The Ms. Q&A: Tarana Burke is Taking the #MeToo Movement Back to School

Decades before Alyssa Milano tweeted out the hashtag #MeToo, Tarana Burke had coined the phrase. The founder of Just Be Inc., a nonprofit that provides support to survivors of sexual harassment and violence, named her movement “Me Too,” inspired by a 1997 conversation she had with a teenage girl about her experiences with sexual abuse.

Now, the phrase has had the Hollywood treatment—serving as the launchpad for the Time’s Up coalition and the rallying cry of feminist celebrities on red carpets who were determined to speak truth to power after entertainment industry titan Harvey Weinstein was finally exposed, and toppled, for his serial sexual harassment and exploitation of women. #MeToo has also become a source of empowerment for women working in low-wage jobs, a movement with enough momentum to spark legislation on Capitol Hill and a viral hashtag that allowed survivors around the world to share their stories. And Burke is still leading the way—determined, more than ever, to lift up survivors from the intersections and the margins and to give a voice to communities who have suffered too long in silence.

This summer, Ms. caught up with Burke in Los Angeles, where she spoke at the American School Counselor Association Annual Conference, to ask her more about bringing the #MeToo movement to the classroom.

What risks do girls in school face compared to, say, women in the workplace when it comes to sexual harassment—and what makes seeking justice complicated for them?

Schools don’t take in sexual harassment as an issue, it gets looped in with bullying. And a lot of times the rules they create for bullying are across the board. Monique Morris has a really good book called Push Out, which talks about girls of color being pushed out of school for reasons such as a girl will be groped or touched without her consent and she’ll respond by defending herself by hitting the boy, and the school’s response will be everybody is suspended. They don’t address the nature of the offense.

Because schools don’t have very specific rules about sexual harassment in place, and don’t identify the behavior of sexual harassment, it leaves girls open to being misinterpreted or not having a recourse on something that happens to them.

If there is a sexual harassment policy, the punishment is punitive but doesn’t have a lesson embedded in it. If you have a middle school boy who is inappropriately touching a peer, he may get suspended or demerits, but there is no built-in mechanism to say: “this is why you are getting in trouble, this is why this behavior isn’t okay.” They never learn they can’t carry this to college or adult life.

If we started having comprehensive sex education early, we wouldn’t be having so much sexual misconduct to deal with in the later years of education.

What should schools be doing to facilitate effective conversations about #MeToo, and what can school counselors specifically do to help advance the movement and play a role in ending sexual harassment and abuse in schools?

I am a staunch, strong believer in comprehensive sex education. I think that we need to have sex education in schools from kindergarten on.

School counselors can help facilitate that conversation—because they play the middle person, they are the liaison between students and administrations to say, “I have the training and the skills to understand how children’s minds develop, and I know that this level of education wont corrupt students in whatever way people keep thinking that kids are going to be corrupted by this information.” They can do that and facilitate it on the other end to make sure that whatever program or curriculum is being used is age-appropriate. School counselors play a very central role in making sure that schools have the right kind of curriculum for the children that they serve.

What schools need to do is implement comprehensive sex education. It teaches about the gender spectrum, sex and sexuality. It teaches children things that they are going to encounter in the world anyway. It is not about corrupting children—if you can teach a 5-year-old not to run with scissors and say please and thank you, you can also teach them what boundaries are, what respect is, about appropriate touching. And you can do that early.

Imagine if we had a curriculum where you start very early and layer on more education as the time goes by. By the time they get to 12th grade, we would have a different kind of student.

We have to stop making sexual violence taboo to talk about. It is happening to our young people, and we need to be talking about it.

On the other end of the conversation, how can lawmakers ensure safer spaces at school for girls—and how do we ensure that those gains are felt evenly among students across lines of race and socioeconomic status?

I think that people who have lived experiences need to be part of the decision-making. Lawmakers can’t just watch what is happening in the media and retreat into their back rooms and make decisions—they need to talk to their communities and constituents, talk to people who have those lived experiences, and make sure that they are included in creating those policies on the front end so on the back end they are not left out.

You can’t start from the top and hope it trickles down. You need to start with the people that are affected, build with them and build something that is useful.

We have so many laws that aren’t useful because they were built without the person who they are supposed to be protecting in mind. I think the first step is that lawmakers need to listen very carefully to their constituents, and not just listen but include them in whatever that looks like: town hall meetings, surveys, committees…

They have to be proactive. Lawmakers have to be guided by the people to create effective policies.

How do you hope girls and young women will be empowered by the most recent iteration of the #MeToo movement?

Well, the #MeToo movement isn’t just for women and girls—it’s for everyone who is a survivor—but women have an added layer of misogyny and patriarchy that we live under in this country, so when you add sexual violence to the ways misogyny and patriarchy disempower us, it puts us in a very particular kind of disadvantage.

I hope that the movement releasing us from that shame, just by the sheer number of people saying “me, too,” is a way to help lift us—to let us know that we matter, that our stories matter, that our bodies matter, that our voices matter—and that survivors are seeing that in real time.

My former high school is actually being sued for mishandling a sexual assault case. What advice would you give to members of a school community—parents and students alike—who want to fight back?

I tell parents all the time: Whether you’re in the PTA or just gather parents at your home, we have to talk to each other. We are having experiences in isolation and not really talking to other parents and realizing this is a problem across the board. I had a similar situation when my daughter was in school, and it wasn’t until I got all the parents together to discuss it did we realize what the issue was.

The number one thing I tell parents all the time is “look for the gaps.” Look for the gaps in the policies and the practices that the school has, and then rally together to enact change in the school. We have to communicate with each other, and we have to teach our children and ourselves to be vigilant, but not fearful—because operating in fear is never fruitful.


Alicia Kay is a former editorial intern at Ms. and a freelance writer and photographer. Her writing has appeared at Rooster Global News Network, Jump Magazine and The Radical Notion; her photography has appeared in The Temple News, Jump Philly and Three Teaspoons of Sugar and a Hint of Milk by Ileena Irving. She was a finalist in the Nature Visions Photography Student Contest 2015. Alicia has a myriad of public speaking experience, including speaking at the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference and presenting research papers at the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the U.S. Department of Education.