New Year Intentions and Practicing Accountability

By Mia Mingus

[photo of a page in a day planner of January 1st with writing that reads, “new year — fresh start.”]
A new year is upon us and millions of people have resolutions and intentions they have set for 2018. I enjoy the collective reflecting, visioning and dreaming, as folks take stock of their lives and themselves. There is a hungry hope in the air that is contagious, a willingness to commit and try that bubbles up in us.

This collective practice of motivation and tapping into our desires has become tradition for many. Rituals are held, vision boards are made, we create new alters, make new lists and we make a silent resolve to ourselves of how we will do better—how we will be better.

Some of us may be struggling to break old habits or to start new ones. Common resolutions and intentions I hear include: getting more sleep, prioritizing self care, drinking more water, less screen time, less social media, more time with family and friends, staying in touch better, doing more art, moving your body in ways that bring you joy, more time in nature, committing to your spiritual or healing journey, eating food that nourishes your body, conquering fears, quitting an addiction, or starting that project or hobby you’ve been putting off or neglecting.

The weeks and months that follow the beginning of the year can teach us many things about accountability and the work it takes to change. This is a fertile time of year for practicing accountability—especially self accountability—and noticing what helps and supports, as well as what hinders and holds us back.

It may seem strange to talk about New Year’s resolutions in the context of transformative justice (TJ), but often when we are supporting someone to take accountability, we are working with them to change their behaviors. True accountability is not only apologizing, understanding the impact your actions have caused on yourself and others, making amends or reparations to the harmed parties, but most importantly, true accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm, violence, abuse does not happen again. So, any time we are working to change our behavior (or supporting someone else to change their behavior), it is an opportunity to learn more about accountability.

When it comes to accountability work, we can start small (e.g. resolutions, intentions) and build up our capacities to be able to respond to big things such as violence, harm and abuse. In the same way that we would start small learning any kind of new skill or craft. For example, if you were to learn how to play the piano, you would practice scales and simple exercises that would help to build your skills to be able to play more complicated pieces. You would practice your two hands separately before you began to play them together. You would learn the notes and beats one by one. You would play things that did not sound like music for a long time until you were able to execute chords, rhythm, melody, treble and bass all at the same time. You would not sit down at a piano, having never played, and expect to be able to play a flawless sonata. And you would not expect this of anyone else who had never played piano before.

Being accountable to others and ourselves is something we must learn how to do well, just like anything else. These are hard skills that require the discipline of practice, commitment and faith, knowing that we will make mistakes and fall short many times—most times. This is especially true in a society steeped in punishment, privilege and criminalization; that actively avoids accountability and does not encourage the kind of culture, relationships or skills needed to support true accountability. For many of us in years past, I am sure we have made resolutions or set new intentions, only to find them broken or given-up on within months, weeks or sometimes days. This is very common and many of us carry familiar shame and guilt every year about it. It is important to remember that resisting accountability is a natural part of accountability. It doesn’t mean we are bad people, it means we are human. In our TJ work, I always encourage people to stop treating resisting accountability as something to be outraged or thrown-off-guard by, but instead to understand it and plan for it, knowing that all of us have resisted accountability at some point in our life and will again. Get a plan in place for when you will inevitably resist accountability. Practicing this in small ways can help us down the line when the stakes are much higher.

A good reminder is to get support from those you trust around your accountability. For example, if you are trying to start a new daily practice, set-up an accountability buddy that you text every day—even if your text is “I didn’t do my practice today.” Or connect with others who are working on similar goals. Or find someone that you can check in with consistently who will be able to support you and with whom you can have nuanced conversations about your accountability. Note: it is not their job to “hold you accountable,” that is your job.

One thing we know from our work is that accountability happens in relationship. Attempting to transform deep-seated behaviors, habits and beliefs is incredibly hard to do alone and even smaller, seemingly benign behaviors often have deeper roots. Accountability is often bound up with healing and tackling our trauma is work best done with someone(s) we trust and can rely on. For example: if you are trying to prioritize your self care, you will at some point have to confront why you have been neglecting your self care for so long. You will have to feel into why you have not been valuing yourself or how you put other people’s needs in front of your own. After all, if it were as simple as just scheduling time in your calendar, it would have already been done.

Supporting someone else in their new year’s resolution or intention is also a great opportunity for learning. Often when we are in TJ processes, we have an accountability team, a group of people who are supporting the person who caused harm to take accountability. This is a different kind of skill set that is critical for us to practice. Supporting someone in their accountability is hard work and anyone who has ever tried to do it knows what I am talking about. Learning how to support someone in their accountability without minimizing the harm they’ve done or demonizing them is much easier said than done. Again, we can practice these skills now, which can help us prepare for later. Similar to fire drills, we can practice when there is little-to-no-threat, so that when there is a fire, we are not starting from zero.

There are so many opportunities as we start the year to intentionally engage in work around accountability. It has the power to teach us about commitment, the distance between theory and practice, discipline, rigor, compassion, empathy and resilience. We can get curious about the ways we resist accountability, instead of blaming each other and ourselves. We can challenge ourselves to build more accountability infrastructure into our lives, such as our pods. We can be humbled by how hard it is to change our behavior around benign, non-violent things, let alone harm, full-blown violence and abuse. We can realize that we all have places in our lives where we can and need to be more accountable, including being accountable to ourselves, and that the best way to learn is through doing. Practice yields the sharpest analysis. We can build our skills and integrate them into our everyday lives and support each other to do the same because transformative justice is not only about how the person who caused harm can be accountable, but how we can all be (more) accountable. It is about how we can create a culture of accountability in our lives, families and communities that exists beyond only interventions.