Tarana Burke and Mariame Kaba talk movements, survivorship, radical community healing to open AMC2018 (VIDEO + TRANSCRIPT)


The 20th annual Allied Media Conference was the biggest yet. It was also one of the most reflective, as we paused to look back on how far the conference has come while simultaneously visioning our futures. A warm Detroit welcome from Mama Sandra of the Hush House kicked things off at the AMC2018 Opening Ceremony, followed by performances from The Aadizookan and RV Mendoza, and a powerful message from Siwatu Salama Ra, recorded from inside Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility. A highlight of the evening was the keynote conversation between Tarana Burke, activist and founder of the #MeToo movement, and longtime AMCer Mariame Kaba, founder of Project NIA.

We are excited to share the conversation's full transcription below.


Mariame Kaba: This is nice. This is amazing! I know that you are clapping for Tarana and not for myself…

Tarana Burke: That’s not true.

MK: But I am pretending you are clapping for me too, so thank you so much. It is really only my deep respect for Tarana that is preventing me from taking over the next thirty minutes on an anti-prison, anti-policing and anti-surveillance rant. I am going to control myself until I get off here and then I’ll be on Twitter ranting, so check me out there later on. I apologize in advance, I am dealing with allergies and the allergies are winning. I am really excited to be here with you and I have such deep respect for you and your work.

TB: Thank you, I feel the same way.

MK: We are going to have this conversation and see where it goes. I thought it would be good just for us to start with you talking a little bit about how you got involved in addressing sexual violence. What brought you to this work?

TB: Well, hello, Allied Media! This is one of those instances where it feels like you're with your tribe, so I am glad to be here. I started doing social justice organizing work early at fourteen. I was a part of an organization, 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, and did mostly racial justice, economic justice, and political justice kind of work for a long time. I am also a survivor of sexual violence and at some point, it became really clear to me that there was no entry point to talk about sexual violence in our groups, in our circles. Really, there wasn’t a chance to even talk about gender.

As I was progressing and doing organizing work, I was also working with young people, particularly young women of color, black and brown girls, and seeing them come to me all the time with this trauma. The same trauma that I recognized in myself. I think about the founding of #metoo in lots of different ways, but really the sort of brass tacks was when I would go to these community meetings we would have and say that I was dealing with these seventh and eighth graders. I was in Selma, Alabama, which is a relatively small town, and the program we were running for these girls was set up so that almost all the seventh and eighth-grade girls had to come to our program at some point. I would venture to say something like three-quarters of them had some story or some experience, something that connected them to sexual violence in a very specific way.

I would go to these community meetings and we would talk about, “Yo, we gotta organize around this, we gotta do that.” I would say, “Yo, we have to do something about this situation.” The response was always “Well, you know, we need more counselors in the school.” Trying to sort of deal with this individual separate problem, I’m like, these children are in our community, so this means we have a community problem. If you have a group of 100 children and 75 of them have been touched by sexual violence, and they live in your community, then we have a community problem. It became really clear that this group of people wasn’t going to do it, so me and some sisters kind of got together like, “what can we do?”

We started as, just sort of as an intervention, like an intervention for prevention. We need to give these people language and we need to connect them to something greater than themselves so that they understand that this thing happened to you, but it doesn’t define you. They already felt whatever kind of connection to us, so if I say this happened to me, too, then at least I would watch how it would give them a sense of power. It would make them feel visible. I also believe that survivors have answers, but you also can't ask people who are survivors of sexual violence to organize around it without giving them ways to heal individually, so the work became both.

Photo: Ara Howrani

MK: So you’ve been doing this work for a really long time before the national dominant narrative around the #metoo hashtag blew up. What has the last year been like compared to all the years before for you? Also, what is the movement we actually need?

TB: So the last year has been a lot of things; it is hard to capture it in one or two words. In some ways, it has been overwhelming. It’s been a rollercoaster. And in other ways, it has been deeply gratifying and humbling. The part about it that I am really excited about is the possibilities that have opened up. Yes, those possibilities have opened up for all kinds of reasons unrelated to me as a person, but I actually don’t care about that. I just care about the fact that they exist.

This has been sort of a rough role to navigate as a matter of fact. Our team, Blackbird Communications, came in very early, and this is the power of community. When I started this, I was deer in headlights. I also didn't know where it was going. It could’ve been a couple of days or a week or month, it could've been nothing. Having somebody who was grounded in media and narrative and all that come in really early, support, and undergird what was happening helped me get really intentional, really fast.

The year has been a lot. The movement that we actually need is the movement that we have. What I mean by that is the #metoo movement... I get questions all the time about who is in, who is left out, and all of those kind of things. My answer is always that if you define this movement by how the media says it is, then you will definitely be left out. If you define the #metoo movement by what the media says it is, then none of us are included in that. That's not a movement. We are movement people. We know what a movement is. The hashtag, what is happening on TV, and who’s going to jail: that's not a movement. Those are actions that are reactions to things that have happened and that is the media’s response to it. What the media is doing with #metoo is not a movement. What we are building is a movement. We are building a movement that we need.

It almost feels like a lesson in how relinquish our power because, on the one hand, folks celebrate me all day. “Oh girl you are doing this and doing that, and you are living your best life.” People will look me in my face and say black women are left out of the #metoo movement. I’m like “I’m about as black as you can get.” Yes, we are left out if you define it the way that the media does. They never included us, that is not our media. If we look for validation from them, then we will never be there. While we are looking for that validation, sexual violence is pervasive in our community, and we are overlooking that while we are looking for them to validate us.

MK: I am thinking also about how you are talking about media and the construction of the dominant narrative of this movement. I am thinking also about what you are saying in terms of backlash to the movement. Can you speak a little bit to that and how that has also impacted you, and also all of us, in some ways?

TB: Yeah, I mean somewhere around November or December after the “Person of the Year” thing happened, people were like “brace yourself for the backlash.” We knew the pendulum had to swing the other way. Personally it is difficult. I think where the backlash hurts the most is in this narrative change that we are trying to do. Yes, while we don’t need validation from the media, representation is also still important and as much as we can get. It is the fastest vehicle to get the widest message out. I feel like what I do the most in terms of my engagement with mainstream media is trying to pull them away from this narrative that they have about this being a witch hunt and all of that kind of stuff that we hear all the time. I don't win all the time because for every time I am appearing in these shows there is somebody else writing a headline that says “Who is the #metoo Movement Taking Down Next?” People, our folks, believe that, so I spend a lot of time untangling those misconceptions. This time could be spent doing work to support survivors, so that backlash has been harmful. Personally, I get all kinds of death threats and trolls. I am always like, “why do I gotta die? I gotta die? So dramatic!”

I have a child, I have family, so it is concerning that my life doesn’t feel like my own anymore in that way. I have to be constantly thinking about my safety. It is interesting, it was crazy white people at first. The trumpsters who are like for some reason, I guess because he is a sexual predator they connected like "Let's protect our predator in chief!" I had a lot of trolling from that group, and then after the Cosby verdict and the Mute R. Kelly... our folks came out the woodwork. That trolling hurts me, right? That actually is hard. White folks, I am used to racist, crazy, you know? Whatever. But having to deal with black folks who just don't get it and how they devalue us. This is literally about how much and how worthy you see me, and I am not moved from that because if you don't find value and worth in these black girls then you don’t find it in me. This is all connected, so that is hard.

MK: This links to something I have heard you talking about a lot which is radical community healing.

TB: Yes.

MK: I think that links to that point. The intra-community work that we need to be doing in order for this to actually impact the things that we want to impact. Can you speak to radical community healing and what that means when you mention that?

TB: I really feel like sometimes when you say the word “healing”, people take it as soft or something that can’t be defined. You can't define healing for an individual. What you need and what I need to feel whole is different, but I do believe that radical community healing is the thing that we decide together as a community that our communities need. I often compare it to when people who have come home from drug rehab are told, “you can’t go back into the community where you were using drugs because you know you are liable to use again.” I think about how many of us live and work and exist in the communities where we were harmed because we have no choice. How many of us not just have to live and exist and work in there, but we have to watch people actively not care. Actively not keep us safe.

Our communities have to heal as well. It is not gonna help for me to be whole as a person and be on a healing journey and be in this community where other people are being hurt around me. Where I am still vulnerable to being hurt again. We have to be radical about healing our communities. That could look like laws and policies and all the rest of that, but that also looks like unlearning. When I think about intra-community, like you were talking about... we have so much unlearning to do in order for us to even think about the possibility of being whole as communities. I think about communities that are healed or communities actively trying to make the world that we live in less vulnerable to sexual violence. It happens in all kinds of different ways, but if you are committed to it, you are always working on it. It is the thing that you think of first. That's what I mean by radical community healing; we have to be super proactive about making our communities less vulnerable.

MK: I also want to ask a question about the ways in which we approached sexual violence in the past, if we approached it at all. The answer to the question of “what is justice?” is often a conviction and potentially prison, even though most people that harm others sexually never end up seeing prison. That is the solution that is offered to people who are surviving. I wonder what you think about what are other solutions that could be offered besides those that seem to not be working anyway, and probably also contribute to a culture where it is actually impossible for people to cause harm and to take accountability for that harm? That is kind of always hanging over the heard with the head like a Damocles sword.

TB: There is so much conversation in communities of people who do this work around restorative justice and transformative justice. There is so much conversation about it and there is so much tension about it still. I respect folks who survive sexual violence, their needs and where they are in that development, so I try not to put my personal values on folks. I often say sexual violence happens on a spectrum and justice has to happen on a spectrum. Survivors have to be the ones who define what justice looks like.

A perfect example is, when the Weinstein case broke, there was all of this like “oh, are we celebrating? How do you feel, do you feel excited?” I’m like, “I’m not excited about this.” I actually talked to some of the survivors and they weren’t excited about it. It is a perfect example about the nuances of how this works. There are studies and research that shows that most survivors aren’t punitive and the reason why is because we have such close relations with the people who harm us most of the time. It really is about balancing this world that we envision where safety and justice is defined. We dream about it all the time and we talk about transformative justice, and I think part of our work is teaching people how to dream about another world while actively being safe in this world.

MK: We don't have that much time left, and I want to talk about two things. I want to talk about the question of survivorship that you brought up. There was a plenary this morning, that was terrific, with many people who’ve been doing work around this issue for many years talking about sexual harm, violence, and survivorship. Amitha made a very good point this morning about the desire to make survivorship a monolith. To make it like there is one way to survive, and when you are outside of those ways of surviving, then nobody wants to deal with you.

The point that is really difficult is to say because survivorship looks different for different people, then “how can we come up with a unified way of addressing sexual harm?” I’d like you to speak to the differentiation between survivorship. We can be supportive of each other and in solidarity of each other as survivors without making it just one way, without making it all alike.

TB: Absolutely. One of the things that I feel trepidation about is the fact that obviously we encourage survivor language. People move from victim to survivor; we definitely encourage that. But as I am out there in the world, talking to people all the time, and I say “survivor, survivor, survivor” almost every day. One of the things that I am thinking about is that I don’t want to create this idea for people that there is an ideal. I have young people come up to me all the time that are like, “oh, this happened to me and I want to be like you one day.” “One day I want to be healed, or one day I’ll be whatever.” I want to try to figure out how to shift the conversation from “I am a survivor,” to “I am surviving,” and we need to really dig into what survival looks like and that there is a way in which we talk about survivorship that makes it feel like this really beautiful thing.

MK: An end.

TB: There is an end and I’m healing, I am meditating each morning. I live this way and it is ugly and there is an ugly underbelly to it that we have to be honest about. People ask me all the time about self-care like, “how are you taking care of yourself?” I’m like, “I eat cake and burgers and french fries and I watch law and order marathons and stuff.” We shouldn't say at Allied Media Conferences, but I do agree that there is a judgment about how you are supposed to survive. The reason why #metoo is powerful is because there is no preconceived notion about what your #metoo means. The connection is not about, “oh, you were raped in college and you were raped in college.” It’s not about that. It is about “you are holding this trauma and I am holding this trauma.” It’s about “you’re figuring it out and I am figuring it out. There is a thing I see when I look in your eyes that I recognize. You have that, I have that too, and this is where we have connection.”

I hope that through our work that we help people to understand that survivors look different, act different, respond differently, but we want similar things. There is always a place, even if we think of justice differently, even if we think about survivorship differently, where we can always lean into our commonality because there is undergirding there that we all have and we can lean into that, and that’s where we can work from.

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