The 16th annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) is underway, and its lineup is packed with inspiring films, lively discussion, and some heavy-hitting names — one being Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement. That’s right: the founder of the #MeToo movement.
Burke sat on a white couch on the Performing Arts Center stage with moderator Dream Hampton on Tuesday, August 7, in the middle of a scorching midsummer afternoon. The air-conditioned auditorium was medicine for the outside weather. The conversation was medicine for today’s political climate around racial justice and gender-based violence.
Many of us have gotten to know Tarana Burke over the past year, but she’s been doing the work for decades. In October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo spread virally on social media in response to a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano, encouraging all victims of sexual violence and harassment to tweet #MeToo. Burke coined the movement in 2006.
“[Alyssa] wasn’t intentionally trying to steal something,” Burke addressed at the beginning of the discussion. “The beautiful thing about community and doing your work is that people will recognize you when the time comes. Within 24 hours she issued an apology saying this already exists. She didn’t have to do that. Our community held her accountable, and she did the right thing.”
Community was one of the biggest energizers of the conversation. It’s where both Burke and Hampton believe change can be ignited around sexual violence.
“We have to dismantle the narrative that it’s something outside our community, or that it’s some singular boogieman,” Burke said. “In media, it’s solely focused on the wrongdoer. Here’s another person, and another, and another … We need to stop individually naming these men. It’s the system in place.”
According to Burke, statistics show that 90 percent of victims of sexual assault know their assaulters. They’re in our communities, churches, homes, and schools. “That has to be highlighted,” she said. “We have to recognize individuals that smile at us are taking advantage of our children right now.”
Hampton addressed the cycle of abuse, using R&B rapper R. Kelly as an example. In 2002, a video surfaced allegedly showing R. Kelly sexually violating a 14-year-old girl.
“Then he came out with his best album of the year [“Chocolate Factory”], and everyone forgot about it,” Hampton said. “He himself is a victim. He was abused in his own home for seven years by a man on his street … But we need to stop normalizing his music. It’s good — it’s hard not to bob your head to. I get it, but when are we going to make sacrifices for our children?”
Burke spent the early part of her career working with children, specifically girls labeled a “problem.” “Everyone’s quick to tag children, but no one interrogates why … “ Burke said. “I saw generational trauma. It’s a problem linked deeper than the individual.”
According to Burke, many of the girls she worked with who had behavioral problems also had asthma and other physical ailments. “Why don’t we think sexual violence is a public health issue?” Burke asked.
Sexual violence happens on a spectrum, and therefore, accountability should be applied on a spectrum. “It’s not one size fits all,” Burke said. She continued, touching on where the discussion ties into the criminal justice system: “Not everything warrants an arrest, but everything warrants an investigation. You don’t have to believe all people, but you have to listen to all people.”
Burke believes an “unlearning” needs to happen, and that should be applied through comprehensive and early sex education in schools. “If you can teach a kindergartener not to run with scissors, you can teach them what consent is,” she said.
Burke and Hampton touched on progress. “This is a moment we’ve never had in history, where we’re having a national dialogue on sexual violence,” Burke said. “We need to be courageous as a black community, confronting what it looks like in our communities so we can come to solutions. What do we need? And what does the virus need?”
Hampton is a journalist, a filmmaker, and a Color of Change board member. Color of Change was one of the main sponsors for the discussion. It is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, and was was founded in 2005. According to Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, as early as last week, the nonprofit got PayPal, Amex, and Visa to cut off access to all white-supremacist groups. The discussion was also sponsored by the American Heart Association (AHA). “Storytelling is the most powerful way to empower change,” Nancy Brown, CEO of the AHA, said.
For more information on the MVAAFF, visit mvaaff.com.