As the latest reports of sexual misconduct emerge from a University report on Zeta Beta Tau, founder of the #MeToo Movement Tarana Burke told her audience, “we need to talk about Cornell,” at Bailey Hall on Sunday night.
Prior to her talk, Burke educated herself on sexual violence on the Cornell campus by reading the 2017 survey on the subject. “We need to be thoughtful and we need to be strategic,” she said.
Though she applauded Cornell for even addressing the issue through a public medium —since “a lot of schools ignore [sexual misconduct] and don’t even try to comply with Title IX” — what she learned from the statistics convinced her of the pressing need for a campus-wide conversation.
“This is a space that needs healing,” said Burke. “This is a community that needs to change a culture — there needs to be a cultural shift here, and this is not just for Cornell, this is the same shift that needs to happen in the world.”
The results of the survey were not unlike those of other universities, according to Burke. She particularly commended the ample resources available to sexual assault survivors, but questioned that “a good portion of folks did not know about the services.”
What struck Burke the most, however, were three answers students provided for why they chose to not report their sexual harassment and assault incidents: they had “other things to focus on,” they “didn’t think it was serious enough,” or they “wanted to just forget.”
“Nine times out of ten if a person thinks that ‘it’s not serious enough,’ it probably is serious,” said Burke. “Across the gender spectrum we are trained to stuff away those things, to hide them, to figure out another way to ignore it.”
At the heart of this report is “the insidiousness of rape culture” and how the silencing of the most vulnerable, particularly non-white, queer, and trans individuals, creates space for “doubt and blame,” according to Burke.
As she recalled an experience from when she was 22 and “couldn’t even bring [herself] to say ‘Me Too’” when a young girl shared her sexual abuse story, she stressed that sometimes survivors can find greater solace in empathy than sympathy — “Listen with your heart,” she said.
Burke — who added that she does not identify as an “activist” but rather an “organizer”—began her work on racial causes while she was a student at Auburn University, at a time when sexual harassment “wasn’t a big topic, to be honest,” she said.
Although “in the whole history of the world and sexual violence in this country we have been talking about this for four months,” she told her audience to expand the scope of #MeToo beyond sexual harassment in the workplace.
An intent of the #MeToo Movement is community healing at a global scale, but Burke commented that people often have misconceptions about what the #MeToo movement is.
“#MeToo is not about taking down powerful men,” said Burke. “This is not just a movement for women—more specifically, for famous, white, cisgender women.”
To “look at the rest of the spectrum” of gender-based violence on campus, she suggested developing community spaces that protect the most vulnerable and “discourage shame and encourage self-care.” If these platforms do not exist, she encouraged students to demand them.
“It’s not intangible,” said Burke on the value of community healing. “We know the statistics. We know that there are survivors everywhere. We have to create spaces that are trauma informed, we have to create policies that protect and policies that support.”
“Every college campus is a community, and that means that you deserve protection and you deserve safety,” Burke told her audience. “The solutions should be built around you and you should be centered in the process.”