Sexual Assault and Harassment Symposium with Tarana Burke

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Last week I had the incredible pleasure of hearing MeToo founder Tarana Burke speak in Philadelphia. She was the keynote speaker at a Sexual Assault and Harassment Symposium put on by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities, and their partners. This was the first symposium of its kind in Pennsylvania—a testimony to the impact that MeToo is having.

The opening speaker was Jennifer Storm, the Commonwealth Victim Advocate. Pennsylvania is the only state to have a position like this. Jennifer was passionate and as a survivor herself, she had a lot of credibility. She discouraged zero tolerance for sexual misconduct so that (depending on the severity of the offense, of course) people are given a chance to make mistakes and grow. This is a hard concept for a survivor to embrace but when I think logically about what will make our workplaces safer rather than what will make me personally feel better I am inclined to agree with her. There are some offenses that require the offender to be removed from a situation in which they could reoffend, but for other cases, particularly of harassment (rather than assault), catching someone doing this can be used as an opportunity to teach them another way. Jennifer also acknowledged a significant challenge for employers is when a survivor doesn’t want to report but does want to be protected. These are important issues to consider because 85% of people who are harassed never file a charge and 70% don’t even complain.

Before she ended her presentation, Jennifer gave us a peak into her personal life and how she is working to change a culture of assault and harassment by starting with her young son. She and her wife have a son who is “touchy” and affectionate. He loves to run up to people and hug them. They started teaching him as a toddler that he had to ask before giving someone a hug because not everyone wants to be touched. Now he runs up to people and says “Can I give a hug?” She also says that in their home they honor “stop.” When anyone says stop, even if it’s through giggles while tickling each other, the person stops. Establishing these habits for interacting with people safely and valuing consent builds it into the culture of their family. If all families did this it would become the culture of our society.

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One thought I had throughout this event was that when we paint the most dramatic picture of men and violence we are missing a huge portion of the harm that is being caused by words and actions that are “well intentioned” or micro-aggressions—men don’t even realize they are making women uncomfortable. There are certainly men who know they are causing harm or doing something wrong and just don’t care or think they are justified. However, often there is no awareness that what they are doing is out of bounds or understanding about why a woman would be uncomfortable. When we talk about quid pro quos or sexual assaults resulting in injury I suspect most men think, “Yeah, that’s horrible, I would never do something like that, this training isn’t talking about me.” Then they go back to their offices and lean over their coworker’s shoulder invading her personal space or put their hand on the small of her back to guide her through a doorway, not realizing that both make her feel unsafe at work. And, he NEVER identifies this as abuse.

There was a man sitting at the table next to me taking up a lot of space (when he coughed it was right in my ear) and making me uncomfortable. I actually moved seats at one point to put some distance in between us even though he didn’t seem focused on me at all. My intuition proved right because the man came up to a friend of mine after the event and displayed an alarming amount of misogyny. As one of the speakers said, “Hold space for your intuition.” Despite my discomfort with this man (and my confusion about why he chose to attend this symposium), I was impressed by the one man who spoke about sexual assault and harassment. Gabriel Bryant who works with the program Engaging Males of Color (EMOC) spoke briefly about men’s role in ending sexual assault and harassment. “If we’re serious [about ending sexual assault and harassment] we have to be at the table.”  He then took us through his day: I walked to work and no one catcalled me; I worked in my office and no one sexually harassed me; I took an Uber to this event and I didn’t worry if I would safely make it out of the car. His recognition of this set of concerns that I have daily but men don’t even know they’re missing meant so much to me.

When Tarana Burke arrived I started fan-womaning a little. When the conversation got started she spoke about being “the new thing to have” and I had to check myself to see if my excitement about hearing her speak was just because she was in vogue. No, when I thought about what I admired about this woman I was confident it wasn’t her popularity. If I had known about Tarana’s MeToo before #MeToo went viral I would have been just as excited. Tarana has been doing grassroots work to interrupt and ultimately end sexual assault for 20 years. Her MeToo organization was founded in 2006, over ten years before #MeToo became the most widely used hashtag in internet history. On top of all that history of on-the-ground work, she has managed her transition from community organizer to public figure AND community organizer with a grace that few of us could match. No, my admiration isn’t superficial—it is a recognition that this woman is the real deal.

The format for her keynote was a conversation with a staff person from the city. This allowed us to enjoy her humor which made the heavy topic bearable. She talked about an early experience she had where she became aware that a 7th grade girl she worked with was dating a grown man and she “allegedly” gave him what for. The next day the girl was angry that Tarana was messing up her relationship. “I realized that no one had explained to this girl that this isn’t a relationship, this is a crime.” Much of her work centers on providing preteen and teen girls with language to talk about what has happened to them. She tells them (and I don’t know who else needs to hear this), “Whatever you’ve experienced is not the sum total of who you are.” One of the most endearing things about Tarana was the way she called these girls “babies.” You could feel her passion for recognizing their vulnerability and for protecting them.

Tarana told us that “#MeToo has had a lot of hype but not a lot of urgency.” Not much money has moved into the field since #MeToo went viral. What has happened is that women are coming forward with their #MeToo stories and confronting trauma they’ve been hiding for years or decades. Now that they’ve done that, they need support but the clinics and centers don’t have more resources to help them. “Hashtags are not movements,” Tarana said, “What we are doing is the movement.” And “the #MeToo movement is about healing and action.” To truly be part of the #MeToo movement we need to start funding our local organizations that are on the ground protecting and treating people:

MeToo Movement

Rape Crisis Centers in Pennsylvania

Rape Crisis in England and Wales


Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist