Tarana Burke on her powerful new memoir — and the future of #MeToo

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, it’s Brittany. Ugh, I cannot believe it. This is our fortieth episode, our season one finale. We did it, yo! You know, looking back on it, it is pretty wild to start a podcast in the middle of a pandemic and a revolution and right before a life changing election. But you know what? That was the point. Y’all might remember that our show takes its name from Toni Morrison’s famous line, that the function of racism, really of all systemic oppression, is distraction. She said “It keeps you from doing your work.” Truth is, every time I read your comments and DMs and see what you shared on social, I remember exactly why we had to do the wild thing at the most wild time, because distractions were everywhere this year. I hope that this podcast has been a sanctuary for you, a moment in time and space for you to press play on some old and new voices. I pray that every one of these 40 episodes provoked you to think more boldly, dared you to imagine more radically, and invited you to see more clearly through a sharper, intersectional lens. That’s what it’s done for me. We heard from thought leaders, we heard from freedom fighters, we heard from artists and poets and mothers and friends, and I hope in all of that we’ve heard from each other. As we wrap this first season and build out an even bigger, better, badder second season, I’m holding on to what my good sis, LaTosha Brown had to say just days before that now historic Georgia runoff election in January that would shock the world. She said, when we change, everything around us will change. The answer is not outside of us. The answer is us. It has been an honor to go on this adventure with y’all and a privilege to keep it going. So we’ll be back with more fantastically dope episodes this fall. 

But until then, We are UNDISTRACTED. 

On the show today, my dear sister Tarana Burke. I’ll be talking to the organizer about her upcoming powerful memoir, about the origins of Me Too, and how she came to acknowledge her story to herself. 

Tarana Burke: Me Too, and the Me Too movement, literally, since the day it went viral has been misunderstood. Not just like, well, who founded it? But even just what the impetus is and what the value is of both the words and the work. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: That’s coming up. But first, we’re going down memory lane. 

There have been so many incredible guests and so many words of wisdom shared on this very first season of UNDISTRACTED. So before we take a brief hiatus, my team and I wanted to look back and share some of our favorite moments with y’all. 

Taylor Hosking: Hey, guys, I’m Taylor Hosking, associate producer here on UNDISTRACTED, and I think my favorite moment of the season is when Congresswoman/Ferguson activist Cori Bush came on, and she was talking about the January 6th Insurrection and she’s like, if they even touch my door, I was ready to start fighting. And it was just so funny to me because, you know, so many people were really scared that day, but not Cori, because she is just a new kind of congresswoman. 

Cori Bush: At not one point did I feel like I was about to die, or my staff would. But what I felt like was, if you touch these doors and if you come in this place trying to get at my staff, like we bangin’ and we bangin’ until the end. And I didn’t even mean my staff, I was talking about me because we did it on the streets. 

Ayesha Johnson: Hi, my name is Ayesha Johnson, I’m director of operations at The Meteor. I was really inspired by this conversation between Brittany and Tricia. I’ve been following The Nap Ministry and found it to be so empowering to be grounded in the idea of rest, to facilitate my purpose and my day to day living and taking care of myself. 

Tricia Hersey: I refuse to let capitalism own my body and try to control it when they still owe a debt to my ancestors. You can’t have my body. Sorry you not, I’m not going to willingly give and donate my body to a system that is so wicked and corrupt, and that is so evil, and that doesn’t see me as a full, divine human being. So what I do is I try to let people understand that rest is your divine right, it’s a human right. 

Rachel Matlow: Hey, it’s Rachel Matlow here, and one of my favorite moments from the season was when the incredible Black trans activist Raquel Willis talked about the complexity of gender and identity and what the future hopefully holds for all of us. 

Raquel Willis: One of the things that I am particularly, I guess, hungry and thirsty for in these next few decades is for more and more people to understand that we’re all gender nonconforming, that in essence, there is no trans experience, there is no cis experience, because we have crafted some new binaries, right? When really we’re all just individual colors existing in this larger tapestry of life. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hi, it’s Brittany my favorite moment from this season was when 1619 project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones talked about Black folks, yes, holding this country accountable and moving it to where we hope it can be, but also really taking ownership and pride of the country we built and are still building.  

Nikole Hannah-Jones: Black Americans are different in many ways than other Black people across the Americas, because we ended slavery as a tiny minority in a white country. Jamaicans are very proud to be Jamaican, they fly their flag, they have that Jamaican identity. We’ve had to have this completely conflicted relationship with our country, like we’re not flying that flag. And that leaves us a people without a nation, in some ways. And I want Black folks to know that no one has the right to deprive us of a legacy of the ownership of a country that we built not just with our sweat, but with our minds and with our freedom fighting as the primary democratizing force in this country. So that is what I hope Black people do, that we can let go of that sense of shame that so many of us have that we don’t really feel like we have a real country or a real origin, that we do. And we built this country and we have a right to claim it. 

