that’s all I kept thinking about, is I wish I would have said that thing,” Burke told The Gazette before her UI appearance.

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Burke doesn’t share the details of her own story. She doesn’t believe that’s necessary to find the supportive and healing value of saying “me too.”

“I thought it wasn’t sufficient at the time, and I wish I had realized it was,” Burke said. “Sometimes people need more. Sometimes they need less. But they need at least that connection.”

Burke spoke at the Iowa Memorial Union a day after speaking at Iowa State University on what has become a national speaking tour of college campuses, where the issue of sexual violence and the culture that enables it has been under the microscope.

All three of Iowa’s public universities have made sweeping changes to their sexual assault response plans and initiatives in response to both campus criticism and national outcry. Both the UI and Iowa State are being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights for sex assault-related Title IX violations.

But Burke said the #metoo movement — which went viral after President Donald Trump’s 2016 election and landed Burke among “the silence breakers” named as Time magazine’s collective “person of the year” in 2017 — is setting the stage, potentially, for a culture shift.

“Our culture has not shifted,” she said. “I go to college campuses every day, and I talk to people who are still dealing with massive amounts of sexual violence or still getting lots of pushback from administration. But I think we have softened the ground.”

Today’s students hold the potential for tomorrow’s shifted culture.

“These young people who are coming up in college and high school and middle school will be where the shift happens,” she said. “If we handle this moment right.”

And that’s why Burke urges “me too” as just a start.

“It’s the most powerful part, but it’s the very beginning,” she said and call on UI students Tuesday to demand campus safety, to challenge administrators, to force change.

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“It’s about the work that has to happen,” she said. “The connections that you make, the power that we draw from each other, after the words are said. Because now I know that we’re family.”

A global family, she said, that no one wants to be a part of.

“Everybody would probably give their left arm to be out of that global community,” she said. “But the fact is that we are. And I think that’s where you build power from. And that’s where the healing begins. In that community.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.