In ELLE.comIn the Office Hours monthly series, we ask people in top positions to tell us about their first jobs, their worst jobs, and everything in between.
Before the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017, Tarana Burke had used the hashtag for over a decade in her fight to end sexual violence. The Bronx-born social justice activist coined the term in 2006 when she worked with survivors, mostly young women of color, to create systemic change and help them heal.
When news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse allegations broke, Burke’s tagline united Twitter users, who used it to share their own experiences of rape and sexual assault. In a matter of weeks, the #MeToo hashtag was shared over 12 million times, leading to an extraordinary wave of support for survivors online – and new responsibility for those in power. Burke was surprised, but she used her new platform to create resources and speak out on behalf of the women she had spent decades fighting for.
Below, Burke reflects on her journey to becoming one of the nation’s leading voices on sexual assault and the more inclusive future she envisions for #MeToo.
My very first job
I was 11 and my grandfather asked me to clean his car. You might be thinking, “This is not a real job!” But listen to me. My grandpa wanted to talk to me about the money, so he paid me to vacuum, wash and wipe his black and tan van for $ 20. When I finished he gave me an envelope with my name and social security number on it. He took the money for “taxes” and wrote my social security number on the envelope, so I memorized it. I call it my first “unofficial” job, because it was kind of a foray into money management.
The job that I never want to have again
In college, I worked at The Limited. They put me on the floor which was good because I love clothes. But on the second day, a really arrogant woman arrived and asked for my help. She tried on so many outfits that were clearly the wrong size, and kept calling me the wrong name, like “Tyra” or “Tamara”. Finally I suggested a different size. “Get your manager!” she yelled at me. I went to tell my supervisor, but instead I asked him, “Can I take my lunch break now?” Then I gathered my things and left. As far as I know, this lady is still in the locker room – because I never came back.
The most rewarding part of my job
My interactions with survivors. There are people who reach out and say our work has helped them heal. For all the trolls we receive or the angry emails we have received, these positive endorsements from people whose lives we touch are worth it.
The key advice I give to young activists
There is no secret formula for being an activist. I want to demystify the idea that being part of a movement requires a special skill or gift. It all depends on your passions. Get involved in activism because something particular moves you. Explore, follow this passion and don’t be afraid to change it.
My greatest pride
We recently launched Act Too, an activism recommendation engine. It’s a platform you engage with and recommend things to do based on your own interests to help end sexual violence. These are very tangible actions and micro-actions, such as following campaigns or registering for training. We can recommend organizations to donate to or where to volunteer, depending on your passions. We also recommend books and podcasts. There is so much you can do to help. Even if you are not on the front lines, marching, protesting and campaigning, there is still work to be done. Sexual violence will not stop until people change the way they engage with the very idea of sexual violence and what they understand about it. We will not dismantle the culture of rape until people understand what it is. Every action counts.
What the future of #MeToo looks like
I hope people can move away from the idea that it’s more than just a hashtag to take down powerful white men, and understand that it’s about shedding light on the global pandemic that is sexual violence. It is about doing the job to end sexual violence, while supporting those who have experienced it. We will work closely with other organizations, such as Black Lives Matter and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, as sexual violence is the common thread running through almost all social justice issues. We also want to continue contributing to national conversations, working in communities, and leading the charge to create change.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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