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#MeToo creator answers 10 questions and perfectly explains what the movement is all about.

This black woman started #MeToo years ago. Now, she's paving the way toward change.

Tarana Burke has been working as an activist for years, but her work has become internationally recognized in recent months after #MeToo went viral.

A longtime advocate for sexual assault survivors, Burke has devoted her life to improving the lives of young girls from marginalized groups. Historically, women of color have often been left out or virtually ignored in conversations around sexual assault and abuse. Burke has made black and brown girls the center of her work and is a driving force in making the #MeToo movement intersectional.

Burke’s visible leadership points to an important shift in feminist causes: Women of color must participate and create, but also be elevated as leaders and innovators.  

Burke talked with Upworthy about this need and the importance of intersectionality in the #MeToo movement.


(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Was there anything that affected your journey early on for working with survivors?

I'm a survivor of sexual assault and sexual violence multiple times, and that was a catalyst for sure. Seeing how much trauma there was in our community was also definitely a catalyst for wanting to use my organizing background to do something to confront this issue.

How has the public response to survivors of sexual assault changed since you began working with them?

In these last several months, it’s changed exponentially. You have to really fight to get people to pay attention to sexual violence as an issue, specifically as a social justice issue.

It’s changed exponentially since it’s become so public and there’s so much media attention to it. People now have the space and the capacity to talk about this in a different way, and those of us who do the work have been fond of taking advantage of the moment to support survivors.

Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for National CARES Mentoring.

How has social media impacted this huge change within the last few months?

Well, I mean, it’s the catalyst for the change, right? The message has been carried forward and ... has helped shape the public narrative. Mainstream media has done a lot to shape the general dialogue, but I think social media is a great tool for undoing what the mainstream media gets wrong.

When #MeToo gained traction online, many white feminists jumped on this and someone distorted the message and its origins. Social media resurrected your work on influence on this movement. Can you speak to how you felt during that experience and what your response was?  

I felt concerned about what was going to happen to the body of work that I'd created, how it was going to be understood in this moment of pop culture meeting that work. But that was quickly dispelled within days ... I was able to insert myself into the conversation.

Intersectionality has been central to the movement's progression today. How do you think that your leadership as black woman visibly creating and leading this movement affects it as a whole?

I think that we have a dearth in black women’s leadership in general, and particularly in large-scale social justice movements in the country. So what we’ve seen over the last several years is that black women have been central to some of the larger social justice movements that have happened in the United States and abroad.

I think that my position as a leader of this work will contribute to that tradition of black women in leadership. Hopefully, what we'll see is a shift in people’s response to leadership.

Why did you make the decision to work with black and brown girls specifically?

Because that’s the work that I do and I’ve always done it. I’ve always worked in my community, and I’ve put my people first. The work expanded over the years and has expanded to deal with all kinds of survivors, but I have always centered the most marginalized people.  

Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images.

How do you think making intersectionality so central to the movement impacts feminist causes overall?

Any work — social justice work, any kind of work that is involving justice — has to have an intersectional lens. I think people have learned a word, but I don’t know if they’ve learned a practice. I think the word is used abnormally at this point for people that are having conversations, sort of like white privilege. But understanding the word and being able to regurgitate the definition is very different from amplification and actual action happening. So that remains to be seen.

There’s a growing understanding around it, and I think the younger generation really has a stronger grasp of the need for that approach to doing the work than (possibly) people in my generation.

Why do you think that young people have that stronger grasp?

People from my generation have been talking about it for 20 years, and people in this generation have picked this up. And now we have things like social media, and people can create their own media to continue to push those things out so that people can learn on their own.

It’s not so much of what people are learning in school — it’s those people that are speaking out on how to do this work. They know have access to this work that other folks didn’t have access to. It’s starting to shift the way that people think and interact.

The #MeToo movement has grown quite a bit in the last few months. How do you feel about the state of the movement today?

I think that there are positives and negatives, like anything else. I think there are huge misconceptions about what this movement is about. And the biggest part of the work for those of us who are doing the work is to change the narrative. But it's also gives us an expanded platform to talk about sexual violence in ways that we have been determined to since the beginning. So we have to take advantage of that.

Some critics have insinuated (or plainly stated) that the movement has lost its way or has been diluted, even comparing it to a witch hunt. What would you say in response to that criticism?  

I would say that they don’t know what this movement is.

First and foremost, not even including my body of work before this moment took place, Alyssa Milano’s tweet had nothing to do with anything but people making a declaration about what they experienced, so that the world could see the magnitude of it.

Everything else that has happened, every consequence, every fallout, has nothing to do with the work that we have to do to support survivors. And that’s all this movement is about. It’s about supporting survivors and doing the work to end sexual violence.

Burke is the founder of Just Be Inc. She has a forthcoming memoir on her life and the ways in which sexual violence impacts the lives of black and brown girls in America set for release in 2019.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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