B&B206: #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke on financial dignity for sexual assault survivors

Sexual assault has been growing more visible in recent years, but it often doesn’t happen alone. Financial abuse, where one person has control of all the money, is one of the ways an abusive partner keeps control. It can be impossible to leave a situation without money, so today we talked about how financial abuse can happen, how you can prevent it, and how you can help others who might be in or recently out of an abusive situation.

Music featured in this episode:

Enemy by Elon Hornsby

Bronson by Dizzy Sense

Wild Woman by Anna Diorio ft. Medusa The Gangsta Goddess & Grandmother Kaariina

Tarana Burke Interview

Pam: So, we really loved how you reminded everyone about all the issues and communities that were affected by sexual violence. Just that whole rundown of things we didn’t even think about, from housing to healthcare to police brutality. It affects everybody, and I’m curious: when we talk about economic justice and sexual violence, what are the important connections that people should know or look out for?

Tarana: I think the most important connection is that people from economically devastated communities have less resources. And really at the–I was gonna say ‘intersection of my work’–but really this work is really routed in that in a lot of ways. When I talk about getting resources and stuff I have for sexual violence, it’s for that reason. So it’s a combination of healthcare–of not having comprehensive healthcare because of the economic issue, so you have women from low wealth communities in particular who, if they do have resources, don’t search them out because they think they can’t afford them, Or don’t search them out ‘cause they don’t exist in their communities, and they don’t exist because of all of the different things that are missing from these economically devastated communities.

So, folks who are working on economic justice should be keeping in mind that the people who are, it’s not just devastated in that you can’t pay your rent or you can’t do these things, there are ways in which folks are putting their health, and not just their physical and mental and emotional health, on the line, because they can’t access things because of–I mean that whole part about housing. I found that in research, the stuff on housing, this week, that said, “71% of people that are assaulted by their landlords can’t leave”

Pam: That’s so crazy. Just the idea that you can’t even be safe in your own home, one, and then you can’t leave the space that you don’t feel safe in, that you were attacked in.

Tarana: Right. It’s like financial dignity. This is about dignity in a whole bunch of ways, but financial dignity is one of them. You suffer this one indignity, and then you have the added indignity of not having the resources to do anything about it. So, I feel like we need to see how our work connects. It’s a thread that runs through all of sexual violence work that it is economic justice at the heart of that. Or women who can’t leave. Or people who can’t leave their circumstances. You know this already, right? Because they’re being abused and they can’t leave their circumstances. It’s so married to each other.

Pam: Well that’s another thing that we wanted to ask you, actually, is about the financial abuse being so tied to sexual violence, and I feel like there’s so much mental and mindset stuff that already comes with money, and to add the sexual violence into it, and the financial abuse into it, how do you help survivors rebuild all of that?

Tarana: I think some of the most dynamic programming that’s happening around the country are programs that take both of those into account. There’s an organization in California called Free From, and they help survivors of intimate partner’s sexual violence, find/create economic opportunities for themselves, so they’re not dependent on their abusers or their perpetrators in any kind of way. So, there’s this innovative programming that’s happening that’s speaking to that reality of this…I’m forgetting the terminology you just said.

Pam: Of financial abuse.

Tarana: Yeah, financial abuse. Thank you. And so, giving people opportunities to build their finances and things like that, I think that’s some of the most innovative programming that’s happening around sexual violence, and intimate partner violence.

Pam: What are the most important resources when it comes to someone coming out of a financial abuse situation? What’s the first thing that someone should be thinking about when they’re trying to help somebody out of that?

Tarana: You mean, the advocate helping them?

Pam: Yeah, the advocate helping them.

Tarana: Well, the first thing is empathy and compassion. I think that people often times engage survivors from a place of pity, and it does not help to rebuild your dignity, financial or otherwise, if that’s the framework that the person who’s advocating for you is using. So, I think there needs to be training around working with survivors, particularly of financial abuse, which is connected to sexual violence and intimate partner violence, around how to deal with the person in a way that builds their dignity, helps them to rebuild their dignity, and has empathy and compassion. And secondly, I think there’s also–this is related to that too–there’s also a way that you can do an assessment of people’s needs that take into account that they’re not completely devastated, you know what I mean? So, there’s a way that folks are like, “Ohhhh.” It’s that same cycle of pity.

Pam: The “Oh, poor you.”

Tarana: Yes, exactly. So, assess my needs, assess the needs the person has, and be clear about what they have, and amplify what they have, and make a plan for what they don’t have, whether that’s bank account, or job, or whatever. But I do think that the work that we do in the world, in the field of sexual violence, is always thinking about being compassionate in that kind of way, or should be. That has to spread to other people. When you think about how sexual violence impacts the work that you’re doing, you should always include that as well.

Pam: On a larger scale, what are the important economic policies that need to be changed to support victims of sexual violence? What do we need to be thinking about in a big picture?

Tarana: I think a lot of times it comes down to services. I’m trying to think of specific policies, but the policies that impact the funding for particular services is really important. These underfunded comprehensive health centers in these communities: things like that that are the first things that get cut. While we organize around changing policies that are gonna support people who are survivors, we need to think about the impact of that in general to a particular community. How devastating that is. So, it’s economic policy that’s already probably being fought for, but making sure that you add a lens that includes sexual violence, ‘cause any economic policy we fight for is gonna support people who ultimately are affected by sexual violence.

