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Article republished with permission from the Global Sisters Report
A community center in southeast Cleveland has been serving the city’s predominantly black Mt. Pleasant neighborhood since 1966. The center offers education assistance, provides meals and helps connect people to additional social services. In 2001, the center changed its name from the Hunger Center to the Thea Bowman Center, to honor Bowman’s legacy of intercultural awareness in the Catholic Church.
Every year, the center puts on a gala to raise money for its operating costs. The gala usually consists of a dinner and a few speakers — but this year, the center decided to try something different. They hired Sherrie Tolliver, an actress with the group Women In History, to portray Bowman in a 20-minute, one-woman show.
Tolliver and Gayle Bullock, a member of the Thea Bowman Center’s board of directors, spoke to Global Sisters Report about the process of putting the show together and the lasting impact of Bowman’s legacy, both on her namesake center and on the world.
GSR: What was the impetus for creating a show about Thea Bowman?
Bullock: Our executive director had heard of an organization called Women In History and thought it would be great to reintroduce Thea Bowman to those who have been supporting us over the years — so they know Thea Bowman’s not just a name on the wall. We reached out to Women in History and they sent us the amazing Sherrie Tolliver, whose likeness to Thea Bowman actually helped a lot, too [laughs].
Sherrie, were you familiar with Thea Bowman before you took on this project?
Tolliver: Well, I had gone to the Thea Bowman Center in 2009 when I worked for the Cleveland Metro Park as a cultural history interpreter. I did Rosa Parks, and Sr. Sheila [Marie Tobbe], the nun who was running it at the time, said, “You could do Sr. Thea Bowman. Have you heard of her?” I read a brief biography and nothing came of it; that particular introduction to her didn’t really stir anything in me. I just thought, “Oh, wow, she sounds interesting.”
But when [the center] asked me a second time and Gayle gave me her books and her videos, Sr. Thea’s energy and presence and her story just overwhelmed me. And when I saw her picture — her face is just so illuminated with the joy and love — she just radiated off the page, and it was just a really bad photocopy picture of her on office copy paper [laughs]. And it still was just radiant. And so I said, “Oh yeah, this is going to be one of those things where I say, ‘Lead me, guide me.’ ”
What was the response to the show?
Bullock: The response was overwhelmingly positive. The children in our center perform every year — either singing a song or playing instruments — and this is the first time that the whole audience got up and started singing with the kids. A lot of that is because Sherrie, as Sr. Thea, walked around and had people singing into a microphone with the kids. And so, by the end, everyone was on their feet singing “This Little Light of Mine” with the kids of the center. That has never happened before.
And the feedback that we’ve actually gotten from it was that was probably one of the best galas ever. I think it was because Sherrie was so powerful in telling the story of Sr. Thea and even sort of personifying her voice. Sherrie, she’s an actress, so she researched it and she came off with the perfect Thea Bowman to really inspire the audience.
Sherrie, did portraying Sr. Thea change you in any way? Did you learn anything new?
Tolliver: I like what the people in the church call her “holy boldness.” And she’s inspired me so much because she used every gift that she had. She was an intellectual, she was spiritual, she was proudly a black woman from the South, she was completely devoted to God’s work and reaching out to love people. And those things are difficult for me sometimes because I don’t have the courage that she had.
And then, also, I had a sister who was a minister and who had breast cancer and died at 54. And so she resonated that way with me. It made me really appreciate my own sister’s devotion to her spirituality and the work that she did — work that was very similar to Sr. Thea. When I read about Sr. Thea, it made me appreciate my own sister even more, and it made me feel like this is work that I have to do as well.
It’s not just about portraying her life and sharing her story. It’s Sr. Thea saying we can all do this. We can all let our little light shine. Her whole story is just a testimony to what God can do in your life if your mind and your eyes are open to being human and reaching out to others in their humanity. I just have such a deep respect and profound admiration for her.
Bullock: Sherrie just spoke about how Sr. Thea inspired her, but I know there’s something Sherrie wants to work on, and I just think it’s important to share. So I hope you don’t mind sharing that.
Tolliver: No, no. I got the idea at the gala to create a play about Sr. Thea and see if we could do it, maybe next year, for Women’s History Month or Black History Month — or just whenever, because you don’t have to wait for those months to do something, like people think you do.
I want to see if we can get a grant or some kind of funding to have schoolchildren bused in to the Breen Center for the Performing Arts, which is at St. Ignatius High School [in Cleveland]. It would be wonderful to have busloads of kids come from all the Catholic schools to see a story about a real Catholic nun who changed the world and just to plant in their hearts that this is the work that people do with the gifts that God gave them.