Cindi Leive: Hi, it’s Cindi Leive, and my favorite moment in this season of UNDISTRACTED happened our third episode in. Our guest was LaTosha Brown, who as one of the founders of Black Voters Matter, had essentially helped win the election by registering so many Black Americans to vote. When Brittany asked her to think about some of the ancestors who had led her and guided her through this moment, she started to sing and it was just incredible. 

LaTosha Brown: Oh, freedom, oh, freedom, freedom over me, over me and before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Amen and Amen. That was Cori Bush, Tricia Hersey, Raquel Willis, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and LaTosha Brown. As we take a break before season two, now is a fabulous time for you to catch up on all 40 episodes of UNDISTRACTED. There are so many amazing guests and inspirational conversations for you to check out. So happy listening. Coming up, I’ll be talking to Tarana Burke about the power of survival, and how she was able to turn her shame into her gift, right after this short break.  

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And we are back. I could not be more grateful to have the one and only Tarana Burke as our guest for the season finale. I first met the founder of the Me Too movement back in 2018, and she has continued to be a friend and an inspiration to me and so many others. But Tarana wasn’t always comfortable saying the words “me too.” As a child, she believed she was responsible for the sexual assaults she experienced. But eventually, through organizing and empowering other Black women and girls, she learned to shed her shame and embrace her power. Tarana details her healing journey in her debut memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement. Her book will be out on September 14th, but we were lucky enough to get to speak to her about it right now. Just a heads up, our conversation covers themes of sexual violence. So please take care.  

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Sister Tarana. It is so, so good to talk to you. 

Tarana Burke: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so glad to be here and for us to talk. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: This incredibly powerful memoir of yours is coming out in a month. I cannot wait for everybody to read it. Why did you want to share your journey toward healing and, obviously, toward saying the words Me Too in this way? 

Tarana Burke: I think, because, Me Too and the Me Too movement, literally since the day it went viral, has been misunderstood. And not just from my perspective, not just like, well, who founded it? But even just, what the impetus is, and what the value is of both the words and the work. I think people expected, like, What did the last four years look like? You know, or something along those lines. And it was important to me that I take a deep dive into what the journey was for me, and how I came to wanting to do the work, because I really need people to understand why the work is important. I want people to be connected to just how deeply personal it was and is. And it remains for so many survivors. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I want to ask you, as you said, about the Me Too movement today, but first I want to go back before 2017, to the early 70s. You are born and raised in the Boogie Down Bronx.

Tarana Burke: Yes.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And I don’t want to ask you to go back into any trauma that you’re not OK with, but what do you feel comfortable sharing about your childhood and how it shaped you? 

Tarana Burke: So my childhood in the Bronx was great, for the most part. I loved growing up in a city. I loved growing up in a really close knit neighborhood. But also I think when I think about the 70s and 80s, we were coming off of the 50s and 60s and I think there was still this openness and trust, you know, in our communities around, “we take care of each other,” and that kind of thing. And we did. But it also left a lot of young people vulnerable to the kind of violence that I experienced. It’s not like, you know, the “Boogeyman experience,” it’s not the creepy guy who was in the neighborhood or the guy an ice cream truck or, you know, all these kind of tropes that we’ve seen on TV, it’s like both of the people who assaulted me were friends of the family, the sons of women who were friends with my mother. And it happens like that so often. A cousin, a neighbor, you know, a trusted person. You know, I had these two really horrible, well, one was just an experience and the other was over a period of time. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Mm hmm. And so, like you say, you write about being raped by an older boy in your neighborhood when you were seven years old and then sexually assaulted again when you were nine. And then you go on to say that it really wasn’t until you were an adult that you truly understood the word, “rape,” and to be able to relate it to your experience. 

Tarana Burke: Yeah. So if you think about your experience growing up and a lot of us have had these similar experiences, particularly Black girls. I can remember very clearly what the rules were. I remember very clearly being told, “You never let anybody touch your private parts.” You know, I remember very clearly being reprimanded for sitting on men’s laps, that’s a thing that you don’t do. I remember very clearly being told, “Go put some clothes on,” when older men were in the house, even though I was fully dressed, like I might have had on pajamas or something. But nobody ever said, “If somebody touches your private parts, that is not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. Come and tell your mother, come and tell your father,” you know, “Go tell an adult immediately.” I think we have more of those conversations now. But certainly when we were young people, that wasn’t done. So I like heard the word “rape” on TV probably, or in other contexts, and I wouldn’t relate that to me. And then think about being a little Black girl. When we did see it on television, there was a white woman who was assaulted and it was a really scary situation. I would never relate that to me. And the biggest reason is because all I knew is: I broke the rules. As a child, you break the rules and you’re in trouble and that’s the end of it. So for me, it was just, it was just about my complicity in this really terrible thing, not this terrible thing had happened to me that I had space to talk about. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hmm. This is such a meaningful part of the conversation, because I think one of the hard parts about the journey for survivors and, you know, we’ve talked about the fact that I belong to that group of people, is this discovery, this very frightening discovery that you maybe didn’t always understand what happened to you. 

