Transformative Justice Has Been a Struggle Lately

by Layel Camargo

[photo of a colorful wool coat collar and clasp and the neck of someone looking sideways.]

I have struggled to my core with making time for Transformative Justice lately. With having a full-time job to unpredictable family dynamics to wanting to have some quiet alone time. I have not made time to support friends in navigating difficult instances in their lives nor making myself available to show up for my community in ways that I’d like. And I’ve begun to wonder whether Transformative Justice is even possible, if we can really respond to instances of violence or even harm, for that matter without calling the police. This week alone, I have attempted to deescalate a confrontation outside of my house, shown up to a vigil down the street from my house because of a shooting that led to a fatality, and had a mini conflict with my upstairs neighbors about doing some weed work while they were on vacation. It has left me feeling like if this is the kind of harm and violence I should be wanting to respond to I don’t even know if I would have time to go work at my job for 8 hours because I would be in community accountability processes for days. 

Does anyone else feel like this? Does anyone else feel like we can’t escape the easy fix feeling that can come from calling 911? Does anyone else feel like the day to day motion is actually more important than supporting our neighbors? 

After such a difficult week I felt it necessary to write about what Transformative Justice actually demands of me. It doesn’t demand that I respond to every incident of harm and violence around me, it doesn’t demand I carve out 5-10 hours a week to organize around alternatives to the police or criminal legal system. It demands that I find small and big ways to practice core values. Values that foster interdependence, compassion and humanity and this week, especially, this week the most I can do is practice that for myself. 

This week Nia Wilson was brutally murdered by a white supremacist, I truly feel and believe that I should be participating in protests, dropping banners, and sharing my enraged feelings with others, even so that felt like the most difficult thing to do. 

How can I demand justice when I myself feel chaos in my own neighborhood? When just a week ago a woman was shot not even a block away from where I live and sleep? So what does Transformative Justice demand of me right now? I think its that I have to stay true to how I can best continue spreading the values that will prepare us to live outside of the prison industrial complex and into a world were we will all have skills to deescalate situations and abolish racism. I must make space for those I care about in whatever way that is but especially for myself to bring healing, liberation and the spirit of possibility in difficult times. Transformative Justice simply asks us to stay aligned with our integrity as much as possible not to be perfect in responding to everything but doing what feels best at the time, whether it be crying, screaming or dropping banners. Although there is plenty going on and I’m sure there is plenty going on with you, I challenge myself and would like to invite you, these next few days to do what is best for yourself and I hope that this extends to whats best for those around us whether it be  housemates, neighborhood or larger community. Transformation and liberation doesn’t happen over night and it doesn’t happen perfectly, we must be gentle and consistent. Here is to mine and ours recommitment to being accountable to those around us. 

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.

Prelude to Transformation

By Sean Norris

While both learning and doing Transformative Justice work there have been many eye opening moments, maybe none more eye opening than this realization: We will not live to see the change we are building toward.

I am in no way saying that this is some revelatory assertion, or that Martin Luther King Jr. never said “I might not get there with you,” but as someone new to organizing, this felt very important for me to ground in as soon as possible.

This is the somber, sobering reality of radical work; it is also one to the most liberating aspects. This truth connects us to all of those who came before us who spent their lives in service of freedom. It connects us to all of those that did not live to see the change they fought hard to set the stage for, that they diligently devoted so much of their being to. From Grace Lee Bogs, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Sojourner Truth, to Cesar Chavez, to Audre Lorde, and to the countless agents of liberation that have gone unrecorded and unacknowledged, yet have had an immeasurable impact on us being here in this moment that we are. None of them lived to see what they envisioned and labored for come to fruition.

And neither will we.

Liberation is too big a task for any one individual, or collective, or organization, or governing body. Liberation is too big a task for any one generation. As much as we rely on our ancestors for education and guidance, we must rely on those who come after us, our descendants, to not only take care of us, but to take care of our work.

This is generational work. This is something we leave behind for our descendants to continue. This is decentralized, collaborative work. This is something we hand off to as many people as we can so that they can build and grow it with, or without us.

This does not mean that we do not do the work, this means that we approach it in a different way. We do not approach it with the pressure of having to solve CSA in our lifetime, to abolish prisons in our lifetime; those issues are much too big to conceive solutions for in one lifetime. However, when we think of the strength, knowledge, and wisdom of those who have come before us and those that will come after us, when we set a better stage, set our sights on moving things forward for our descendants, the work gets a lot lighter and a lot more manageable.

