Me Too founder Tarana Burke, UW community demand broader conversations surrounding sexual violence

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Me Too founder Tarana Burke, UW community demand broader conversations surrounding sexual violence

UW-Madison’s Memorial Union auditorium buzzed with hundreds of students, faculty and community members who awaited Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, to speak.

Sexual violence is not a new issue on college campuses, but the power of Me Too has forced higher education to find its place in the movement.

Burke said in order for students to have conversations about sexual violence in the outside world they should be able to have them within their campus community.

“There should be an inherent commitment in this school to provide [safety and protection] for you,” Burke said.  “There should be an inherent commitment to make this community less vulnerable to sexual violence and based upon the conversations I had today, there is not.”

The history of Me Too

Grappling with her own history of sexual violence, Burke founded the Me Too movement in 2006 as a way to give young people a platform to talk about sexual violence and a space to heal.

“We were just giving language and basic organizing skills, because we believed people with the lived experiences should be at the forefront,” she said.

The hashtag began in 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If all the women and men who have been sexually harassed, assaulted or abused wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. #metoo.”

One year later, 19 million people had posted #MeToo, according to a Pew Research study.  

While the hashtag increased public awareness of the movement, Burke emphasized Me Too is more than just a hashtag.  She said her work began by and continues to provide healing and advocacy for all survivors, especially for historically marginalized people.  

Burke recognized that conversations about sexual violence have never occurred in the same manner they are now and encouraged the audience to “not waste this moment.”

She said Me Too would not be where it is today without individuals making a decision to speak up about being “in a number no one wants to be a part of.”  Me Too going viral has brought more people into the movement to end sexual violence — higher education heavily felt its impact. 

Me Too at UW-Madison: In class and on campus

While the hashtag has thrown the entertainment industry and businesses into the limelight, UW-Madison PhD candidate and business ethics lecturer Aaron Yarmel said students can gain tools to address sexual violence by studying Me Too and related topics from a variety of fields’ perspectives.

“You’re making a mistake if you don’t [address Me Too in class],” he said.

Other educators, like Center of Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver agreed Me Too has an important place in curricula.  

“Me Too is the mother of all case studies for crisis management — it’s something that’s going to be on syllabi for years,” she said. 

However, Culver mentioned she aided a former student in securing an internship, who later experienced sexual assault on the job. When the student was hesitant to ask for help, Culver recognized the university has a role beyond coursework — faculty and staff need to be an accessible resource for students.

“I feel that I am absolutely a resource for students who have been put in a position like that, but if students don’t feel that you are someone they can come to, if you’re just sort of reinforcing the power structure, that’s something we have to solve,” she said.

Jenna Herr, a graduate student in the UW-Madison School of Business, said even after serving as co-president of Women in Business — where she would encourage any woman to feel comfortable stepping forward and being supported — she’s been in a situation where she felt support might not be available. 

“It’s a difficult time to navigate for sure,” she said. “I think that professors and other mentors and advisors within the school definitely have a role [in supporting students].” 

Culver said UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication aims to inform students of avenues they can follow to report sexual violence and get help from professors and advisors. The process professors follow upon receiving this information should be scrutinized to ensure situations don’t get overlooked, she added.

Yarmel said he tries to provide students tools to think critically about instances of sexual harassment and encourage students to work collectively in class so they develop an ability to discuss difficult topics.  

The business ethics course Yarmel teaches has a full unit on sexual harassment, as well as a space for allowing conversations on related topics to emerge naturally so students have an opportunity to discuss what is meaningful to them, he said.

Herr said she likes the dialogue with her peers that occurs in class regarding current social movements like Me Too and is proud that she has never had a professor “shy away” from those conversations.

The future of campus saying Me Too 

Burke said much of the buzz generated by #MeToo centers on the workplace, but she was clear it is about the “entire spectrum” of sexual violence, including college campuses. 

Higher education should “help students realize you deserve respect: this is how you can expect to be treated and if you’re not, these are the skills that you need to be able to communicate that,” Herr said.

Students should be treated with dignity and respect on campus, Burke said. How students expect to be treated on campus should mirror how they expect to be treated in the real world.

Student experiences with sexual violence on campus is different from the workplace because campus is an “all-encompassing environment” and the workplace often isn’t, Yarmel said. However, he emphasized that addressing both forms of sexual violence requires improving communication.

“We have a general problem in our society where people don’t talk to each other, people don’t have these really difficult, deep conversations about social problems in a civil and reasonable way,” he said.

Burke urged students to talk with each other to build inclusivity on campus. 

“There’s a group of people on this campus that has never spoken to another group of people on this campus. And I guarantee you probably have very similar experience,” she said. “Freak them out, ‘why are those two groups together?’ Get people whispering, ‘Did you see the Black Student Union and Delta Delta Delta.’’’

Burke praised UW-Madison’s mission statement, which seeks to “help students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the complex cultural and physical worlds in which they live and to realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical and human development.” 

She said the university’s work on sexual and racial violence can help achieve this mission, but questioned its commitment to making tangible changes.  

Burke parted with a message to the university: “Don’t invite me to your school and think you’re checking a box. Y’all haven’t done anything yet.” 

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