Tarana Burke: Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And then what happened to you was more dangerous, more traumatic than you had the language to admit. Right? So you’re, you write about being twelve years old and reading the book I think a lot of us read at twelve years old, the Black girls read, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And you said it was the first time that you ever realized another little girl like you had gone through what you went through. What do you remember about reading that book back then? 

Tarana Burke: You know what I remember, and it’s so funny because I started rereading it recently, and I realized there was so much I forgot because I focused on that chapter so much. So I remember reading and rereading to make sure I was reading it correctly, you know what I mean? Like, I was understanding what I was reading and then thinking, oh, man, this feels similar. And I also remember wanting to not talk the way she, like, I had come up with my own coping mechanisms around the things that happened to me. But when I read that she didn’t talk for several years, I was like,Oh my gosh, that’s what I’m going to do, I’m not gonna talk.” Which is like, virtually impossible for somebody like me, because I run my mouth. And so then I remember thinking, “that’s not going to work. I can’t not talk.” But I spent probably three days trying to be silent, and thinking like, “this will do something magically to me.” But I read The Bluest Eye not long after that and that was fiction, but I don’t know that I had a distinction between like, fiction and nonfiction at that age. So like, Pecola also became somebody important to me when I read The Bluest Eye, and it was like starting to understand that this is a thing. This is a thing that happens to little girls. So it sent me on another journey. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah. You talk about the fact that that journey really leads you to activism and to community organizing when you first get involved with that in high school. And then after college, you moved to Selma, Alabama to work for the Twenty First Century Youth Leadership, which is an organization dedicated to helping young people become community organizers. I’m curious to know how that experience, especially working with young women and girls, helped shape you as a leader? 

Tarana Burke: Oh, it’s the bulk of what shaped me as a leader. And the biggest part of it was because Twenty First Century, differently than other youth organizations that were kind of like, even if it was sports, like “we’re going to train you to do this or that.” Twenty First Century’s philosophy was “You are this or that now, you are a leader now. We want to add to your skills, we want to build your skills, we want to help shape and nurture you. But you are everything that you need to be already.” And that was such a phenomenal mind blowing, eye opening realization. And so, Twenty First Century was a heavy, heavy, heavy influence in my life and becoming, and not just becoming but realizing that I am a leader, I have leadership skills, and that leadership doesn’t have to look like Martin Luther King. I don’t have to be out in the front. I don’t have to be the public speaker. There are all these different ways that I can contribute. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: So your own spirit of leadership is awakening, and at the same time, you say that you encountered many girls of color who are also survivors of sexual violence, but you were still trying desperately to turn away from the pain of your own past. You said, quote, “I didn’t see my story as a gift, but only as my shame.” 

Tarana Burke: Yeah, it took a long time. And even now when I say that to the survivors especially, there’s a lot of like, “How could you say that?” But it was my shame. It felt like this burden and this shame that I had to carry. But eventually, I evolved that thinking and I started thinking of it as my gift. Because I survived this thing. Right? And inherently in survival is power. Every day that I wake up and I am able to function and move through life, even if I’m not doing anything that people think is particularly phenomenal, the act of surviving is powerful in and of itself. Because, and I say that to really emphasize, even to be dramatic about the idea that, people don’t understand that the violence that we experience is akin to death. It is a killing of your spirit and your soul in a way that is very hard to reclaim. And a lot of people don’t do it successfully. A lot of people succumb to, if not physical death, drugs and alcohol and other kind of vices to soothe and cope, that kills them over time. And so survival is a big deal. So my story is not just a story of what happened to me, it’s the story of how I have lived with what happened to me. And that is a gift, it’s a thing that, it’s a gift to myself, because it reminds me that I have the power to survive and that I have the will to survive, and that I belong here. And if I belong here, that means I’m here to be something and do something, that God finds me worthy enough to stay. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I mean, I’m just, I just want to understand kind of how you confronted and acknowledged your own story, even to yourself, because that is in part what equipped you. 

Tarana Burke: Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: To be able to help do that for others. 