In our collective, we make sure we leave space for visioning. The more I do this work, the more I realize just how important visioning is, and how cut off we are from it in our myopic day to day lives.  We vision across lengths of time ranging from one year from now to fifty years from now; we experience what it is to imagine something that you will never see, but move towards it any way. Engaging in that type of visioning makes you realize how important it is to, not only develop your own leadership, but grow the leadership of others; we begin to understand that everyone needs to take ownership and leadership of TJ, or it will not be sustainable. If and when we die, this thing, our movements, our ideals can’t die with us, or become inert, aloof, or content because of what one individual accomplished in their lifetime.

In the workforce (as far as my understanding being socialized in a capitalist country), you set short term and long term goals, or deadlines, or benchmarks, or what have you, you work toward those until a project or task is either complete or abandoned because the goal cannot be accomplished, then you move on to your next goal and the cycle repeats.  We are afraid to start projects we cannot finish, we consider that failure in our professional lives; Transformative Justice requires that you begin something that you cannot finish, as well as redefine success and failure in the process. Did you make sure that one child was a little safer, that immediate harm stopped, even if you did not address all the systemic factors that caused the violence and transform a community? Did you make sure that someone going through abuse had a respite, that they had a meal, helped them find housing or a job, even if you did nothing to address their abuser?  Did you get someone to connect to the conditions (i.e. alcoholism, internalized oppression, patriarchal modeling, etc…) that cause them to act in unaccountable and or abusive ways in their communities and interpersonal lives so that they can do their own accountability/healing work? These are all ways of pushing TJ forward, these are all ways to take care of and build community. These things are the foundation of Transformative Justice, that get us thinking about being accountable for ourselves and those around us.
We are in the prelude of the long story of liberation, and as with any great work of art, the prelude is just as important as the body; the prelude sets the stage for everything to come.

Challenging Toxic Cultural Norms: Shifting From Solely Thinking and Adding Feelings

By Layel Camargo

As a culture shifter from punishment to accountability, I have become familiar to some cultural norms that make it almost impossible for individuals to transform their harmful behavior. I have been consciously and intentionally supporting the practice of accountability for a humble 3 years now, which has mainly been through my involvement with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. Through this work I’ve been approached by bystanders, survivors and people who have harmed alike.

In politically engaged communities, when supporting people who have caused harm, it has become clear to me that we are unequipped to respond to incidents of harm and violence in our liberatory organizing spaces/communities. Regardless of how politicized our communities are we simply fall short in one way or another at how we respond to these incidents. I have yet to understand the totality of why our movements have shortcomings at responding to incidents of violence and harm. However, I strongly believe that there are cultural norms established by imperialistic, colonial and capitalistic ideals that have seeped there way into our movements and contribute to these shortcomings.

what do we do when intimate partner violence exists in our collectives? what do we do when community organizers verbally abuse each other? what happens when the people we march the streets with, hurt the people we are fighting for? how do we continue our liberatory work when our comrades abuse and harm each other?

Imagining and feeling the responses to questions like these will help us understand not the specifics of how to respond but what cultural norms exist in our movements that hinder the possibility of creative and innovative responses outside of the prison industrial complex. This is where I believe our liberatory work needs to move. When talking to folks who are seeking to be accountable in their communities the narrative is more often than not the same, “I tried to find support in my community but …” followed by some explanation of how they were ignored/there wasn’t capacity for them to be accountable or told to literally or figuratively leave the community.

Being accountable for harm or violence does not require a collective of people to respond but responding alone is neither radical nor new. This is why it pains me to accept that in our movements, we struggle to foster relationships that will show up for each other when we are seeking to be accountable or need support when we are victimized. For example, as a college student I was in an abusive intimate relationship that escalated to physical violence that was visible to our community members and comrades. Even though, my ex and I met in an organizing space and at the time were seen as leaders in our community, at the time I struggled to find one person who could validate the ways I was victimized. If finding validation was difficult for me I doubt my ex had space to process and transform her behavior. How does this dismissal of violence happen? What are the unspoken cultural norms that we have accepted in our movements that make ignoring violence so prevalent?

Unfortunately, in our fast paced world the opportunity to practice compassion and humanity feels unaccessible and overwhelming, and our liberatory work is not exempt from that fast pace of life. This is one of the reasons why we rely heavily on fast thinking and less feeling, it’s what keeps us moving forward. And even though our radical communities are politicized we have allowed what I have come to call, toxic cultural norms to saturate the foundation of our movements. These toxic cultural norms such as individualism, professionalism, disposability, fear of scarcity, binary thinking, competition, criminalization, othering and many more, do not allow us to be creative or innovative in responding to violence and harm within our movement/liberatory work. Thus perpetuating the lack of practice for compassion and humanity and in my experience we don’t respond any better because we’re politicized, we respond better when we hold compassion and humanity during incidents of violence and harm. This is one of the biggest struggles of my work as a culture shifter and this is our work as movers and shakers against the prison industrial complex.

