While we've heard a lot about the Me Too movement, not everyone knows its roots trace to the mid-1990s when founder Tarana Burke was a 22-year-old camp counselor in Selma, Alabama.

A young camper who, like Burke, was a survivor of sexual assault, wanted to talk to her about it.

Tarana Burke, Me Too Movement founder
"We need to have an honest discussion." Tarana Burke talks with CBIA's Andréa Comer at When Women Lead.

But Burke, who had developed a special affinity for the girl, was still uncomfortable talking about her own experience, so she sent the girl to see another counselor.

"The look on her face was a combination of disappointment and hurt," Burke told over 250 business leaders at CBIA's annual When Women Lead conference in Hartford.

"She never came back to camp and I never forgot her face," Burke said.

"I made a promise to myself that I'd never let a child walk away from me again."

Two years later when a second girl at the camp told her she was sexually abused, Burke listened.

"She said I was the second person she told, but the first who believed her," Burke said.

"That was the beginning."

The #MeToo Avalanche

Flash forward to October 2017 when the actress Alyssa Milano used the #MeToo hashtag in a Twitter post.

For Burke, it was the snowball that became an avalanche.

Burke began the movement in 2006 to help survivors of sexual abuse.

But it wasn't until Milano's tweet that Burke's movement gained national prominence.

Some of Burke's supporters and friends felt that Milano was trying to take credit for Burke's efforts.

"I know the reality of a black woman's work being erased," Burke said.

It's okay for men to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. We need to open an honest discussion.
— Tarana Burke
But as Burke sat at her computer and read thousands of heartfelt responses to Milano's tweet, she had an epiphany.

"I was convinced in my spirit that my work was happening in front of me," Burke said. "I had to make a decision: Am I going to be in conflict or am I going to be in service?"

Milano was unaware of Burke's movement when she used the hashtag, but the actress quickly tweeted out an apology to Burke, posted a link to Burke's website, and urged people to support her work.

Within four days of the tweet, Burke and Milano appeared together on ABC's Good Morning America.

Burke likened Milano's support to an allied ship.

"I feel Alyssa Milano's name doesn't get called out enough," she said. "It's a lesson of how women can support one another."

Changing Workplace Behavior

While the movement has changed some behavior in the workplace, Burke said it should lead to more open discussion.

"We need the ability to have a nuanced conversation," she said.

"I think a culture shift is possible and I don't think we as a society even thought that it was possible eight months ago."

CBIA's Andréa Comer facilitated the conversation with Burke, noting that workplaces throughout Connecticut and the country were dealing with harassment and gender issues on "a macro level."

"We've got larger corporations and celebrities and that's what the whole narrative has been," Comer said.

"But everyday workplaces are trying to figure out how to navigate this new normal."

Burke urged employers to create and maintain safe workplace environments, where employees can discuss issues and share their experiences.

'Honest Discussion'

"We should be able to go to work and enjoy the experience," she said. "Particularly in business, you don't want to insult another person's dignity or diminish their humanity.

"These requests we're making, these questions we're raising, and these that demands say 'this is how we would like to have our environment' are not unreasonable."

Burke said while women are socialized to make men comfortable, men need to know what makes women uncomfortable.

"It's okay for men to become comfortable with being uncomfortable," she said. "We need to open an honest discussion."

Everyday workplaces are trying to figure out how to navigate this new normal.
— CBIA's Andréa Comer
Although Milano's celebrity helped the Me Too movement, Burke said the focus must switch to ordinary people.

"Everyday people need to see themselves in this narrative," she said. "It's about individual healing and community healing."

Burke was just one of several compelling speakers at the popular conference.

Challenges, Opportunities

The She Made It in Connecticut panel featured four women business owners who spoke of their trials and successes in creating and running their own companies.

The panel was moderated by Kimberly Robinson Williams, diversity and inclusion manager at Stanley Black & Decker, and featured Capri Frank of Miller Foods, Andrea Hawkins of Berkins Blend Café, Christina Sayer of Brewery Legitimus, and Vintanthromodern's Melissa Gonzalez.

Among the advice the panelists gave their fellow entrepreneurs was:

  • Develop a solid business plan and research the competition
  • Seek advice from others who have succeeded in your business
  • Work hard and have a passion for what you do
  • Be personally financially accountable for your business

Jennifer Openshaw, CEO of Girls With Impact, an entrepreneurial college prep program, gave an impassioned speech about providing economic opportunities to girls and women.

Openshaw said women can blaze their own trail by leveraging their networks, having confidence in their own knowledge and opinions, and getting more access to capital.

"Leverage your networks more now—don't wait until you're in a career crisis," she said.

Mary Kay Fenton, chair of CBIA's board of directors and executive vice president and CFO of New Haven-based Achillion Pharmaceuticals, said gatherings like When Women Lead are important because diversity is not only important in the workplace, it leads to greater success and profits.