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Who is the Woman Behind #MeToo?

The social media movement, #MeToo, was co-opted by actress Alyssa Milano in response to the recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein; the hashtag originated as an idea with Tarana Burke, a long-time activist against sexual abuse, who first used the phrase years before Milano.
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“I couldn’t help her release her shame, or impress upon her that nothing that happened to her was her fault. I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.’

This is how Tarana Burke felt in 1997 when a 13-year-old girl named Heaven told her she had been sexually abused by her stepfather. The incident haunted Burke for years after it happened – she felt angry at the world, but also at herself for being unable to give this little girl better advice. She also felt helpless, silenced by the paralyzing trauma of abuse. From there, 10 years later, Burke created Just Be Inc.

Just Be Inc. is a nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual assault and trauma, usually women and girls of color. The organization is dedicated to promoting the happiness and confidence that was once taken away from them. Its website states that the nonprofit is “focused on the health, well-being and wholeness of brown girls everywhere!”

The organization offers various programs that serve to educate young girls on issues ranging from the lies of society’s beauty standards to how to navigate romantic relationships. Their most famous program is, of course, an exploration of sexual assault and the oppression of communities of color. This program is called Me Too.

Burke has now been working in social justice for over 20 years and began the Me Too program long before social media took over the world. The popularized hashtag, however, went viral in a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano responding to the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

Milano tweeted, “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” She then received thousands of responses from celebrities and fans alike sharing their stories and offering support. From there, #MeToo took on a life of its own.

Although responses to the movement have been overwhelmingly positive, some critics are frustrated that Burke worked her entire career fighting for victims of rape and sexual abuse and never received this type of recognition. Once a famous white woman says something, however, everyone listens.

Journalist Britni Danielle tweeted, “Shout out to my girl @taranaburke who has been advocating for assault victims & saying #MeToo for years. metoo.support.” Milano then responded that she did not know about Burke’s work when she tweeted her viral message but has since educated herself.

Regardless, each of these women has played a role in generating a voice for victims of this kind of violence, and Burke should be celebrated as a hero for generating the momentum.

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