Me Too movement founder talks activism and empowerment at Rutgers

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

A long line of Rutgers students and faculty gathered at the College Avenue campus to hear Tarana Burke tell her truth.

Burke founded the Me Too movement a decade ago before she panicked at the birth of #MeToo last October. She said when she got over thinking someone was trying to erase her from history, she embraced #MeToo as it, Hollywood and Time Magazine acknowledged that long before last fall’s wave of sexual harassment reports began knocking the powerful from power. Burke had been listening to, comforting and empowering girls and women.

“And my heart really felt like it was breaking,” said Burke.

Burke chuckled when she said Donald Trump was the object of her earliest activism in the 1980s Central Park jogger case. Trump called the five accused teens “animals” before DNA evidence later exonerated the teens.

“We had a little, tiny article in the paper called Amsterdam News, which is an old black paper in New York, but let me tell you, it might as well have been the front page of The New York Times because we were so excited. And that was the start of me really feeling like an organizer. I felt at that moment that this is the thing I want to do for the rest of my life,” said Burke.

And Burke did — getting trained in how to organize and working with youth, while trying to ignore a widespread truth that had even made her a survivor of sexual assault.

“But, what was actually happening is that I was grappling with my own survivorship,” she said.

A “culture of silence … protects perpetrators at the cost of their victims.” That’s what New Jersey Attorney General Gubir Grewal wrote as he joined other states in asking Congress to ban companies from requiring arbitration for on the job sexual harassment.

Arbitration with “decision makers … not trained as judges, are not qualified to act as courts of law,” Gubir continued. “Victims should be able to choose our court system as the venue for their complaints, not be forced into a secrecy-veiled arbitration process.”

One longtime Rutgers University employment professor, Alan Hyde, says the arbitration system is not favorable to employees.

“The record is much clearer now than it was a few years ago. They’re not good deals for employees. They’re good deals for employers. Employees do very poorly in the arbitration system. They rarely recover. When they recover it’s a fraction of what they would recover in court,” said Hyde.

Hyde says that payout fraction equals 7 percent. Hyde doubts this Congress would stop companies from requiring workers to sign arbitration clauses to get hired. But, he says, it could lead to less secrecy and outcomes more favorable to sexual harassment victims if they had the option of taking disputes to state court.

“It’s hard to get a lawyer, the instances of recovery are less, the amounts recovered are quite a bit less, the arbitrator might give you back wages but the arbitrator is not going to give you punitive or exemplary damages. The arbitrator usually is not empowered to give you attorney’s fees. Arbitrators are disproportionately former management lawyers, white and older,” said Hyde.

In New York, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is suing The Weinstein Company. The lawsuit has a laundry list of bombshell claims that the company and some of its employees “enabled” ousted movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct.

“Whenever there is sexual abuse or harassment or discrimination, the individual perpetrator may face liability, but the corporate entity has a legal duty to protect employees. So, if you see a complaint against any corporation or against a government entity, the individual perpetrator’s name but the corporate entity or the government entity also has liability. So, what we’re talking about is a pervasive corporate culture that enabled, encouraged, and sustained years of abusive conduct that should have been shut down by any corporate officers with any sense of integrity,” said Schneiderman.

Patricia Teffenhart leads the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“We’re in the middle of a culture shift,” she said. “The fact that, not just the individuals who are committing these acts of violence are being held accountable, but the very institutions that have protected them for so long are also now being put on notice. It’s strong day for survivors,” she said.

While most of the prominent people who’ve acknowledged their misconduct are men, Burke says Me Too is not about taking down powerful men. It’s not a witch hunt, it’s about victims seeking accountability for misdeeds that have scarred them and left them needing help.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says #MeToo is too widespread for a serious backlash.

“My hope is, not just that it’s here to stay, but that it is as effective for the woman who works in a hotel as a maid as it for Hollywood stars,” said Ginsburg.