The Current

Tarana Burke couldn't help a young victim of abuse. It inspired her to start the Me Too movement

In her new memoir, activist Tarana Burke describes how she founded the Me Too movement years before it became a viral hashtag.

Burke coined phrase Me Too in 2006, years before Harvey Weinstein case thrust it into a new global spotlight

Tarana Burke first began to use the phrase Me Too in the hopes of connecting survivors of sexual abuse and helping them with healing. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Read Story Transcript

The seeds of the Me Too movement were planted about 25 years ago, when its founder Tarana Burke met a young girl named Heaven at a summer camp in Alabama.

Burke was working at the camp and became close to the young girl, who was around 12 at the time. Heaven confided in her that she had been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. 

But Burke didn't know how to help.

"I was very young, 22 or 23 … and I just couldn't handle it. I sent her away," said Burke, who had also been sexually abused on a number of occasions as a child.

"I didn't have my shit together, to be quite frank, enough to be able to say to her, me too," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

WATCH | How a young teen inspired Tarana Burke to start Me Too

How a young teen helped Tarana Burke found the Me Too movement

2 months ago
Duration 3:06
When Burke wasn’t able to help a young girl who had been abused, she realized she needed to “get serious,” a decision that led to the start of Me Too. 3:06

Burke regrets not being able to help Heaven, who she never saw again after that summer. But the interaction led to personal reflection that had wider implications.

"I said, 'I know that this is the work I want to do,' meaning I want to work with Black girls like her," Burke remembers.

That prompted her to address her own trauma, in the hopes that she could one day help other survivors.

Burke's new memoir charts her journey from surviving sexual abuse to helping others do the same. (Raincoast Books)

"Then Me Too was essentially born. It didn't have a name yet, but it was the beginning of really starting this journey."

Burke has written about that journey in her new memoir Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement

The book recounts the sexual abuse and violence she suffered as both a child and an adult, and how she created space for survivors to share their stories together, to find healing. It also covers her reaction, a decade later, when Me Too became a viral hashtag for survivors to share their stories, after the case against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Burke is now executive director of the non-profit organization Me Too International, and was listed among the Silence Breakers named as Time Magazine's 2017 People of the Year.

Looking back, she thinks that Heaven came to her before she was ready, but set her on the journey to help others, and help each other.

"I'm trying to tell survivors that Me Too is first and foremost for us. We look at each other to say, 'Oh, that happened to you, it happened to me too,'" she told Galloway.

"We empower each other ... and then it's a declaration to the world," she said.

"But before we declare it to the world, we declare it to each other."

#MeToo left Burke 'defeated'

Burke first started using the phrase Me Too online in 2006, hoping to get survivors talking to each other. But over the years she struggled to get funding or wider recognition because "people don't want to talk about sexual violence," she said.

That changed when her words became a viral hashtag in 2017, after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a suggestion that anyone who had experienced abuse post the words "Me Too" in a show of solidarity. 

Her tweet, and the millions of similar posts it inspired, came in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and rape against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, who was later convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

#MeToo became a global rallying cry for a reckoning that swept the world. But when Burke woke up one October morning to see thousands of people using it, she worried that her work, and the people she was trying to help, would be co-opted and erased. 

"[When] it went viral talking about white women in Hollywood, I just felt defeated," she said.

"I felt like there's no way people are going to think this 44-year-old Black woman from the Bronx had already been doing this."

WATCH | Tarana Burke 'all over the place emotionally' as Me Too went viral

Tarana Burke coined ‘Me Too’ years before it went viral

2 months ago
Duration 3:39
As the Me Too movement went viral with the help of survivors in Hollywood, Burke worried that the people she wanted to help would be forgotten. 3:39

Burke also worried that "the meanings and origins would be separated, that people would never think about little Black girls — and quite frankly, that is what happened."

Burke said the Weinstein case put the focus on workplace harassment and the abuse faced by adult women, while child abuse and the "whole spectrum of sexual violence" got sidelined. 

She wrote her book to highlight that "the real origins of this started with a different kind of abuse, and started with my story." 

But she said that "a bigger thing" happened at the same time as the 2017 push for change.

She realized that the young Black girls she knew — living with sexual violence and sometimes little support or limited opportunity — need the same things as the survivors in Hollywood. 

"What survivors need is universal," she said.

"They needed to be heard. They needed to be seen. They needed to be supported."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now