Tarana Burke: It was a slow sort of an incremental process. I had the thoughts. I’d said it in my head, but I had to force myself to say these actual words: I was raped, and it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t want it. And that was sort of the first part of it. And then I had this, it’s funny because I’ve, I’ve been asked so many times about the founding of Me Too, and “How did you find this?” And for the last four years, I’ve told this really abbreviated story because I didn’t know how it would be perceived to talk about, like, this sort of spiritual awakening kind of thing. Everybody wouldn’t understand that. And my relationship with God, and my relationship with Christ was really central to that. It really was for me this kind of spiritual confrontation that was like, I have an assignment. This is the assignment, period. And you can skirt around it, dance around it, but you won’t be able to complete this assignment unless you can come to terms with everything, all the things. And I had up until that point, become really comfortable with talking about what happened to me at 7, and not these other things, and I don’t write about all the assaults in the book, but that this one evening they all came flooding back at the same time. Literally it’s like the term “the floodgates opened.” 

And it took me, you know, two days, but at the end of it, it became really clear that what the, the goal of that whole situation that that I was experiencing, that whole experience was to bring me to the place to say: “This happened to me, too. I’m not just teaching. I’m not just organizing. I’m not just trying to save little Black girls. I’m trying to save myself. And I can’t get to the heart of this work until I can see it all. Embrace it all. Look it in its face and say, this happened to me, too, but I’m alive. I’m here.” But it was interesting because, it’s, these are words, it’s so simple, not just the words, Me Too, but just the story out of my body. A lot of survivors live their whole lives thinking, “If I let the story out of my body, I might die.” You know, you don’t know what’s on the other side of it, and it’s so scary, it’s so, so, so scary thinking, “What happens when I let this whole thing out?” 

That’s also the moment that I realized that letting this out doesn’t mean I have to go stand and scream it from the rooftops. It just means I have to be able to look myself in the face and get it out of me, get it out of my body. I don’t want it. Because if you think you’re going to die, if this story comes out of you, that means that you think this story is holding you together. And it’s not. It is so, so, so not. And so the feeling of getting that out, is like exorcising a demon out of your body. It was like, oh, my God, this thing doesn’t own me, it doesn’t control me, and it could never do it again, even though I still get triggered, even though I still have flashbacks and all of the things that come along with the trauma, I am real clear that they’re temporary. When I get into a valley, I don’t live here. And I try to make that clear for survivors. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to experience these things. It means that you’ve now built up an arsenal so that when you experience these things, you have new information and new understanding. When I get depressed, when I get down, when these things drag me into this dark valley and they still do, the little bit of hope and light that I have is that I know I don’t live here. I never stay here. It’s always temporary. And there’s hope and light on the other side. That takes a lot of work, and I never want to portray it like, “Come join me over here in this oasis where all the hope and light is.” That’s just not true. It’s a lot of work and it’s constant work and it’s tiring. And I get why a lot of people give up. But that’s part of my job, right? It’s like a coach, you know, like, keep people aware and make sure they understand and keep repeating the same things, even if it feels like nobody’s hearing you, because somebody is, and that somebody needs that desperately. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: So we fast forward a decade to 2006. You start Just Be, Incorporated, an organization that focuses on helping young girls of color who’ve experienced sexual violence. This is also the place where you really start to begin to use the term and socialize the term Me Too. And you begin running these workshops. What were these workshops all about? What happened in them? 