Bullock: She was telling me about it. I was like, “Oh my God, that would be such an amazing thing to see.” And so, I just love that this was able to inspire her to even take it more broadly. That tells me the power of Sr. Thea.
I will tell you, the first time I saw Sr. Thea speaking on a clip that I saw on the internet, all I thought was, “Man, this is a woman I would have loved to have sat down with.” And I shared that with people who have met her, and they’re like, “Oh, Gayle, I don’t know what the video looked like, but it sure didn’t do her justice. This was a person that you would enjoy just sitting down and having a conversation with.”
Tolliver: Those are some of the things I wanted to include in the play: the people that knew her. I want to make their words about her part of the story. I know there’s man who works at the Thea Bowman Center who was from Mississippi and knew her.
What does it mean to you that Sr. Thea might become a saint?
Tolliver: I think that would be magnificent. I think that her life, her legacy is so inspiring, is so real. I think it would be very healing and helpful for the church and for interracial relations. I think it could do nothing but positive things, because I believe that her message and her sincerity and her energy would only just continue to send out wonderful ripples throughout not just the Catholic community but the world.
Bullock: I would have to echo that completely. If she becomes a saint, I think one of the great benefits of it is that more and more people would then hear her story. I love the fact that she could be a saint. I think it’s been well earned and I think it will help to drive us, as a center, to be held accountable to really live into who she is.
As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.
Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.
The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.
Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.
James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.
From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.
Citizen is an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”
You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.
In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.
In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.
This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.
In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.
Video Courtesy of LEFT ON READ
Are there other titles that you’d like to add to the list? Share them below.
For their supporters, the thousands of Christian schools across America are literally a blessing — a place where children can learn in accordance with biblical teachings, untainted by the secular norms of public schools.
To critics, many of these Christian schools venture too often into indoctrination, with teachings that can misrepresent science and history and potentially breed intolerance toward people with different outlooks.
“These schools are front and center in the politicization of knowledge and that’s problematic,” said Julie Ingersoll, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida.
The polarized views have been highlighted in recent days after the appearance of an #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag on Twitter. It was introduced by Chris Stroop, an Indianapolis-based writer and activist, on Jan. 18, shortly after news broke that Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, would be teaching at a Christian school in northern Virginia that lists “homosexual or lesbian sexual activity” as among the disqualifying criteria for prospective employees.
Stroop, 38, calls himself an “ex-evangelical.” He says he attended Christian schools in Indiana and Colorado almost continuously from first grade through high school and recalls pervasive messaging that demeaned LGBT people and discouraged the empowerment of women.
“Not everything about it was bad — I had teachers I liked who encouraged me academically,” said Stroop, who went on to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford. “But I don’t think education as indoctrination is right.”
The news about Karen Pence’s teaching job was quickly followed by debate over the behavior of boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky during a visit to Washington, D.C. While opinions varied widely as to whether the boys had behaved badly, that incident further fueled debate over faith-based schools.
Within days, there were thousands of responses to #ExposeChristianSchools on Twitter, including many personal stories of bad experiences by people who attended them.
One man said his school required students to sign an agreement promising not to listen to “worldly” music. Others faulted their curriculum, such as a Christian biology textbook that cited Scotland’s fabled Loch Ness Monster as evidence of flaws in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Even as the critiques multiplied, many people took to Twitter to defend Christian schools. Among them was Greg Lukianoff, an attorney active in promoting freedom of speech on college campuses. He said he was an “outspoken atheist” beginning in the seventh grade and frequently skipped school.
“Only as an adult did I realize how kind & tolerant my Catholic high school was towards me,” he tweeted.
In a telephone interview Friday, Lukianoff said he had forged close friendships with people from religious and secular schools, and felt it was unproductive to generalize about them.
Even Brian Toale, a 65-year-old New Yorker who says he was repeatedly sexually abused in the early 1970s by a staffer at his Catholic high school on Long Island, recalls many positive aspects of his school years.
“The education itself was top notch,” he said. “I did have several extracurricular activities where I learned stuff and made friends I still have today.”
But Toale, who eventually converted to Judaism, says the school administration failed to properly vet the person who abused him, and later treated him with disdain when he reported the abuse.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 5.9 million students — a tenth of the national prekindergarten through 12th grade total — attend private schools in the U.S. About three-quarters of them attend one of the roughly 22,000 Christian schools.
