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2018 / Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke, who popularized the phrase “me too” as a way to empathize with sexual assault survivors more than a decade ago, is the 2018 recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize.

Burke is a longtime social justice activist who, in 2006, co-founded Just Be Inc, a youth organization focused on the health, well-being, and wholeness of young women of color.

In 1997, when Burke met a young girl named Heaven in Alabama, she told Burke about being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Burke didn’t know what to say – and she never saw the girl again. Burke, an assault survivor herself, says she wished she had said “me too.” 

Last year, “me too” independently became a viral hashtag when used by actress Alyssa Milano in response to sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent flood of allegations of abusive behavior by other public figures.

In October, Milano acknowledged Burke’s earlier use of the phrase, tweeting that “the origin story is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring”. Burke has been supportive of the use of “me too” as a hashtag.

“On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed’ and ‘I’m not alone.’ On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says, ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it,'” Burke has said about the movement.
Burke is currently co-writing a book titled “Where the Light Enters,” which will tell her story and recap the emergence of #metoo.

Burke is the Senior Director of Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn.

Her career began in Selma, AL where, over the span of a decade, she worked with the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement helping to develop hundreds of youth leaders across the country; at the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute serving as a curatorial and special projects consultant and helping to organize the annual commemoration and celebration of the Selma Voting Rights Struggle; and as Executive Director of the Black Belt Arts and Cultural Center where she created and oversaw cultural community programs designed for underserved youth.

2018 Courage Prize Speech

Transcript of the Courage prize introduction and speeches

FATIMA GOSS GRAVES:  I have to begin by confessing that I am so, so excited, and a bit of a fan girl of Tarana Burke. So this is a big deal for me. [applause] And Tarana, it’s really a great honor to know you in real life, to know you as a leader, as an accomplice, and truly a force to be reckoned with, for the movement, for gender and racial justice. 

You know, the Ridenhour Courage Prize is awarded to an individual who has demonstrated a courageous lifelong commitment to telling the truth in pursuit of social justice. And I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this Courage Award in 2018. There’s no question that you have, in this moment, demonstrated the courage that we all need. The courage as a survivor of sexual violence, when you created #MeToo, you courageously told your own stories about your own experiences. But what is more, is that it gave voice to millions of survivors around the country and around the world. It gave us a way to name these experiences and to tell the truth about what has been happening.

And what we know is that we cannot counter sexual violence unless we are able to courageously name that truth, and name the truth about the culture that enables it, about the institutions that foster it, and about the survivors that have endured it. So thank you for providing that space. 
At the National Women’s Law Center, we think a lot about the sort of new narratives that are critical to launch us forward. And we were really excited to partner with so many others and launch on January 1st the Times Up Legal Defense Fund. [applause] I will just tell you a couple of facts about the Times Up Legal Defense Fund that I hope will inspire you all, because we have heard from over 2,500 courageous individuals since January 1, who have come forward searching for assistance. They are inspired because Tarana and others have helped people find their voice and begin to share their truth. 

The other thing I would just want to say about Tarana is that, as we have been working to launch forward these new narratives, from time to time there have been people—and I’ve seen this—who have tried to narrow #MeToo movement and what it means, who have been trying to sometimes take us off course. And every time that happens with endless amounts of grace, Tarana, both through her words and actions, brings us back to why we are here. She reminds us that this movement is created by and for survivors. And if we are ever going to get this right, we have to keep them at the center. She reminds us that this movement is dedicated to disrupting the systems that allow sexual violence to flourish and creating community and healing and joy and support for survivors. And she is challenging all of us to do better, forging a world where survivors, especially those whose experiences are so often not named, are heard, are seen, and are cared for. So it turns out that that is a courageous, a radical, and a revolutionary act. 

I want to end by sharing something that Tarana said to me not long after millions around the world erupted with #MeToo last fall. And it’s something that I’ve really held onto and found to be really powerful and beautiful. We were talking about the origins and future of #MeToo very late one night, when we begged her to do a Facebook Live at the last minute. And she said to me that #MeToo creates a bond between people. I cannot do this alone. But my God, if you are with me, if all of you are with me, we’re so much stronger.

This work is not easy. It is not speedy. And we will need to be sustained for the long haul to get through it. And what will sustain us is the bonds that we are all forging between #MeToo, between Times Up, for all of the work, and for all of us. So Tarana, our country will never be the same. And from all of us around the world, thank you. Please welcome Tarana Burke.

TARANA BURKE:  Thank you, Fatima. That was so lovely. It was so nice to find out that my friend Fatima was going to present this award to me. So I thank you for that. Wow. This has been a very interesting six months. [laughter] You know, we use “interesting” as a hold word when we can’t find all the other words to fill in. I could switch out “interesting” with so many things, definitely a wild ride.