Tarana Burke: Well, you know, Just Be was actually not started to deal with sexual violence. I guess, in the back of my mind, this was coming, but it was initially about helping Black girls develop a sense of self-worth. But our workshops, when we finally developed the Me Too workshops, our workshops were heavily influenced by pop culture. Because I was trying to find a way to talk about sexual violence. And that’s a very difficult topic in general – it’s even more difficult in the Black community. And that is for many reasons, but one of them being: because we don’t talk about it, people have put in all these different, like, taboos and ideas that are not real. So our early workshops, I had combed through all kind of magazines and articles and things to find Black women, celebrities, who had experienced sexual violence. And so I came up with this, you know, I had this list and I would take what I sort of envisioned based on what they said happened to them, and made up a scenario. And we would read the scenario out loud. We would read them from the board with a child’s picture of some, you know, unknown child’s picture on it. And the kids would all, you know, listen, and then when we finish, we said, “who do you think this happened to? Who do you think we’re talking about?” And they wouldn’t know. And then we turn it over and it’d be, like, Gabrielle Union. And then they say, “oh, my God, that happened to Gabrielle Union? Oh, my God,” you know? Because we were trying to use the, you know, the love that young people have for pop culture and celebrity to say, “These are people who you look up to. You think of them as different from you. You think of them as really far removed. But many of these Black girls, just like you, had experiences that you’ve experienced, have been where you are. You see them as worthy, the world sees them as worthy, you’re just like that.” So when we turned it over and it had the picture it said, Me Too. Like it would have got picked and had Me Too in the corner. So it was almost almost like the celebrity themself being able to say to them, “This happened to me, too.” We did Queen Latifah, Gabrielle Union, Mary J. Blige, Fantasia. And then we would always end with Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou. That would really blow it, you know, because there’s the regular celebrity, then there’s like Oprah, then there’s like Maya Angelou, you know? For kids, these are really revered people. And that would really make them open to talking about the topic, and it would open them up. And then we would go into language. When I say language, I mean, we would literally say this is the definition of incest. This is what statutory rape is. This is what grooming is. You know, like we would go to these words and define them and have a conversation about them. And then we would end with, because all of the kids in the workshops are not survivors, we gave everybody paper so they can write, like, something that they learned, but also they can tell us… Say, “me, too,” if they wanted to. And it was always the most heartbreaking part of the workshop, because the very first time we did it, we had not braced ourselves for, probably, if we had 40 kids, probably 36 of them gave us slips of paper that said, “me too.” All little Black girls, all between 12 and 16. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Oh, gosh.

Tarana Burke: Yeah, it was hard. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And, we fast forward, as you’re doing all of that work to 2017, and this is really where your book begins, one random Sunday morning, in the fall of 2017, when you first see the Me Too hashtag go viral after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted it. What was your initial reaction? 

Tarana Burke: Oh, well you see, my initial reaction was panic for several reasons. I thought, “No one will believe that I am the person who started doing this work. You know, under this name. People will not understand why I started doing it and they will co-opt it and make it something else,” which has happened to some degree. And then I had a little bit of panic about survivors and I thought, “How are people going to be able to be held in this moment?” Right. We are allowing space for people to cut and bleed all over the Internet, and there’s no triage. There was a real deficit in response, I think, initially to Me Too, from the community of folks who do this work, and probably because a lot of us were like deer caught in headlights. So Right? It wasn’t like this immediate… “Listen, here’s a support system. Here’s what you do.” You know, not in mass. Obviously, some people responded that way. But the louder noise was: tell your story, tell your story, tell your story, tell your story, tell your story. Right? Use #MeToo, get online and tell your story. So I was also worried about that, but I was mostly worried because white folks was going to take my stuff. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah, I mean, you wrote that seeing Me Too, this phrase that you had, built your work around, your purpose around being used by people outside of the community of focus, was jarring. 

Tarana Burke: Hmm. It was jarring. I was really, really, really blown. Really blown. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And I mean, I know that eventually Alyssa gave you proper credit, once it was brought to her attention. But really, you talked about, beyond just your concern about the work being co-opted, you say you ultimately didn’t want to fight about who got the credit. You wanted to show the world why a movement like this was necessary.  

Tarana Burke: Yeah, that became, that’s kind of where I landed. And it was the come to Jesus moment for me, because I was saying to myself, these people are going to steal my work, my work, my work. And what I had to see was my work was actually happening right in front of me. This was it. This is your moment. This is the moment where you have to insert yourself. This is a dream that you had. You know, I remember when we first, when I first coined the phrase and we kind of started doing the work, I got these bumper stickers made and these decals and these buttons and these folders and things like that. And my idea was that Me Too, and our logo, would become like the rainbow flag in a way that it would be a symbol for survivors, that other people may not relate to it, but when survivors saw it, they knew this was a safe space. So it was a way for us to recognize each other. I envisioned that would be the way that it would be kind of a big worldwide thing. So it wasn’t like I didn’t have visions and dreams of it being just what it is today, but not like this. Right? So, we all know how this works. I was a forty four year old Black woman from the Bronx who had no status of any, at all, except for in my community. Right? I definitely had footing in, in the movement. And I know people across the movement, across media, in Black media and Black movement spaces. I’d been doing this for twenty five years, so my credibility was found amongst my folk. I wasn’t worried about that. In fact, that’s what helped, people were able to speak up for me and vouch for me and say, yeah, I’ve been watching her do this for years. Y’all can’t just come in and take this. But, imagine if this had devolved into a fight about who owns Me, Too. It just would be, it would be of service to no one. One, I would lose that right, because eventually you just become an obscure trivia fact, like who was the Black woman who said she discovered Me Too in 2017, like nobody would care. And it’s not about me getting credit necessarily, but more so about me bringing the body of experience and the body of knowledge that I’ve acquired in the last 10 or 15 years and inserting that into this discourse that’s happening around sexual violence before it goes off the rails. And that’s what my thinking was. I have to get in here and let people understand why this is a movement, why we say “me too,” what the power of empathy looks like in relation to survivors and sexual violence. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last four years, despite being pulled in all kind of directions and being turned into some kind of, like, pop culture figure or whatever. That’s really what the work is about. It’s about making sure survivors have what they need to heal and gathering as many people as we can in this movement to interrupt and end it, to take action in that way. This has been an uphill battle, but that’s exactly where we started and where I stay. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Wow, so here we are, the Me Too movement takes off and because people were really intentional about making sure that folks knew where it began, your name starts to, dare I say, become a household name.

