The moment you take a step inside the Memorial Union Theatre, conversations roar like crashing tidal waves of a tropical storm or hurricane approaching south Florida. The wave of voices anticipating the nights lecture thrash at various levels, making it tough to eavesdrop on a single conversation.
Once settling in your seat, you hear someone question their past relationship and whether they and their partner practiced consensual sex. Behind you, another conversation grabs your attention with students debating:
“Does the university have good policies to prevent sexual assault and awareness? How can the university do better and how do we rank in comparison to other universities?”
Then immediately in front of you a group of guys reference Kanye West song “Yikes (ye)”
“I wonder what Kanye meant about Russell Simmons getting MeToo.”
The anticipation levels were rising but then the lights dimmed, and Professor Sami Schalk came to podium to share a resource for anyone who may feel triggered during the lecture. As Professor Schalk introduced Tarana Burke, her voice broke down while reading Burke’s accolades and advocacy impacting millions of women. This definitely reassured that the lecture would be an emotional rollercoaster for the audience.
Burke walked onto the stage And her presence swept through the room, garnering active attention.. She immediately promised an engaging night, and said “be ready to be entertained and ready to learn, this is not a lecture you have on a day to day basic in class”.
Burke said tonight’s lecture would not be about how the media and attention to MeToo was glorified by white women. It would be of the origins, the transformation of becoming an activist activist and the beginnings to MeToo. She attributed her parents and background for giving her the necessary tools to become who she is today: woman focused on pro-black agendas and initiatives. And so, she faced many challenges that molded her to fight for what was right.
One such challenge occured when she was a counselor in a minority disadvantaged community center. At the center, Burke met a young black girl named Heaven, who was labeled a troubling child with a tendency to be at the center of attention. However, one day at work, Burke did not want to put up with Heaven’s drama, and started avoiding Heaven at all cost, delegating other staff to speak with Heaven.
Heaven desperately needed someone to listen to her story regarding the sexual assault she experienced.
“I’m not a counselor,” Burke said, explaining if she were to offer advice, it could make matters worse.
Instead, she did nothing, and watched Heaven leave after disclosing information that exposed her vulnerability.
As a result of failing Heaven, Burke sought out the resources available women in need for such traumatic experience. The health and rape clinic she found was located next door to a halfway house, center for helping former drug addicts, prisoners, psychiatric patients, or others to adjust to life in general society. Burke proceeded and rang the doorbell to be greeted by and employee, who found the doorbell a inconvenience, and asked in a bothered tone “Can I help you…. do you have an appointment?” Immediately Ms. Burke knew she had to take matters into her on hands after receiving terrible customer service, as if it was an inconvenience to be bothered by another women at her job. This service meant for healing and support.
Burke began her initiative after recognizing a deficit in leadership, and instead of waiting for resources, Burke and her colleagues became the resource. A reference to my favorite quote “If it is to be, it is up to me” – William H. Johnson. A domino effect transpired with simple small action lasting a large impact. Referring these children and women as survivors, not victims, empowered them to not to be afraid when sharing their stories and experiences.
Burkes words created a captivating visual to embrace your truth and for others to follow you. The highlight of Burkes lecture, was the empathy in the audience to encouraged people to embrace their unbearable experience, and shed light to conquer their story. Efforts were displayed in more cities and neighborhoods, then college campuses to establish the foundation of MeToo.
Burke then turn audience attention toward university’s mission statement and policy to protect students, and its lack of appropriate actions to meet them. She also noted that student fees must be questioned because the financial cost is not reflected in the policies in place to protect students. Students rose up clapping and agreeing, with a rave of conversations discussing such measures. In addition, Burke mentioned the support staff not available through UHS (University Health Services) to attain to student’s needs, really got students off their feet, ready to march for the causes Burke mentioned.
Burke then opened herself to Q&A, the first two questions pertained to finding community involving LGBTQ. Ms. Burke projected the questions back to the audience to have anyone whom identified LGBTQ to stand to show the person a community is right here, one must simply ask to find. It was great to spectate the reactions in the room.
I got in line to ask a question burning in my head relating to falsely accused situations at my previous institutions. The young man before me, caught me of guard with his question pertaining to men such as Mike Pence and others who will only be in a room with a women if another person is present or cameras, because of their fear of the MeToo movement. The energy had a defining switch, as if someone was playing with fire, it can only go wrong. Burke replied,
“Those men taking extreme unnecessary measures are subconsciously know their actions and behavior is questionable”. To have cameras in order to watch, serve as protection is untrustworthy, to have such measures means one does not trust themselves. The audience applauded to Burke’s response with a sense of shame towards the young man coming off supporting and justifying these precautions men in public office are doing.
Then Ms. Burke guided her attention to me with the mic. I second guessed myself to proceed with my initial thought of a question after acknowledging the tension switch in the room from the previous question. I continued anyway and immediately regretted every word that followed, because I didn’t layout the structure of my question. The question required background information that needed to be shared, to understand the case study of a falsely accused individual. I was naive to the emotion and audience primary consisting women in the room. In retrospect I should’ve delegated my question to understand what exactly is a falsely accused accusation, to provide Burke’s response to the case study, to understand how policy reflects current climate of sexual misconduct. Or asked Ms. Burke to address points of information she raised criticizing the university’s policy regarding WiscAlerts to inform the general body of assaults. What resources can MeToo implement on college grounds in comparison to current standards of training?
In all, a takeaway I interpreted from Burke’s lecture and want to stress to students, is to communicate your ideas with others, with the intention to create a plan of action. Especially on our campus and in general, to raise awareness and concerns to effectively communicate with the Chancellor, Dean, and President of a University with solutions to the problem being addressed. The disappointing and dysfunction tactic of emails and tweets only go so far, but a well thought out plan to unionize for a particular stance and issue creates the change. Burke told her story, and we listened, but she also explained what we can do, to be the change. It only takes one to lead, one to make a stance, for those to follow and say, “me too”.
Artwork displayed in California African American Museum