By far, the Catholic Church accounts for the biggest share of this group, operating more than 6,300 schools serving more than 1.8 million students — about 20 percent of them non-Catholics. The totals are down sharply from the early 1960s when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 Catholic schools nationwide.
The Council for American Private Education identifies 4,154 schools as “conservative Christian,” serving about 664,000 students.
Julie Ingersoll, the religious studies professor, says those schools are faring well, at least in the eyes of their supporters. She notes that many are now able to access publicly funded tax credits and vouchers in various states, and often can operate with limited regulation.
“But this leaves kids vulnerable on all kinds of levels, which of course was what the hashtag was about,” Ingersoll said in an email. “It’s been portrayed as a campaign against Christianity from ‘the left,’ but it was really a group of young adults who grew up in Christian schools (and Christian homeschooling) explaining how they believe they were personally harmed by it.”
“These harms were often related to sex, gender, shame, and abuse,” she wrote. “But stories also detailed impoverished education, especially when it came to science and history.”
The Rev. Russell Moore, a high-profile official with the Southern Baptist Convention, said the recent criticisms of Christian schools reflect some broader societal trends that have riled conservative religious leaders.
“There’s a certain mindset in America that sees any religious conviction as authoritarian,” Moore said.
Overall, Christian schooling “is in a very good place,” Moore said. “There are some phenomenal evangelical schools, preparing their children with remarkable academic rigor.”
John Gehring, Catholic program director at a Washington-based clergy network called Faith in Public Life, graduated from an all-male Catholic prep school near Baltimore. He has suggested in recent articles that such schools — while admirable in many ways — could do a better job of teaching their students about the church’s historical role in exploitation and oppression.
“I’m frustrated by the overheated commentary where Christian and public schools are almost viewed as enemy combatants in the culture wars,” Gehring said. “Each has their place, and like any institution they have strengths and weaknesses. The Catholic schools I attended through college shaped my understanding of justice and cultivated a spirituality that frames my life, even if those environments could sometimes be a little cloistered and privileged.”
Natalie Manuel Lee, a California native, fashion stylist/influencer, is the executive producer and host of Hillsong Channel’s newest series, “Now with Natalie,” premiering on March 3. The series is a fresh, relevant, and necessary examination into the depths of the Christian millennial experience. Featuring guests such as Kelly Rowland, Tyson Chandler, and Hailey Bieber, the series focuses on purpose and identity, the blessing and curse that is social media, and staying grounded in a culture that glamorizes status over self-care. With its countercultural “it’s not what you think” approach, “Now with Natalie” is sure to set a precedent in the modern Christian narrative. Ahead of the premier, Urban Faith sat down with Natalie to find out more about her new series, what inspired the idea, and her personal journey of staying grounded in a hustle and bustle society.
WHAT INSPIRED “NOW WITH NATALIE”?
I saw a need. A plight of this generation is to glorify the one in a position instead of seeing the purpose behind that position. The idea behind the show is to dismantle counterfeit definitions of identity and purpose and to pull back the veil of false narratives that culture tends to push. What we do and what we have cannot define our worth and value. Our identity should be rooted in who we are and whose we are. I personally have wrestled with these concepts before and wanted to have authentic conversations to shed light on this.
WHAT TOPICS DO YOU FOCUS ON IN “NOW WITH NATALIE”?
The show will focus almost exclusively on the topics of purpose and identity. Because it is such a deep and pervasive wound, the series will focus on dissecting these topics from different perspectives and experiences.
WHICH INTERVIEWS ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT?
Honestly, I am excited about all of them. Each episode serves a different purpose. You will hear about experiences ranging from the music industry, professional athletes, professionals in the area of cognitive neuroscience, and more. Each episode is enlightening and is intended to make you feel more free after watching.
WHAT IMPACT DO YOU BELIEVE SOCIAL MEDIA HAS ON SELF WORTH?
Social media can be the greatest blessing, but also the biggest curse. When misused, social media can fuel inadequacy. As humans, we tend to compare and want to compete based off what we scroll through on these highlight reels. A lot of our thoughts come from what we see and, for some, this level of comparison has peaked the epidemic of depression and anxiety. I always advocate taking periodic social media fasts, and just deleting the apps when needed.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE HAPPINESS?
As a mental perspective. When you truly know who you are and what you’re defined by, happiness will arrive. I think about happiness as joy, and the joy of the Lord is my strength. I constantly revert back to the truth of who I am, and the truth of who God is. Happiness and joy align with those truths.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK-LIFE BALANCE ROUTINE?
