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‘Me too’ movement founder to speak at Engaged Citizenship event

by Luanne Williams

Activist Tarana Burke was set to speak at Wingate Monday night, but events on Capitol Hill delayed her visit until Wednesday. 

When sexual assault survivors all over the world began posting the #metoo hashtag last fall, Tarana Burke was as surprised as anyone. The social-media prompt from actress Alyssa Milano came days after a New York Times expose on producer Harvey Weinstein, but the phrase had been Burke’s rallying cry for more than a decade. She began using “me too” to help empower victims while working at a nonprofit she founded to promote the well-being of young women of color.

On Wednesday, at a Wingate University Engaged Citizenship event, Burke will share the story behind the the movement and where she sees it going next.

“On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed’ and ‘I’m not alone,’” Burke has told the media about the simple, two-word expression. “On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says, ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.’”

Burke has long spoken out for marginalized voices. A New York native and civil rights activist who began her career in Selma, Alabama, she founded Just Be in 2003 and, five years later, moved to Pennsylvania to work for Art Sanctuary Philadelphia. Now the senior director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, she speaks across the country promoting support for sexual assault survivors. Last year, she and other “silence breakers” were named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

Jessie Lindberg, executive director of Turning Point, a Union County agency serving survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, can testify as to how the “me too” push has helped local victims get the help they need.

“I can definitely say that it has increased the number of people who are coming forward to seek help after a sexual assault,” Lindberg says. “The movement is giving people the freedom and the confidence to speak out.”

She described a man in his 60s who recently reported an assault that took place decades ago.

“We want people to know that we will serve them in every way and provide counseling regardless of when it happened,” Lindberg explains. “In North Carolina there is no statute of limitations for a felony. Physical evidence is gone, but the case can certainly be pursued.”

According to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, one in five North Carolina women have been sexually assaulted, and more than 10,000 North Carolinians were affected by sexual violence last year.

Lindberg says that the disclosure rate for women remains low because so many still fear that they will not be believed. She emphasizes the importance of continuing to support women long after the media buzz over the hashtag has waned.

“We have to make sure that it doesn’t die down,” Lindberg says. “I think that people have found their voices, and there is also a huge push forward toward gender equality. As long as we push for equality, that forum will be there for women to speak out.”

Lindberg and others from Turning Point will be at the Engaged Citizenship Event and will get a chance to network with Burke before she takes the stage inside Austin Auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Lyceum event is free and open to the public.

Wingate University’s Engaged Citizenship events are designed to encourage local residents to gather face to face to discuss important issues.