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#MeToo founder talks the future of the movement at Webster University lecture

#MeToo founder Tarana Burke talks about the evolution of the movement that aims to help sexual harassment survivors.  She spoke at Webster University on Feb. 19. 2018.
Ashley Lisenby | St. Louis Public Radio
#MeToo founder Tarana Burke talks about the evolution of the movement that aims to help sexual harassment survivors. She spoke at Webster University on Feb. 19. 2018.

The #MeToo movement isn’t about what you think it’s about, founder Tarana Burke told an audience at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center on Monday.

Burke dispelled three common misconceptions she believes have overshadowed the message of #MeToo, including who the movement is for and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

“This is not about taking down powerful men,” Burke said. “That was a corporate response. The women who stood up have just wanted to be heard and believed.”

Burke also told the audience of about 600 people that the movement isn’t just about elevating the voices of white women or famous people, but also those of young people, LGBTQ people, people of color, and men who have faced trauma because of sexual violence.

“There are so many things left out of the conversation concerning #MeToo. We don’t talk about sex trafficking, we don’t talk about marginalized folks, we don’t talk about child sex abuse,” she said in a press conference with local media. “There are so many things on the spectrum of sexual violence that exists.”

An evolution

Burke, of the Bronx, said she became an activist because she witnessed how sexual violence affected young people with whom she worked. Burke is also a survivor of sexual violence.

“The #MeToo movement is about supporting survivors of sexual violence. It’s about filling the gaps that exist in our communities where people need resources to start a healing journey, and it’s also about teaching people about how to become active in their community to do this work,” she said.

More than a decade ago, Burke created Just Be Inc., an organization to help sexual harassment and assault survivors to heal and develop leadership skills. But the movement has evolved.

About four months ago, the hashtag that had defined Burke's work went viral as actors took to social media to tell their sexual harassment stories, many of them involving film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Burke said Monday she panicked when she first learned about the hashtag trending.

“I have seen black women’s voices be erased before,” she said, adding that she was concerned about how the hashtag would be co-opted when delivered to a much larger audience.

Hashtag and platform

But over time, as she started reading more people’s stories, Burke said she realized her work was expanding. The hashtag had given women women and men outside of Hollywood a platform to talk about sexual harassment and abuse out loud.

Now that there is national public discourse about sexual violence, Burke said there will be more work ahead to change rape culture. Legislation and corporate policies are one way to address the issue.

“I think this movement has spurred a number of things across the country both in policy change, in culture change and hopefully in laws and policies in corporations,” she said.

St. Louis Public Radio learned through a sunshine request:

  • About 220 workplace sexual harassment complaints were reported to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights in 2017.
  • There were 1,471 total discrimination complaints that year.
  • The year before, about 258 of the 1,642 complaints were about sexual harassment.

Rethinking arbitration

But forced arbitration complicates things. Under forced arbitration, people who experience sexual harassment settle disputes with a mediator outside of court and often can’t talk about what happened because of non-disclosure agreements.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, introduced a proposal in December calling to end forced arbitration of sexual harassment claims. Fellow Democrat Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois has a similar measure in the House. Both proposals have bipartisan support.

Missouri Republican lawmaker Rep. Kevin Corlew introduced an arbitration bill of his own in December. Bill supporters believe the plan will strengthen existing state arbitration laws, according to committee records. But those who oppose the bill say the proposal makes negotiations between employers and employees during disputes less transparent.

Corlew could not be reached. His proposal is waiting House approval.

'A fundamental right'

Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley joined attorneys general from across the country in signing a letter addressed to congressional leaders on Feb. 12 opposing forced arbitration in sexual harassment disputes.

“Access to the judicial system, whether federal or state, is a fundamental right of all Americans. That right should extend fully to persons who have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace,” the letter reads.

Hawley held a press conference at his office Tuesday, during which he talked about the role of government leaders in fighting discrimination and sexual harassment.

As for the future of the #MeToo movement, Burke said at some point support will have to go beyond social media.

“[Social media] is a useful tool, but it can’t live there forever, and so for a movement to actually grow and be a movement, it has to move away from social media. It has to be on the ground; it has to be human contact and human interaction,” she said.

Comedian Samantha Bee takes on forced arbitration. Note: This video may not be suitable for all audiences.

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.

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