As the keynote speaker of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dream Week, Tarana Burke spoke in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall about the origin and evolution of the Me Too movement. Burke leaned against the lectern as she spoke, despite how she originally sat behind it because she had been experiencing back issues. When she stood up from her chair, she asked the audience not to tell her mother. Photo by Olivia Lloyd / North by Northwestern.

Me Too founder Tarana Burke herself said that a few years ago, she never would have been able to sell out a space the way she sold out Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Monday night as the keynote speaker of MLK Dream Week.

Burke came to Northwestern’s Chicago and Evanston campuses to speak about her role in the Me Too movement as the person who came up with the phrase “Me Too,” over a decade before it exploded on social media as survivors of sexual harassment and violence spoke up.

Early on in her talk, Burke critiqued some of the public’s responses to accusations against perpetrators of sexual violence, namely whose name gets remembered when survivors come forward.

“If I did a pop quiz, which I’m not, I bet we could list at least 10 of the aforementioned powerful men,” she said, referring to the various men who have been accused of sexual misconduct as a result of Me Too. “But I won’t invoke their names tonight.”

Instead, she listed the names of people who accused those aforementioned powerful men, including a woman named Annabella Sciarra. “Although we know her as an actress, and we’ve heard her name recently, most people would not know it if I just said it. She just testified against Harvey Weinstein.”

Tarana Burke is also a name that not everyone may associate with the Me Too movement. In 2017, a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano sent the Me Too hashtag viral. Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

She later credited Burke with coining the phrase Me Too, but Burke’s influence remains partially obscured.

Burke first created the phrase when she launched Just Be Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of sexual violence. In 2006, she contextualized her work as part of a broader “Me Too movement,” using the term for the first time.

“I was hidden but also pushed out in a way,” Burke said. “There was this whole [crowd] of people saying don’t erase this woman, but at the same time there was also this weird erasure in mainstream media. It worked itself out because of the power of the people. I think people needed to hear a voice that sounded like their own.”

Medill second-year Zaria Howell recognized that not everyone knew Burke started Me Too, and that was part of the reason Howell was interested in attending the event.

“I do still think that in the midst of that collective ownership [of the phrase Me Too] that the rightful owner does deserve to have a platform to speak about the origins of the term, sort of what caused her to come up with it in the first place,” Howell said. “While having a community around the term, we can still have respect for the person who pioneered it.”

Yet Burke explained that Me Too is more than a hashtag or a phrase.

“It had to be a movement, so folks could recognize that we were playing a long game and intended on being thoughtful and strategic because that’s what movements are,” Burke said.  “Movements aren’t hashtags.”

At one point, Burke discussed community responses to youth dying from gun violence, talking about how communities rally to change laws and make sure such tragedies do not repeat themselves. Then she pivoted.

“What happens when a child is molested in a community?” she asked, lowering her voice.  “Everybody is quiet. If we could see that sexual violence and the trauma that people hold is another type of death, then maybe we could respond to this the way we respond to the kind of violence where we see blood in the streets.”

The Me Too movement found a place at Northwestern in 2018, when 10 women accused former Medill professor Alec Klein of sexual misconduct in an open letter to university officials. Medill graduates Alison Flowers, Meribah Knight and Kalyn Belsha coordinated the letter’s creation, according to an article from the Daily Northwestern.

In the letter, the women documented inappropriate actions and sexual advances that Klein made toward his students and employees during his time as a professor and director of the Medill Justice Project, which has now morphed into the Medill Investigative Lab. More women later came forward, some anonymously.

In the letter, the women write: “This is Medill’s #MeToo moment.”

Following her speech, Burke speaks during a Q&A discussion with Medill professor Ava Thompson Greenwell. Photo by Olivia Lloyd / North by Northwestern

During the Q&A section of Monday’s event, Professor Ava Thompson Greenwell, who moderated the discussion, asked Burke what Northwestern can do to make sure its students are protected.

“You have the power to experiment,” Burke said. “Look at what’s happening out across the country, find out best practices and try different things on your campus. You have to bring young people in and get their ideas, their real ideas, and a strategy for how you’re going to incorporate their ideas.”