Tarana Burke: In some houses. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: In some houses, right. But you write that no matter how many hashtags there were and no matter how many galas you attended or how many celebrities supported the cause, you always turned back to the community Me Too came from. Why has this been so important to you to continue to center Black and Brown women and girls in the work that you do? 

Tarana Burke: I mean, quite simply, because if I don’t, it feels like no one will. Having this level of visibility and not centering Black and Brown girls would be contrary to everything I’ve worked for in my whole life. Right. Like we work for the opportunity to have a moment, not like this, but any moment where we can get more attention, more resources and give more access to our community. That’s what’s on my mind from the smallest to the largest. Like if I’m coming, all my people coming, you know, that’s just how it is. That’s how I’m cut. That’s how it works. You open a door for me, you’ve got to know I’m holding my foot on the door to get as many of us in as possible. So the more I was out here and I would be in these really big spaces where people were making big decisions about the lives of survivors, about what the message was that we were putting out in the world, and none of it had anything to do with us. It would be, you know, the collective, the people of color, the blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, that’s cool. But let me tell you who I’m here for. My girls, I’m still, my Instagram and my, all my social media is filled with my kids that I’ve worked with since the 90s who are still like “Ms. T, What’s up, Ms. T? What’s going on? Ms. Tarana, I see you.” So I just consider myself a conduit. Like the more visibility I get, the more I have to shine it on my people. That’s just always what it’s going to be. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I mean, one of the things you write about is trying to make sure that there’s more space in the movement for Black women to find validity, accountability, community and value. I love the way you put that. I know that that mission is in part why you chose to participate in the surviving R. Kelly series. 

Tarana Burke: Yeah, that was, you know, and that was a hard decision to be quite… I mean, in some ways, it was a difficult experience for me to do something so visible in the Black community. And I know our response to that is not always, it’s not always a good response. But you know, this just as well as I do, that countless other Black women have been out here talking about him and his depravity for years, way before Me Too went viral. And so I definitely felt like it was necessary to play a role in amplifying that story, not necessarily about him, but as an example that this is also happening in our community. And also these women, I just can’t imagine what it would feel like to watch these white women have their moment, if you will, a moment to share their stories. And not to say it wasn’t scary for them, that they did not pay the price for doing that, but they did it still. They were able to say out loud what had happened to them. And all of these Black women, survivors of a Black male celebrity are still silent, and still have no outlet, no recourse, no anything. So I thought it was important to amplify that story for that reason as well. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Bill Cosby and his recent release from prison. Right? We’re talking about two beloved Black men in the community. 

Tarana Burke: Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: What’s been going through your mind and what consequences might some of these legal technicalities have for survivors? 

Tarana Burke: I was so surprised, like everybody else, that he was released, and I immediately, of course, thought about his survivors, many of them who I’ve met and how this must feel to them, but also to other survivors. And, you know, this reinforcement of: this is why we don’t come forward. This is why we don’t say anything, because it doesn’t really matter. But the other thing that came to my mind that I really wanted to reinforce and I try to reinforce, is this is also why we cannot depend on this criminal justice system in the United States as a remedy for sexual violence and a space where you can find accountability. And right now, the way we’re socialized to think is that’s it. It’s crime and punishment, law and order. If we could shift our thinking and think more about: what do you owe a person after you harm them? There are not laws that cover all kinds of harm, but harm is still done and somebody should answer for the harm they caused. And so, you know, I just think about that conversation and how we could amplify that more so that people understand, OK, even if you don’t want Bill Cosby to go to jail for whatever reason, some people are abolitionists and some people are just ashy and they just don’t, they have all kind of ashy ass politics 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Baby! Just ashy politics left and right. maybe. 

Tarana Burke: Your politics is not moisturized.  

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Tell the truth, sade the devil. 