Pam: Yeah. I love that. We work with a lot of youth, and deal with a lot of young women who are dealing with trauma. What can educators in the communities do to support and empower them?

Tarana: That’s also a really good question. I think this is related to what I was saying earlier about the compassionate empathy. I think that engaging survivors from a place of power is one of the best things you can do to support and uplift them. It’s not about empowering necessarily, but it’s about engaging with the power that you have, and reminding the people who are survivors over and over that your power wasn’t taken from you. Somebody has chipped away at it. Somebody has tried to take it from you. But you still have it. And so our work is really about finding new ways and better ways and easier ways to bring people back to themselves.

So, we talk to young people especially because, if somebody had gotten to me at fourteen and given me these kind of messages, it would’ve changed the trajectory of my life. And I think it’s important to get those messages to young people early: That these things don’t define you. You’re not the sum total of what happened to you. Right? Get those messages in early, and you can tap into your power of: I’m not here to give you power, you still have it. So, those are the kinds of things I would encourage folks who work with young people to do, to give them space. And also, I feel like sometimes we don’t give young people enough space to explore their own feelings. We jump right in and like, “You’re fine! You should do this. You should do that.” And we need to create the kind of safety, like safe spaces that we talk about all the time, that allows them to try and fail. It allows them to get in touch with their feeling and feel that thing, and be okay with it, and then we get into the other stuff. I feel like we treat children like they don’t have the same cycles that we do. So I would say that too.

Pam: That makes total sense, because we always talk about how you developing a relationship with money at such a young age. You start developing a relationship with everything at such a young age, so you have to address it.

Tarana; Yeah. Oh yeah. And if you are a young person who comes from an economically devastated community, your relationship with money is immediate. You are really conscious of “We have money/We don’t have money. We have food/We don’t have food. I could do this/I can’t do that.” So those relationships with money start early, and it’s an entry point to sexual exploitation. Right? So, that’s where the connection between economic justice and sexual violence is because so many young people I’ve met, and I worked in the deep south and Alabama, in very poor communities, low wealth communities, and these were young people who were vulnerable to exploitation because of the lack of finances in their homes. So those are other ways we have to talk and be vigilant about working with young people, and about creating other economic opportunities for them early. Those jobs for youth and all that stuff. Summer youth. Those are important, because then you have kids who feel like they have to contribute to the house or they don’t wanna put a burden on the house, and so they become more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Pam: Thank you. We have one more question for you. So, for people who wanna support the #MeToo movement and are not in these activist circles, what can they do to continue to support it?

Tarana: That’s a good question. I have to stop saying that’s a good question. These are all good questions. The reason why we built our site the way we have, and it’s only in soft launch right now. By April it will be completely done. But one of the things we’re building on the site is a tool for everyday people to do a community assessment. So, if you put your zip code.

Pam: Yes. Yeah.

Tarana: So, people ask me all the time, “What can I do? How can I get involved?” And I used to just say, “Look for the gaps. Look for the holes. Look around and look at your lived experience,” and I do think that’s true, but I think folks who are not movement people don’t know how to do that as well. They don’t know how to identify those things. And a woman pushed back once and said, “I would love to. I don’t know where to start.” And it made me think “Oh. I need to reframe what I’m saying so it’s more inclusive of people everyday whose lives are affected by sexual violence, who wanna be active but haven’t grown up in this work.”

So, what the tool will do is we created what we called an ideal community. It will allow you to put your community against the ideal community so you can see what you have and what you don’t have. Do you have a rape crisis center? Do you have folks doing community organizing? Do you have politicians voting in ways that support all that kind of stuff? And then you’ll be able to click on, when you get the report card back, click and say “Oh, my community doesn’t have this. Are there people working to bring it who I can join? Oh, nobody’s working on it? Here’s a toolkit for how you can contribute.” So we’re building this tool. I do think that’s a real privilege that we have as movement folks that’s just like a big overview: get involved! Make sure you do something.

Pam: But what’s “something,” right?

Tarana: What’s something? You leave people. And I was making all these speeches and feeling like I was rallying the people, and I was leaving people like, “How?”  So that’s the how. I think, in the absence of the tool, that folks can talk to people and push back. When you hear people making these speeches and rallying and telling you to do these things, ask those hard questions like, “Well, tell me how.”

I believe in joining organizations. I believe in joining coalitions. I believe in ‘look for the people who are doing the work and learn from them.’ You don’t have to create something new. We’re in a moment where everybody wants to create a thing. There’s lots of stuff that exists, so find people doing that work and join them. That’s one of the easiest ways to start if you’re not a part of this work already. And just keep educating yourself. I also think people need to stop jumping into movement work without understanding movement work. You know, there’s lots of books, there’s lots of blogs, there’s lots of podcasts. Get some understanding of the thing that you wanna join before you jump in with both feet.

Pam: Yeah. What is this website you’re building? Where can people find it?

Tarana: It’s live now, but there’s gonna be more stuff on it. It’s metoomvmt.org.

Pam: Awesome. Thank you so much.