Why Tarana Burke thinks vulnerability is actually the key to success
The founder of the #MeToo movement explains how simply sharing your experiences and ideas can help turn an initial inspiration into real action.
The founder of the #MeToo movement began speaking out about her experience as a survivor of sexual violence in 2006 to assure others that they were not alone. In the 15 years since, as countless women have come forward with their own stories of abuse, harassment and discrimination, the impact has been undeniable: Sharing stories can change society for the better.
“Our stories are gifts,” says Burke. “We earn our stories, sometimes with blood, sweat and tears. And we have to be good stewards of them and mindful of how and where we share them.”
Creating a space for that very thing to happen in the workplace is what Savaria Harris, Senior Regulatory Counsel for Johnson & Johnson, had in mind when she launched a program called WLI Elevate as an outgrowth of the company’s Women’s Leadership & Inclusion (WLI) initiative.
The idea for a conversation series for women, by women came to her in a lightbulb moment two years ago when she participated in the Johnson & Johnson WLI Ascend leadership program. In sharing her personal story with other attendees, this much was clear to Harris: While their external experiences may have been different, “what we were grappling with internally was the same,” she says. What if there were a community for women at Johnson & Johnson to come together and champion one another to be their best selves, both professionally and personally?
WLI Elevate invites a variety of women—from actress and activist Jennifer Garner to psychologist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eva Eger—to participate in an intimate and inspiring give-and-take conversation with women of Johnson & Johnson. Now in its third season, the online forum is expanding its reach to share the wisdom and benefits of the program with women outside the company. Through its “Watch for Women” campaign, the group will sponsor women-owned businesses and charitable organizations through a portion of each show’s budget.
I wouldn’t speak as much as I did if I didn’t think I could move people to action. We always have something to learn from each other. Women thrive off the resilience of other women and the example that women set.
“The goal is to elevate every woman—not just within Johnson & Johnson, but also outside of Johnson & Johnson—to advance the health, education and welfare of women and girls around the world,” explains Harris.
In advance of the publication of You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience and the Black Experience—a just-released collection of essays edited by Burke and Brené Brown—we sat down with recent WLI Elevate guest Burke to learn about how the simple act of sharing your life experiences can be a powerful catalyst for change.
As an activist and founder of a nonprofit aimed at eliminating sexual violence, you talk with women’s groups all the time. What made the WLI Elevate forum feel special?
I have a lot of life that I’ve lived and a lot of lessons I’ve learned; I love sharing those. But I was surprised to find that I wouldn’t just be sharing at the event—that I would be in community with other women. I’m always really curious to learn about other people because I think it enriches our lives to know where we overlap and where we don’t. I’d never done this in a corporate setting before. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
In what ways was it surprising to you?
There’s an idea that women in corporate America have to be buttoned up in a particular way, like it’s all about the glass ceiling, all about your progress. The reality is, we don’t progress if we don’t have places to be in community, places to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is actually the key to success, and a lot of people don’t embrace that. So to see a company that’s like, “We actually want our women to be vulnerable—we don’t see that as weakness”? I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but that sort of thinking is revolutionary.
There was a moment during the session when a Johnson & Johnson executive shared how her older sister had cut ties with the family. Although they ultimately reconnected, the experience taught her not to take anyone for granted—even family. You seemed particularly moved by her story.
We think of family as intertwined and interconnected—and we are. But we’re individual human beings who choose that connection. It was such a tender moment. Even in a virtual space, it felt like she was held and everybody gave her the space to get what she needed. It was an example of how we should be able to share our stories: in spaces where we are intentional about creating safety.
I think that resonated with a lot of people; it certainly resonated with me. I think it’s surprising to have those kinds of moments at a corporate event. That lesson about humanity is going to sit with me.
How can sharing stories in these kinds of safe spaces help turn ideas into action?
There’s not enough conversation about the mundaneness of just going through life every day and having wonderful ideas and thoughts and not knowing how to connect that with actionable steps. You need a push! I know I do.
Inspiration is so important because it sparks intention. You may have a thing dancing around in your mind and you’re not sure what to do with it; you don’t feel comfortable presenting it. Then you read a quote, you hear a speech, you do something that inspires you to action. I wouldn’t speak as much as I did if I didn’t think I could move people to action. We always have something to learn from each other. Women thrive off the resilience of other women and the example that women set.
You talked with the women about being in the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement at age 14 in Selma, Alabama and being told, “We believe you’re a leader and have power already.” That’s a great lesson for all women. How do we bring out our own leadership and power?
There are so many ways that people try to diminish our power and make us believe that we don’t have it. Just take a minute to look at your own life. Where does the power show up? It could be, “I told the contractor I want it done this way,” or “I finally said something to my supervisor.” It could be the very small things, but you have to acknowledge the places where power shows up.
I don’t want to make it seem like, you know, close your eyes and the power will come. It’s definitely a muscle that you have to keep exercising, but you’ll be surprised. Make a list. Look for where power shows up in your life and all of a sudden, you’ll just start seeing it everywhere. We have it within us.