Tarana Burke: But some people just out here saying all kinds of wild stuff. But whatever your reasoning is, this is a person who has admitted to causing harm to numbers, scores of women. He needs to be accountable. This kind of blanket, “leave him alone,” da da da da da, is just reckless and it’s really, really, really harmful, particularly in our community, because I knew the other thing I thought was, “here we go, Black folks, they’re going to be all over this.” Like, “See, see, see, leave that Black man alone.” This conflation of like Emmett Till and Brian Banks and R. Kelly and Bill Cosby is bad. It’s just wrong and bad. We know that sexual violence has been weaponized against Black men in this country. There’s no way to get around that. Right? We have seen it over and over and over again. We know about the false accusations. We understand that deeply, deeply, deeply. But we amplify that so much that we don’t talk about, Black women have the second highest rate of sexual violence in this country. And so people feel very comfortable supporting an R. Kelly or a Bill Cosby. And don’t give a second thought to how this impacts Black women. You know, we stay talking about Black Lives Matter and Black people and blah, blah, blah. And I just want to say to people sometimes, why don’t you just say Black Men Matter and be really real, because you ain’t talking about women, you talking about trans folk. You’re not like – stop. And until we really, like, take a step back and understand the impact across our community because also Black boys are also sexually assaulted. you know what I’m really curious about? I don’t know if you saw the article that came out that said the prosecutors in the R. Kelly case are trying to introduce this evidence that he sexually assaulted two teenage boys. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah, 

Tarana Burke: The thought that came to me was, I want to sit back and watch the shift happen in support for R. Kelly when it is amplified that he also sexually assaulted Black boys. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see how much support he loses from Black men and, you know, Black people when it becomes clear that he is a predator without discrimination. I feel like there is more understanding that this is wrong for this Black teenage boy to be touched or groped or assaulted by a man, but not for this girl. We have so much work to do among our people. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Oh, I mean, in recent years, we’ve seen more and more Black people, Black women bravely step into the spotlight to share their stories. I’m thinking of FKA twigs. I’m thinking of Drew Dixon. Toward the end of your book, you make clear that, quote, “The work of Me Too is far from done.” How far do you think the movement and really our culture has come since 2017? And what more do you think needs to be done, especially for Black survivors of sexual abuse? 

Tarana Burke: I think that the culture has been, not shifted, but shocked. Right? We’ve been sort of jolted into a new, a new reality that is leading us into a shift. And by that, I mean that it is much easier for, say, people to come forward and talk about sexual violence. It’s much more prevalent for people to have public conversation about sexual violence, to unpack things that happen in pop culture around sexual violence in ways that we absolutely didn’t have in 2017. I mean, you know, we had very prominent cases, including Bill Cosby, that predate Me Too. And the way people responded to that, before and after, is quite different. And we’ve seen some policy changes, right? But I really would love a study of the types of policy changes that have happened in the last four years, because I think a lot of them don’t really necessarily have carried the kind of weight that’s needed to really help us in this shift, because you can’t adjudicate change in this kind of situation. Right? You can’t legislate change. There are laws on the book already that say this is illegal, this is not right. This shouldn’t be done. And people do it. So, you know, we’ve seen some of those kind of shifts in policy and a little bit in culture, but in our community, I feel like we have seen more of a doubling down. And I think we’ve also seen a deeper divide happen. There were already scores of Black women who were very vocal about sexual violence, who were very active in the work to end sexual violence and have been for decades. That was already in existence. But there was a deep divide between us. And other folk, either who are in movement spaces or who are not who are just kind of living life and don’t think about it, it’s still not widely thought of as a social justice issue. Right? If you look at the response to Me Too and the response to Black Lives Matter, for instance, it’s a classic case of like Black women getting lost. Right? Because you have Black women at the head of both of these movements, seen as the leaders of both of these respective movements. When Me Too went viral, because it was focused on white women and white famous women, there was a huge outpouring, including the hashtag. Right? The hashtag came from people feeling safe to do that in community, and to do that alongside some of these women who we love and blah, blah, blah. So you have this huge outpouring and this huge media backlash. “Has it gone too far, is Me Too doing too much, is Me Too doing enough?” Bla bla bla, right? All the criticism? Fine. But what you didn’t see were resources that came into the field. You did not see the unlocking of millions and millions of dollars to go into the nonprofit field across the movement to end sexual violence. That said, we have to do something to make sure that we don’t live in a world where 12 million people can respond to a hashtag saying that they also experienced this violence in twenty four hours. That shouldn’t happen. We didn’t see people, you know, billionaires opening their pockets saying what kind of programs can we do? How can we shift this? That just didn’t happen. We didn’t see massive legislation. That’s what happened, you know, when BLM went not viral, but sort of after George Floyd. And then we had the national reckoning and response around that. And in both cases, when Me Too went viral, you had white women lifted. And when BLM had its moment, you had Black men lifted. But in both cases, Black women, who again are the face of both of those movements, fell by the wayside. And it’s an incredible phenomenon. And when I pointed out the people, they’re like, oh, wow, that’s yeah, you’re right. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: They’re like, so sad. 

