Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006. More than a decade later, she was among the featured “silence breakers” selected as the 2017 TIME Person of the Year.
What started as a community project is now a global movement. Burke advocates for survivors of sexual violence, amplifying the voices of thousands of victims of sexual abuse, and putting the focus back on survivors. Burke was a featured speaker at the Women’s Leadership Conference this week, a two-day event at the MGM Grand emphasizing a wide range of learning opportunities, career guidance, and personal growth tools.
In the early days of her work, Burke said she had to find surreptitious strategies to address the issue of sexual violence in her community. She would pitch her program to schools by calling it “the girls health program” and sneak in lessons on sexual violence.
“By then we were already in the school and it didn’t matter,” Burke said.
Last year in New York, a middle school made Burke and her colleagues change a curriculum proposal that included a chapter on rape culture, arguing that the students were too young to discuss the subject.
“I was like, Do you think these middle school kids don’t know?,” Burke said. “They know about rape culture. They’re in it every day. They listen to it on the radio. They watch it on TV. They talk to each other about it. We are giving it context, but there is such a stigma about it, there’s such shame about it.”
Credited with empowering victims of sexual assault and harassment to come forward and share their experiences, the viral hashtag has accompanied a wave of allegations of sexual misconduct against high-profile titans like Harvey Weinstein and billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn.
Burke began the groundwork for what would become a movement a dozen years ago as an activist and advocate for young women of color. Her work started in support of black and brown girls in Alabama.
After the movement went viral Burke said she felt she had to insert herself into the conversation again.
“I don’t want #MeToo to suck up all the air in the room. #MeToo exists on a continuum of work that has existed for decades,” Burke said.
#MeToo is changing the policies surrounding sexual harassment and assault around the country, including Nevada. In the wake of the Wynn revelations, the Gaming Control Board is now drafting regulations to curb harassment in the casino industry for the first time.
The executive vice president and chief diversity and corporate responsibility officer of MGM Resorts, Phyllis A. James, said while addressing sexual harassment is not the Women’s Leadership Conference’s primary focus, they did not want to ignore what is happening or the prominence of sexual assault in the workplace and society.
“Regrettably, sexual harassment is one aspect of the experiences of women in society, and in working, that they have to contend with. It is important for us to pay attention to that issue so that women are prepared and know how to handle it among all the other aspects of leadership,” said James.
Casinos are embracing innovations like the portable panic buttons for hotel employees. The Culinary Union has been negotiating new contract language to provide a greater measure of security from sexual harassment. The union has also actively reached out to Las Vegas tourists, asking them to pledge to not sexually harass Las Vegas casino workers while they are visiting.
“I think about how many of us have to live and work and worship and exist in the places we were harmed every day,” said Burke.
Earlier this year the Culinary and Bartender Unions surveyed about 20 percent of their more than 50,000 Las Vegas casino workers. Of those surveyed, 59 percent of cocktail servers and 27 percent of hotel housekeepers said they had been sexually harassed by guests, managers or others while on the job. An unsettling number of workers —72 percent of cocktail servers and 53 percent of hotel housekeepers — said a guest had done something to make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Working-class women in the restaurant and hospitality industry have reported the highest rates of sexual harassment on the job. From 2005 to 2015, hotel and restaurant workers filed at least 5,000 sexual harassment complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the most in any industry.
“We are working with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, with the National Women’s Law Center, with Alianza National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance, restaurant workers, people who represent groups of other folks whose lives are affected by sexual harassment at work,” said Burke.
She hopes to refocus the movement on everyday sexual violence that average people experience in their work and in their lives.
Also at the conference was Gillian M. Pinchevsky, an assistant professor of criminal justice at
UNLV whose research primarily focuses on criminal justice and community responses to violence against women. At the conference, she spoke about how to support those that come forward with sexual harassment claims in a professional setting with tangible action and resources.
“There are reasons why people don’t come forward sooner. With the #MeToo movement, it really did empower a lot of people. They saw a lot of other people coming forward and they felt empowered,” said Pinchevsky.
Pinchevsky said all organizations need to evaluate how they handle workplace sexual harassment, including developing policies that encourage reporting instead of stifling it and examining how an investigation is conducted in the first place.
“Las Vegas is unique,” said Pinchevsky. “The saying ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ it sends a message and we need to consider the experiences of people working in our casinos or in our hotel staff and their interactions with customers.”
She said the new policy changes in the casino industry are acknowledging that workers are a vulnerable group and is a step in addressing the issue, but the work needs to continue.
“This is not new. This has been happening. Whether it’s Hollywood or here in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it took a lot of high-profile cases for people to see it was an issue, but it shouldn’t have,” Pinchevsky said.