NoVo in the Media

Creator of the Me Too Movement Calls on Foundations to Support Grass-Roots Activists

13 December 2017
BY Megan O'Neil

The creator of the Me Too movement, which has been around for a decade and exploded into public dialogue in recent months, says grant makers are mired in old ways of thinking and doing business that are hampering their effectiveness at a crucial moment in the fight against sexual harassment and violence.

“Foundations have to think outside the box and maybe expand past the usual suspects that get all of the funding and start thinking about how to reach into communities and support community healing on a more local level,” Tarana Burke said in an interview with The Chronicle on Tuesday.

The longtime nonprofit leader started Me Too while living in Selma, Ala., to aid victims of sexual violence. Nobody else in the community was working on the issue, she says, leaving young people with nowhere to turn. She and a close friend started organizing.

“Every paycheck I had to pull out a little money to get materials printed or to pay for this or that thing,” Ms. Burke says of the earliest days of the work. “I did that out of my pocket for a long time.”

In 2007, she got a $3,000 discretionary grant from the Third Wave Foundation. It was “life changing,” she said.

“We got our materials printed from that. We had our first gathering and bringing people together to strategize about how to expand the work and scale it up.”

Foundations don’t have to look hard to find work like hers, she said, noting there are grass-roots activists across the country who are organizing, writing books, and starting campaigns and organizations.

“They stay small and they stay local, but they do so much heavy lifting in their local communities,” she said.

‘Whirlwind’ of Attention

What started out as a tiny operation in Selma has help spur a wave of public outrage that has toppled numerous prominent figures in government, media, and business. The public attention paid her work has been a “whirlwind” since mid-October, Ms. Burke said, when the actress Alyssa Milano took up and tweeted out the hashtag #metoo, encouraging individuals who have been victimized to speak publicly in a gesture of solidarity.

The Tweet went viral, coinciding with public revelations of accusations of predatory behavior by a long list of powerful individuals, including movie producer Harvey Weinstein, television host Matt Lauer, and Sen. Al Franken.

Ms. Burke said she and others working on issues of sexual violence and harassment are used to seeing the issues surface occasionally in public dialogue only to fade away again.

“What has really been fascinating for me, actually, is the fact that this has been a matter of public discourse for now a little over two months,” she said.

What is also striking about what is happening now, she said, is that perpetrators are being taken to task and accusers are being believed and their stories lifted up.

“Those are two phenomena that don’t often happen when people publicly disclosed about their experience of sexual violence,” Ms. Burke said.

Ms. Burke said in an email Wednesday morning she believes the Me Too movement had a role in the outcome of the Alabama Senate race, wherein Republican candidate Roy Moore was accused by multiple women of predatory behavior. Mr. Moore lost the contest to Democrat Doug Jones.

“The women came forward because the groundswell of support around other survivors made it feel safe to do so,” she said. “Then speaking up turned the election on its head. This is a moment of reckoning, and #metoo is a huge part of that. ”

Hoping It’s Different This Time

Other nonprofit leaders who have been engaged for years in combating gender-based violence and sexual harassment said the intense public scrutiny of the issues could help propel much-needed change.

Still, some are not yet ready to describe the current public reckoning as a tipping point, calling for more focus on economically vulnerable victims and support for activists of color working in disproportionately affected communities.

“If we continue to only lift up the stories of white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied Christian people, we’re really missing what really needs to be happening in our country,” said Kelly Miller, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence.

There should be no minimizing the impact that sexual harassment or rape has on the many white women who have come forward, she says, but it can’t be those stories alone that drive the solutions. Many people are calling for perpetrators of assault to be handed over to the criminal-justice system, Ms. Miller said by way of example, but she and her colleagues have heard repeatedly from the women they work with that the criminal-justice system is not a solution for many communities of color. That’s because men of color are already overly incarcerated, and the criminal-justice system doesn’t achieve what we want as a society anyway, she said.

Foundations could help pay for research into alternative solutions, including approaches like transformative justice, Ms. Miller said. And many indigenous communities already have models for community accountability, she added.

“This is where philanthropy could be extraordinary — if you invested in individuals and organizations who are going to really deeply explore what is transformative justice. What does community accountability look like?” Ms. Miller said.

Philanthropy, too, needs to take a hard, long look internally, some say. Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation which spent $60 million in 2017 to combat violence against women and girls, said that her institution has scant company. She cites a 2008 study that found less than 2 percent of foundation giving goes to combating gender-based violence.

“At the same time, philanthropy itself is not immune,” she said. “This is a deep cultural issue that touches every single aspect of our society, including foundations. So foundations need to examine not only what they fund but who they are and how they operate.”

Joining a Movement

For her part, when talking about Me Too, Ms. Burke says she is careful to help people understand that they are not starting a movement but joining one.

“It has been long, and it’s been ongoing for decades, and the work of Me Too was just a part of that. There are so many different people doing amazing work across the country that I, in my capacity, definitely want to lift up, because they don’t get lifted up that often,” she said.

Ms. Burke, who currently serves as senior director of programs at the nonprofit Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, N.Y., says that the Me Too campaign will put out a national platform early next year. For now, at least, the work will operate as a special project, with Girls for Gender Equity serving as the fiscal agent. The nonprofit leader says she and her colleagues have seen a modest increase in communications from donors, and she anticipates that more could come next year when the Me Too platform is made public.

“This is a global movement to end sexual violence against women and girls, against all people, really,” Ms. Burke said. “And the more people we have to join that movement, and the more resources we have towards that end, the more success we will have.”