When I was tapped, when I was called and said that I was going to be honored with this award, and that it was the Courage Award, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Are you sure?” And partly because I don’t necessarily think of myself as courageous. When I think about courage, I think about the child who first planted the seed for this movement in my heart. And I mean, there’s a little bit of the story in the book. But the child who I call Heaven publicly was, at 13 years old, 12 or 13 years old, adamant about being heard and about being seen and about being believed. And although she didn’t know what recourse she had, she knew that somebody needed to know her story, and somebody else needed to hear her truth. 
And although I was maybe 10 years older than her, I had not come to that realization myself. And so if not for the courage of that child reaching out to me and holding me accountable as the adult in her life who had professed their love for her, and said that I would stand up for her, if not for her coming forward and saying, “Hear me, Ms. Tarana. This is a thing that’s real in my life, and I need you to hear me.” If not for that moment, and my, what I have always categorized as sort of lack of courage in that moment, to not be able to hear her, to not be able to move my stuff aside long enough to make space for what she had for me, but marinating on that moment every second after that.

Because, while she was telling me her story, and I was thinking to myself, you know, I’m not a social worker. I’m not a counselor. I don’t have the right words. I don’t want to mess up, you know, the thing, when you deal with children, the one thing you don’t want to do is say the wrong thing. You don’t want to mess a kid up, right. You don’t want to put them on the wrong path. And I didn’t want to do that. And I kept thinking, “I don’t know what to say as I listen to her.”
But the thing that kept, you know, playing over and over in my mind, is this happened to me too. This thing that you are so boldly saying to me without any inhibition, this happened to me too. And I’ve never been able to speak about it. And here you are, at 13 years old, able to stand up and open up to me. And as soon as she walked away from me, I realized that those words were enough. That if I had just said those words to her, at least this thing that feels so isolating, and makes you feel so alone, would have opened up a world to her, to let her know that she wasn’t alone.

And so my vow after that moment became that I would never let another child, another person feel like they’re alone again. And if I have any bit of courage, it’s the courage that she gave me to stand up and share my story and say that, “You’re not alone in the world. And we’re not crazy. We’re not abnormal. It’s not us. It’s not your fault.” And that moment, married to this whole body of work that I had around social justice and the love for social justice and the love for justice and movement, became the #MeToo movement, when I realized that what my elders have been saying to me all along, as they taught me to be a community organizer, that community issues deserve a community response, applied to this too. This was a community issue. Any issue that affects child after child after child after adult after adult, women, men, young people, old people, that’s a community problem. And there had to be a community solution.

And so here we are, 12-plus years later, and to my surprise, we are in a world that’s ready to hear us. And so if that’s courage, I’ll accept it, you know. If that’s what courage looks like, I’ll accept it. [applause]. But I also say—I also, to Fatima’s point, say often that this is definitely not a one-woman show. I didn’t do this work by myself. I didn’t come into it by myself. And I stand on the shoulders of so many other courageous women, particularly courageous black women, who have gone unnoticed. This is not just about me standing up. I can be replaced by so many other people standing here. I think about women who work in rape crisis centers, and women who are doing advocacy work. And those of us who have been fighting against gender-based violence for 20-something years, and nobody was interested. You know. [applause] That takes a lot of courage.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up in a room of people who think about social justice in only one way, and say that we matter too. Our bodies matter. We deserve justice for our bodies. We deserve humanity. It takes a lot of courage to do that. And I’m certainly not the first, and I’m sure there’s a room full of people here who understand that.

So I want to say thank you so much. I want to acknowledge everybody here who decided to give me this award. I’m going to say thank you again to Fatima. And I, to be quite honest, I had not read about Ron Ridenhour before now. And once I got told about the award, I read all of this stuff. And I was just like, “This man is so dynamic.” I can’t imagine having that kind of courage in that moment, in the time of Vietnam, to do the things that he did. And so it’s deeply humbling to even be placed in that category.

And so I am hoping I can live up to that, and continue to do this work, with your help. This is a movement. A movement takes people. And so, and if people are really committed to that, we have a lot of work to do. This is not a culture shift yet. We are on the precipice, as one of my kids’ favorite words, “It’s the precipice.” Yeah. It’s like an SAT word, and they just ran with it. [laughter] But we’re right there. We’re very, very, very close. But I have to say, in a room full of people who are decision-makers, and movers, and shakers in this town, you have to know that, in this moment, if we don’t shift this narrative and start talking about this movement differently, I expect that, when people hear me stand up and speak about this, that you will go out into the world and talk about this movement differently.

This is not a movement about taking down powerful men. This is not a movement just about perpetrators. This is not about Hollywood. This is not about most of the things that you hear in the media. It’s about the human beings who have stood up and had the courage and the fortitude to say, “Help me. I need resources. I need some recourse.” It’s about people who have—I don’t even know how—held some of the most horrible things that have happened to them inside, for so long. And finally, the veil of shame is lifted, and we have a moment where people are listening. 

This whole idea of like, you know, people keep saying, “This is the year of the women. And women have found their voices.” Eh. [laughter] We’ve had our voices for quite some time. [laughter] [applause] So it’s not necessarily about giving people voice. I don’t give anybody a voice. But I do think that we are finding ourselves, and finding our voices in various ways. And now there’s a frequency that we’re on, that people can hear us. So we’re not going to stop talking at all. And I hope that you all will join us, not only in the conversation, but in the work. Thank you.