ANOUSHKA MALLIK/SAGAMORE STAFF
When considering the Me Too movement, figures like Alyssa Milano, Ashley Judd and many others played significant roles, but few impacted the movement more than one of its principal founders: Tarana Burke.
The changes brought about by Burke’s activism were recognized when she received the Gleitsman Activist Award at the Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday, Feb. 26. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf said that the award was created in 1993 by the late Alan Gleitsman to recognize social activists in our country.
The recipient of the award wins a $125,000 personal check as well as a sculpture designed by Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala..
The award ceremony began with a short speech from Burke followed by a dialogue moderated by Wendy Sherman, a professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Throughout the night, Burke explained the impact of Me Too around the country by answering questions from both Sherman and the audience.
Sherman presented the award and described the accomplishments of Burke, including her foundation Just Be, which was founded in 2007 to support people of color and led to the Me Too movement.
“The Me Too movement was born shortly after Just Be as a healing to those survivors and a way for young people to share their stories,” Sherman said.
Sherman elaborated on the significance of the movement, relating it to both the women in Hollywood and young black people for whom the movement was originally founded.
She began the question and answer portion of the evening by asking about what universities, such as Harvard, can do to support survivors. In response, Burke called for transparency from colleges relating to conversations about sexual violence.
“Colleges and universities around the country have to be a little more courageous and not be afraid to fail because you don’t just fail here,” Burke said. “You try to understand where your failure came from, and we need some of that innovation and courage in this moment, and then when you fail, say that ‘we tried this thing and it didn’t work.’”
Burke spoke about the significance of the Harvey Weinstein case, where the verdict found Weinstein guilty on two charges of sexual assault and acquitted him on three others.
“I wanted for them what I want for all survivors: some catharsis and healing. I wanted to try to help them find this rope back to themselves, so in that way the case took on a personal importance because I felt connected to them,” Burke said.
Burke also said that the general public has been conditioned to defer to white people, especially white men. She discussed the problems with sexual violence in the black community, saying that what was missing for her was support.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what was missing for me as a young black girl growing up, what didn’t I have, and what still wasn’t available when I started doing this work is that we don’t have a soft place to land,” Burke said.
Lovern Gordon, president of a Love Life Now, a foundation that provides year-round domestic violence education, found Burke’s responses to be honest and informative.
“I think Tarana was brutally honest and opened the eyes of a lot of folks about what it means to be a woman of color and a survivor,” Gordon said.
According to John Wilson, a senior adviser and strategist to the Harvard president, Burke is a great role model and an important figure in today’s political climate.
“I’m attending the event because I regard Tarana Burke as a hero, and I think that the movement that she’s started is of great importance to this country. I’m glad she has led us in this way.”
Burke explained that this movement impacts many people and that ultimately, all survivors of sexual assault deserve and need the same kinds of assistance from others.
“I’ve found out the last few years that the white women in Hollywood who came forward who have all the privilege and all the money, they have the same needs that the little black girls in Selma, Alabama need,” Burke said. “It’s not really different. This trauma is blind.”