I start my mornings still. I give myself time in the morning, and spend time with God. The biggest lesson I have learned in the last decade is to not abort the process God is putting me through, and to keep my eyes fixed on the bigger picture. God created us each with a very specific and unique life blueprint, and He has equipped us to navigate it without looking to the left or to the right in comparison. God graces each of us to run our own unique race.
2018 was a whirlwind year for Tarana Burke, the founder of the “Me Too” movement. During the latter part of 2017, the long-time activist skyrocketed to fame as the phrase “Me Too” became a uniting force for victims of sexual violence. On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano sent a tweet in response to initial reports of allegations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted numerous women. The tweet asked women who had been sexually assaulted to reply ” me too.”
That tweet made waves. Days later, millions of people used the hashtag #MeToo across social media, many of whom initially credited Milano with starting the “Me Too” movement. But Burke’s work on behalf of sexual assault survivors had been known long before Milano’s viral tweet, and it was black women who collectively spoke up to tell the actress that Burke had founded a “Me Too” movement over a decade before, during a time when there were no hashtags. Milano, who was unaware of the activist’s work, tweeted an apology. She also publicly credited Burke, and reached out to ask Burke how she could help amplify her work.
The two women traveled the media circuit together, appearing on “Meet the Press.”
Soon, organizations began to celebrate Burke in her own right. In March, she was honored at the 2018 Academy Awards. She appeared on magazine covers, including one of the six covers of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” issue, where actress Gabrielle Union, also a survivor of sexual assault, penned an essay calling Burke a “kindred spirit.”
The Bronx-born activist was the guest editor for ESSENCE magazine’s November issue, where she spoke about the future of the movement. She oversaw an edition filled with essays dedicated to black women’s right to heal after sexual violence and articles about the culture of silence around the sexual assault of black women and girls.
In an interview, the mother of “Me Too” said she never imagined she’d be in such a position of visibility. But, she didn’t feel like a hero. Instead, she told the magazine, she felt “dutiful,” and much of that duty was to ensure that black women weren’t shut out of the “Me Too” movement. While Milano’s intent wasn’t to steal Burke’s work, her celebrity status did catapult the conversation around sexual assault into the media, particularly in a way that resonated with white women. And it pained Burke to see black women erased from the narrative.
“The world responds to the vulnerability of white women,” she told ESSENCE. “Our narrative has never been centered in mainstream media. Our stories don’t get told and, as a result, it makes us feel not as valuable.”
In November, she also spoke about her duty to re-center the mission of “Me Too.” During her first TED talk, a speech dedicated to survivors and activists, she described how the past year had been an emotional roller coaster.
“This movement is constantly being called a watershed moment. Even a reckoning. But I wake up some days feeling that all evidence points to the contrary,” Burke told the audience.
A year later, “Me Too” was described as a “culture shock.” Harvey Weinstein was indicted. Bill Cosby was finally sentenced to prison in September for allegations of rape which were reignited after comedian Hannibal Buress mocked Cosby during a stand-up routine in 2014.
Despite the success of “Me Too,” Burke said the movement had become unrecognizable at times, as people, including the media, presented and interpreted “Me Too” as a vindictive plot against men, instead of as a voice of support for survivors. Her speech was a call to refocus the energy of the movement on survivors of sexual assault.
She also called to dismantle the building blocks of sexual violence: power and privilege.
Now, in 2019, it seems like her two key missions of the “Me Too” movement: visibility for black female survivors of sexual violence and the dismantling of power and privilege will finally converge.
Burke appeared in Lifetime’s six-hour docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly.”
The three-night special is a deep dive into the background of singer R. Kelly and the decades of sexual assault allegations against him, weaving testimonies of his alleged victims — all black and brown women — with interviews from their friends, parents and teachers. Burke is part of a team of experts, including activists, journalists, and cultural critics, assembled to shed light on why the singer’s history of abuse — while heavily reported — has been ignored.
Burke has devoted her career to working at the intersection of racial justice and sexual violence, and she spent significant time in Selma laying the groundwork that would later evolve into the “Me Too” movement.
In October, days before the one-year anniversary of the tweet that launched “Me Too” on social media, Burke returned to Alabama to talk about her roots as an activist.
For Burke, that appearance was indeed a homecoming, as she stood before her elders. This included Rose Sanders, her mentor during her formative years in Selma, who waved at her from the third row of an auditorium in UAB’s Alys Stephens Center.
