Last night, as I closed my laptop on social media feeds still freckled with “#MeToo” posts from my peeps – on National Person’s Day, no less – I sighed a deep breath of sadness for all these glorious women who have come forward to share their personal and emotional experiences about being sexually harassed and assaulted.
Harvey Weinstein was the catalyst, Alyssa Milano helped make the campaign go viral, but it was Tarana Burke, founder of Just Be Inc., who started the #MeToo movement 10 years ago to help women, “particularly young women of colour from low-wealth communities,” who have been sexually abused, assaulted, exploited or harassed.
In Burke’s online post, I was moved to read about how she was working as a youth camp director and one day a “sweet-faced little girl” who had exhibited some behavioural issues asked to speak with her privately. The girl told Burke about her mother’s boyfriend “who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body.”
“I was horrified by her words, the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut, and I listened until I literally could not take it anymore,” Burke said. “Then, right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and immediately directed her to another female counsellor who could ‘help her better.'”
Burke said she’d never forget the look that fell over the girl’s face. “The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed again — it was all on her face,” she said.
What Burke couldn’t find the strength to say at the time, as she watched the young girl put her mask back on, was “…me too.” She understood the girl’s pain because she had experienced it first-hand.
So what do we do with this information? And for those who have come forward, how do we help them not have their initial courage turn into feelings of guilt, fear and shame?
This is a big problem to solve, which will require the masses who have shared, comforted and supported to move into action. And in my view, the solution’s not a magic bullet, a grand gesture and it’s certainly not sexy – forgive the expression. As I write about in my newly-launching book, She Has Risen, it starts with our words.
“It can be a slippery slope when we allow the odd inappropriate comment, action or word slide. Normalizing can happen overnight. Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of India’s first Independence Movement and India’s first prime minister, said it best when he declared, “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at its women.” It’s true, and we all have a part to play here for the basic dignity and respect of our daughters and sisters coming up the path.”
We also need to call people out when they make inappropriate, disrespectful or downright crude comments or suggestions. Rape jokes? No way. Sexual and racial pejoratives? Not allowed. One by one, comment by comment, we need to speak up and speak out when these surface in society.
We all need to be leaders. Promote yourself right now. And we need to hold people accountable. I mean this on all levels – from the guy strolling down the street right up to the President of the United States. Tolerance isn’t going to get us anywhere and it’s only going to hurt our children and our children’s children if we allow the pendulum to swing back to a place of greater chauvinism, abuse and oppression of women.
As the Chinese proverb suggests, “When sleeping women wake, mountains move.” Together, let’s own the fact that we each hold tremendous power. As women and men united in this cause of a better tomorrow, let’s stand together and one by one, comment by comment, gesture by gesture, act by act, stand up, speak out and have zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour. Let’s support organizations that encourage diversity and inclusivity. Let’s ask our companies, our churches, our teams, sports, community centres and all our networks what they’re doing to create a more diverse, inclusive and respectful environment. And then let’s keep asking.
We need strong leadership. But we’re all leaders. It starts with you and me.