Tarana Burke: That’s so sad, exactly. That’s unfortunate. But that’s our reality as Black women, that is definitely our reality. We have to fight and claw and scream and yell and be called all kinds of things because of doing that, just to get a modicum of attention and response to our pain, to our trauma, to our experiences, period. And it is exhausting, to say the least. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: What ultimately has your journey, you think, taught you about the power of empathy, about the power of survival, not just for others, but for ourselves? 

Tarana Burke: I think that we can’t have a movement, any movement without, not just the power of empathy, but empathy, compassion and grace are so important to our survival. In order for us to progress, we sort of have to release the idea about what winning looks like. Right? That winning is not just winning the campaign, or winning this moment, or doing this thing, or the thing that we believe to be true and right, getting that to be accepted by everybody. That’s not what winning looks like. We are on a journey together because we’re all ultimately kind of fighting the same thing. And we, there’s so much individualizing and there’s so much competition and fighting each other. I don’t want to fight with my folk. I don’t, I want to do my work, I want to do it well, and I want to do it alongside other people. And I think that’s been a huge lesson for me in the last four years, because, man, we make it hard for each other, you know, and we don’t have to. And there’s just a bigger enemy out there that we are ignoring this thing, sexual violence in particular, you know, we’ve been fighting to get people to see it as a public health crisis. Because I think it helps people to see the pervasiveness and the sort of the breadth and depth of this around the world. So we don’t have time to in fight. We don’t have time to not give each other grace. We are going to lose and losing, I can see losing so, right there, it’s right there. We’re going to lose over and over again if we don’t get that lesson. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Amen and Amen. Tarana, You are just such a gift. I’m so grateful to you for spending time with us on UNDISTRACTED, for writing this memoir that I know is just going to say a lot of people free. I told you, when you and I first met in the corner of a ballroom in DC, that you are holding a lot of people’s stories who aren’t quite ready to tell them, including mine. And so I thank you for continually doing that and forgiving so many of us, so much power. I appreciate you. 

Tarana Burke: I appreciate you. And I just always remember that. I remember thinking that it was such a beautiful moment because it was early on, I think I was 2018 still, and I was really, really struggling. I mean, people that you never know, people are going through it and, I was really struggling. And I felt like everybody who approached me or came up to me, wanted something, even if it was just a picture, they wanted something. And to have this sister come to me and pull, you pulled me aside and said, we are praying for you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And yeah, well, we are. We are. I promise you this. We are

Tarana Burke: You know, I get emotional thinking about it and I think about that often. I need it so badly in that moment, and you said, “We are praying for you, and we see you, and Black women are holding you.” And I just, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you how much I appreciate that. But I did. I really, really did. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Well, I love you. And I mean it.

Tarana Burke: I’m sorry, I’m such a sap.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: No, do not apologize. I love you. And I mean it. 

Tarana Burke: I love you too. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And I am always grateful for the way Black women hold one another. 

Tarana Burke: So thank you. All right, that’s my cry for the day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Thank you, sis. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Tarana Burke is an activist, organizer and the founder of Me Too. Her debut memoir, Unbound, will be on bookshelves September 14th. As Tarana talked, I kept thinking about the Lucille Clifton poem, “Won’t you celebrate with me?” She wrote, Come celebrate with Me, that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed. We forget, I think, that it is a testament to the human spirit and the bravery and fortitude of marginalized women when we survive. Its power. Tarana’s story is not just about what happened to her. It’s about how she learned to live with what happened to her and then how she made beauty out of ashes. When she got her story out of her body, as scary as that had to be, she exorcized a demon that could no longer control her, and she found the hope that exists on the other side, for all of us. It’s like I found after surviving sexual assault. And it’s like we can all shine on one another to create the kind of movements Tarana talks about, ones with empathy, compassion and grace, and systemic change. Our common enemy is a white supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy that would much rather us fight one another than the systems that hold us back. So whether you turn your mind toward ending sexual violence like Tarana, or towards stopping the violence of oppression, however it manifests, remain undistracted. Justice is divine, creator ordained. It is as promised as the air we breathe. I so, so believe that the triumph is ours for the taking. That’s it for today and for season one, but, you know, that’s never it for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of the Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Thanks so much to this season’s lead producer, Rachel Matlow, and our associate producer, Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen and Hannah S. Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me @MsPackyetti on all social media, and our fantastic team at The Meteor.  

Subscribe to Undistracted and rate us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. And when you binge this first season, make sure you share it with a few friends. As always, thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.