It was a semi-full circle moment. In March, Sanders, who made history in 1973 as the state’s first African American female judge, proudly told a room full of people in the Dallas County courthouse during the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee that Burke started the “Me Too” movement in Selma.
As Burke took the stage to cheers and a standing ovation, she paid homage to her elders.
“I know I have my family from Selma here,” she said, lovingly holding out her hands. “You all are part of my story.”
“People keep thanking me for coming to Birmingham,” said Burke, smiling widely as the audience simmered down. “That’s because they don’t know I have ties to Alabama. I relish the opportunity to come here.”
For close to an hour, Burke talked about her childhood, her early years in Selma, and the life-changing moment that would lead her to start the movement known as “Me Too.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Burke was groomed to be an activist as a child.
“I had a normal family,” Burke told the audience. “Except for I had a grandfather that was a Garveyite.” Her grandfather, a close follower of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, made sure she was well versed in the readings of black liberation. On car rides, they would listen to cassette tapes of John Henrik Clarke, a native of Union Springs, Al. who was a scholar and pioneer in the field of Africana studies.
“You can read that Bible, but make sure you have your history right along with that,” she said he’d tell her.
Burke’s mother, while she never referred to herself as a feminist, surrounded Burke with the works of Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins.
“I was wrapped in Black feminist literature growing up.”
Burke was discovered at age 14 by the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, an organization founded by Rose Sanders in 1985 to educate young people about voting rights and the political process. And it was through that organization that Burke says she learned about the impact youth could have.
“That was the first time an adult had said to me, ‘you have power now.’ ”
Through her work with the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, she became an activist. One of the first cases she worked on would be the case of the Central Park Five, a group of black and latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Their sentences would be overturned decades later.
“It’s so funny how we talk about due process in the White House now,” referencing President Donald Trump, who in the 1980s took out full page ads in four of the city’s newspapers, calling for the return of the death penalty, but in 2018 demanded due process for former White House staff secretary Rob Porter and speechwriter David Sorensen after allegations of domestic abuse, and Brett Kavanaugh, his nominee to the Supreme Court who was faced with allegations of sexual assault.
HER JOURNEY TO ALABAMA
Burke traveled to Alabama for college where she continued to organize, starting at Alabama State before transferring to Auburn University.
“Your college campus is practice for the real world,” she told the audience.
After graduation, Burke went to work in Selma, where an experience changed the trajectory of her life.
While working as a camp counselor for the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, she met a girl she would describe to the audience as “Heaven.”
As a counselor, she had started workshops where young girls could speak openly and reveal stories about sexual violence and assault.
One day, Heaven made a beeline for her. Immediately, Burke said, she knew something was wrong. At first she avoided Heaven because she didn’t feel equipped to provide guidance for what she knew would be devastating news.
“I thought to myself ‘I’m not a counselor,’ said Burke. “But in my heart, I thought, that happened to me too.”
But in that moment, Burke said as she lowered her voice, those words didn’t seem like enough. But later, she realized that phrase was the one thing she needed to tell Heaven.
Burke told the audience she spent years afterwards feeling guilty. Over and over again, she’d ask “what difference does ‘me too’ make?”
Turns out, the phrase would make a lot of difference.
JUST BE, INC. : THE BEGINNING OF ME TOO
In Selma, Burke started Just Be, Inc., an organization focused on the health and well being of young girls of color. As the organization grew quickly, Burke noticed a pattern — when the girls gathered together, stories started spilling out. And when the girls shared their stories, Burke said, she’d always think about her encounter with Heaven.
As her work in a Selma junior high school continued, the stories from young girls kept coming and Burke started to notice a common thread. The girls told their stories as if they were normal experiences, not revealing painful secrets. None of the girls knew they were describing acts of sexual violence.
The tipping point came when Burke saw a 12- year-old student waiting for her “boyfriend” after school — a boyfriend who was 21 years old. To make matters worse, it was a man Burke already knew. He had been dating one of the girls at a local high school the year before.
“How do you tell a 7th grade girl that this is not a relationship, this is a crime?” said Burke.
She realized it was up to her to change and translate that wording into a conversation that young girls could understand.
“So we had to figure out how to simplify that language.”
DESIGNING THE TOOLS TO TALK ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT
Burke had previously read about how to teach young people to talk about sexual assault, but recognized no one was relaying those messages to girls.
“Nobody was speaking healing into our community,” said Burke. “How can we heal something that we can’t name?”
She and her team started off by teaching the girls ways to recognize sexual violence.
Burke started going into the community to find resources, starting with another junior high school.
