Monday night, Tarana Burke stood on the Loretto Hilton Center stage and told students to do what she attempted everyday—use their experiences to speak their truth.
Burke has been involved in social justice movements since she was 14-years-old, but she has devoted the majority of her life to preventing sexual violence and helping survivors. Though her work became widespread because of #MeToo circulating Twitter, Burke founded the MeToo movement in 2007, before hashtags became popular.
She said she came to Webster University to talk with students about their own experiences and to assure them they could choose to tell their stories—their truths—at any time, or not at all. Burke said they should know she and other activists were working for all survivors.
“For everyone who can’t say it, trust me, I’ll say it for you,” Burke said.
Burke wanted to help survivors of sexual violence, but she did not realize just how much until a 13-year-old girl came to Burke with her story. The girl gave then 22-year-old Burke every detail of her assault, and Burke could not think of what to say. She did not know how to help. Later, she realized the girl really needed to hear one thing: me too.
After experiencing sexual violence at age six, Burke said it took her 26 years to tell her own mother, even though she talked about assault with others almost every day. She wanted to give every person, regardless of their gender or race, the space and opportunity to tell their stories and get help whenever they needed it.
She said the problem existed not only in America’s rape culture, but also in society’s former willingness to disregard survivors’ accounts and ignore their pain. Burke told students to make sure the people around them were not allowing past mistakes to resurface.
“We are a country that thinks in media cycles, and so this one is prolonged, and people are ready to move on,” Burke said. “They want to tie this up in a nice bow, but the level of pain and trauma that exists cannot be tied up in a bow. It can’t be ignored anymore. The cat is out of the bag, and now we have to really look forward toward making solutions.”
#MeToo went viral in October 2017, and Webster booked the event soon after. Colette Cummings is Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs (MCISA) director and felt proud to have Burke at the school.
Cummings said the movement excited her because she believes when women are given a platform to speak freely and publicly, change happens.
“I think the MeToo movement is pretty much saying [sexual violence] is not acceptable and allowing women to speak their truth,” Cummings said. “The broader society is saying if women are speaking their truth, we’re going to believe them. Because women are finally coming forward and sharing their truths, things will happen because we are a fierce bunch of humans. Women rule the world.”
Burke said women may be at the forefront of the movement, but she wanted students to know all people deserve to feel safe in their environments. She said the university owed students their safety, and they should not allow themselves to be pushed to the wayside.
Webster student Khaila Jones introduced Burke at the event and expressed concerns about student safety on campus. She said Burke’s event inspired her to further speak out against what she referred to as administrative negligence and to—like Burke—use her past experiences to help others.
“[Burke’s] experience is what makes her powerful because other people see that experience in her, and you can’t really do that with the name of an alma mater,” Jones said. “It’s just not going to be the same. You aren’t going to have that same connection that you are with somebody who’s been through the same things you’ve been through.”
Director of Public Relations Patrick Giblin said the university provided an educational and non-discriminatory environment where students could be assured all offenses were taken seriously.
“Webster University is committed to promptly and effectively responding to reports of sexual offenses and harassment and take appropriate actions to prevent, correct, and if necessary apply sanctions should the policy be violated,” Giblin said.
Webster University’s Title IX Coordinator is Phil Storm and can be reached at 314-246-7756.
Burke concluded her talk and told students they did not need her to make necessary change. She said they simply needed to tell the truth and find ways to help others.
“I believe survivors of sexual violence are not victims,” Burke said. “We are the people who have the ability to come up with strategy and a solution on how to end sexual violence in our own communities. We just need guidance.”