COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – When Tarana Burke was first raped at 7 years old, the only outlets she had to unpack the abuse were Maya Angelou poems and characters in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

“I felt less alone because of them,” Burke, now 50, told a crowd of people at a Women’s Fund of Central Ohio event hosted on Ohio State University’s campus Wednesday evening.

Decades later, in 2006, the Bronx native coined the term “me too” to help other victims and survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, to empathize with one another’s oft-untold experiences of abuse. That five-letter, two-word phrase would later ignite a social media frenzy, prompt hundreds of men to resign from top posts and create a community for survivors across the globe.

In the six years since #MeToo took off on Twitter in 2017 – amassing more than 19 million tweets in the year following former media mogul and now-convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein’s resignation – central Ohio community leaders said Burke’s movement has profoundly changed the way sexual violence is perceived and addressed, from hospital emergency rooms to the Statehouse floor.

“It’s not such a taboo type of secret anymore,” said Deandra Criddell, program coordinator for OhioHealth’s Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio (SARNCO).

Last year, a Pew Research Center study found that in the aftermath of #MeToo taking off, about 7 in 10 Americans believe that perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace are more likely to be held responsible. Another 6 in 10 said there’s also a greater likelihood that those who report sexual violence will be believed, according to the report.

And Criddell, whose rape crisis organization provides emotional, legal and other services to about 600 victims and survivors in central Ohio each year, said the #MeToo movement has encouraged more of SARNCO’s patients to disclose abuse.

“More people are willing to come forward and open up and just share that vulnerable side to them about it,” Criddell said. “And we’ve been able to meet that need.”

In Franklin County, prosecutors filed 961 counts of rape against more than 400 adult suspects from 2018 to 2022, according to records obtained from the Common Pleas Court. The Columbus Division of Police in 2022 alone received 403 reports of sexual assault against kids under the age of 15.

State Rep. Jessica Miranda (D-Forest Park), who has championed sexual violence prevention legislation at the Statehouse, said #MeToo and its domino-like effect of holding powerful people accountable gave some central Ohio survivors – including herself – the “push” they needed to come forward.

Since Burke’s phrase was popularized in 2017, Miranda said she and her fellow lawmakers have heard their fair share of testimony at the Statehouse detailing sexual abuse, whether it be the accounts of former Catholic altar boys or athletes at the Ohio State University.

“You see story after story after story,” Miranda said.

Sexually abused by a family member as a child growing up in Butler County, Miranda said the sexual violence she endured has guided the way she navigates life as a lawmaker. Her ultimate dream? Never seeing another victim or survivor detail their trauma before state legislators.

“I don’t want there to be this many survivors of the most heinous sexual crimes,” Miranda said. “I want there to be laws in this state put in place that scares the predators, that scares the pedophiles and tells them, ‘Ohio will not be a safe haven for your crimes.’”

In recent years, and in this current General Assembly, Miranda has sponsored legislation to extend and in some cases repeal the statute of limitations that bar victims and survivors — once they reach a certain age — from criminally or civilly pursuing their abusers in court.

On Wednesday, Miranda and Rep. Brett Hudson-Hillyer (R-Uhrichsville) introduced a bill to repeal a spousal exception for rape in Ohio law, which she described as an “archaic piece of code.” Earlier iterations of the bill failed to make it through the General Assembly.

“We have to find pathways to justice for these survivors, because if we don’t do it, who will?” Miranda said. “We can’t keep allowing our students, our children and those most vulnerable in our communities to continually be subjected to this kind of absolutely heinous sexual crime.”

Despite its progress, Burke pointed to the potential for improvement with #MeToo, particularly in bolstering its inclusion of Black women and women of color. 

In the months following #MeToo’s Twitter explosion, she said self-proclaimed advocacy organizations addressing sexual violence made millions of dollars without including any victims or survivors in their leadership or addressing needs specific to women of color. 

“They will make a spectacle about it … then walk away,” she said.

But the viral movement, speakers at Wednesday’s event said, created a community to turn to when Maya Angelou poems and Toni Morrison novels are the only available outlet.

“It’s like when we have an army of people behind us and when we realize we’re not alone,” Miranda said. “We can get so much more done together.”