She also went into a local rape crisis center, located next to a homeless shelter. But, that environment, said Burke, wasn’t a comfortable or safe space for young girls. In order to get to the crisis center, girls would have to walk past groups of men huddled outside of the center who would often yell catcalls.
Burke says that walk into the rape crisis center was the turning point.
“That day was the nugget,” said Burke. “Adult women don’t report sexual violence. Do you think these children would go through that?”
“THE BIRTH OF ‘ME TOO’ “
Looking into the audience, Burke reflected on guidance from her mentors in Selma
“An elder once told me: you have to take what you have to get what you need.”
With that advice, she started a Myspace page for her project to gain visibility. Her goal was simple: she wanted people to see the resources she’d compiled and the work she was doing.
Soon, Burke says, people started reaching out to thank her. She knew the next step was to distribute the resources to even more people.
“I remember sitting with my two friends in my living room and wondering ‘how are we going to make this work?’ ”
The method they came up with was simple — she and her friends packed the resources into glossy folders and shipped them out around the country.
Soon after, Burke left Selma to move to Philly.
THE AFTERNOON OF 2017
“I always intended for ‘Me Too’ to be a movement for survivors,” said Burke.
But for years, the challenge was getting people in the room to have the conversation about sexual assault.
“Filling up a room like this would be impossible,” said Burke, motioning to people sitting in the Alys Stephens Center.
She said she would have to reach out to churches to ask them to speak. She describes the tweet Milano sent in 2017 as a “lightning bolt” that gave life to the healing she had been trying to bring to young girls for more than two decades.
Alyssa Milano’s “me too” tweet reached millions on Twitter in 24 hours. On Facebook, there were more than 12 million comments, posts and reactions.
But she says she wasn’t upset that it took a viral hashtag to catapult her cause.
“What I care about is getting the room full now. We are just not comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Burke. “This is hard, but we have the ability to get this right.”
And getting it right, says Burke, means believing survivors and not blaming them for being victims of sexual assault.
“If we woke up and found out that 12 million people all had a disease, we wouldn’t ask ‘well, who were they touching?'” Burke remarked, a statement met with uproarious applause.
The focus, she says, should be on what happened and how to stop it.
But people have misconstrued the message of the movement to be about taking down powerful men.
Burke told the audience she was in the room when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that she was allegedly assaulted by Kavanaugh. She says powerful men like Kavanaugh were the “epitome” of unchecked power and privilege.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen any modicum of accountability in our lifetime,” said Burke. “This is not about crime and punishment. It’s about harm and harm reductions.”
But Burke knows why the “takedown” narrative has caught on: “if you say something over and over again, people will start to believe it.”
And now, says Burke, it’s time take back the focus in order reach communities of survivors who desperately need the help of the movement.
“Outside of Black women, it astonishes me that we have no conversations about native women and sexual violence.”
“ME TOO” IN ALABAMA
Rose Sanders had to leave the Alys Stephens center early, so she didn’t get to say a formal goodbye to the activist she once mentored. But she beamed with pride as she talked about Burke, the young student she took under her wing.
“It’s awesome. She’s true to her cause. And I’m glad she’s pushing 21st Century (Leaders). And I’m hoping she’ll do it more.”
Sanders says there’s an even greater need for community focused leadership development now, and wished there were more young people involved the struggle against sexual abuse.
“When I started (the organization) it was in 1985, 20 years after the civil rights movement. It became clear to me that very few young people even knew about the movement,” said Sanders. So we were fortunate enough to get people like John Lewis, Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson to come to our camps.”
But Sanders has plans to bridge the communication gap. She says she wants to build on Burke’s work, growing the “me too” movement into the “we too” movement.
“It’s not just about the survivors of the actual physical damage. It’s also about a mother who may not have been sexually abused, but has to suffer through (her child’s) abuse. It’s got to be “we too.”
This year, she plans to have workshops to educate attendees of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee about sexual assault, and has her vision set on bringing back Burke to speak on at least one of the panels.
“The people who are the actual victims of assault suffer the most damage, but so does everybody that’s connected to that child or that woman that’s been sexually violated,” said Sanders. “We too are also hurting and it’s going to take all of us to resolve it.”
And as Burke closed her speech, she also acknowledged that the movement was bigger than her, and challenged the room to take action after the lecture and challenge institutions to protect survivors and prevent sexual assault.
“I’m a 45-year-old black woman. It’s not enough to celebrate me if you’re not going to commit to ending sexual violence and the movement I stand for.” said Burke.
“This is really about people being able to walk through life with their dignity intact.”
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