In no way am I saying that we must stop the encouragement of analysis or fast thinking, because it is this practice that has liberated many of us and interrupted the generational imperialistic, colonial and capitalistic brainwashing. However I do want to emphasize that the ideals of such oppressive systems are not only ideals but are cultural norms that we have accepted and negotiate constantly. The reliance on analysis and fast thinking alone will not liberate us and will not dismantle toxic cultural norms that harm us and perpetuate violence. It’s the allowance and permission we give each other to feel the pain, grief, sorrow, joy, confusion, guilt and many more of emotions that occur at our most difficult of times.

It is especially important that during difficult times it’s important to ask questions like: Why do I feel like I have to face my problems alone? Why do I want to cover up my actions when I hurt someone else? Why can’t I accept that I hurt someone as much as they hurt me? Who am I if I am harmed and have harmed? I think that in order for us to strengthen our movements we must begin to look at the cultural norms we have unconsciously accepted that limit our ability, time and space to feel.

Healing and Justice, Together and Apart: Accountability Beyond the “Process”

By Alix Johnson

In five years with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, I have seen folks reaching toward accountability in different ways. We haven’t put out a definition or set of criteria for an “accountability process,” so people come asking for what it is they really want. It might be expressing their hurt to a parent who failed to protect them. It might be a safety plan for a vulnerable child. It might be a space to reflect on and try to make amends for violence they have done in the past. It is rare, in fact, for it to be an “accountability process” in the way many of us imagine in our heads: everyone in the same room, talking to and hearing each other, expressing their own and meeting each others’ needs.

That’s the romantic image some of us have, anyway. On the other hand, folks who’ve been through such a process – as survivors, bystanders, or people who have harmed – often feel burned or exhausted by this ideal. What if I’m ready to meet before you are? What if you and I need different things? Even if we are both ready and willing, what if we trigger one another again? What if everything goes as expected and at the end we still don’t feel good, or “done”? It can be immensely powerful for a survivor of violence and the person who harmed them to be in relationship, communicate, and share space. But it is not the only way people want accountability, and make it for themselves.

When we distinguish “transformative” from “restorative” justice, we say that restorative justice is about “restoring” relationships and transformative justice is about transforming them – often it’s not enough to restore the relationship to what it was when violence happened, because that relationship allowed the violence to occur. “Restoring” a relationship implies a coming together. Transforming one doesn’t have to. I believe it’s useful to see coming together not as the end goal, but as a tool, among others, that might serve along the way.

When it comes to crafting community responses to violence, we are in such an exciting and terrifying time: our options are not neatly laid out in front of us, but scattered around in second-hand stories, half-forgotten memories, and the occasional zine. Holding onto this ideal of a meeting between the person who did violence and the person they harmed can make us feel like if we can’t make that happen (we can’t organize it, can’t tolerate it, or can’t hold it well) then we can’t do anything at all. But we can, and we have to. We do, all the time.

We might start from questions like: What does accountability mean? What does accountability look like? How does accountability feel? This is not to say that accountability can be anything – we push folks to think about their actions and impact, the amends they owe, and the changes they need to make. We ask people to consider what they need for their safety and healing, and what it would take for lasting transformation to take place. We ask them what might get in the way of accountability – what experiences or memories they might need to revisit, what beliefs or messaging they might need to unlearn. But it is to acknowledge that accountability means different things to different people, and those specificities should shape the process and its goals.

For example: I have heard survivors of violence express that accountability would mean having their experiences validated; feeling a shift in their community spaces; having a coherent narrative of what happened to them. Sometimes, it is important for these things to work in relation to the person who did the violence; other times, it’s not. Sometimes it is, but that isn’t possible – or at least not in the way they envision, right now. But sometimes there are other ways to get a piece of what they need. Having supported or facilitated conversations with loved ones might feel validating. Having a meeting at their work, school, or organizing space might start to shift dynamics that allowed violence to take place. Exchanging letters or other mediated communication with the person who did violence might allow a survivor to articulate their experience in a helpful way. These are actions all of us are capable of supporting right now.

I have heard people who bore witness to violence describe accountability as expressing support for survivors; holding clear and consistent boundaries amongst themselves; learning the skills they need to better intervene. An organization might show their support for survivors through a collective statement, or simply through daily actions of interdependent care. A family might learn to express and respect boundaries by practicing open communication and consent. A group of friends might prepare themselves to prevent and stop violence by taking a course in mediation, de-escalation, or medical care. These, too, are things that many of us can do

This doesn’t mean that everyone is always satisfied – sometimes folks don’t get what they want – or what they want changes – and it can be painful and unfair. But starting from a contextual, not a prescriptive understanding of what accountability means and looks like gets us closer to making it in real, if imperfect ways.

The thing about opening up accountability – seeing it as specific asks and actions we can all pursue and seek support in (not as one predetermined course) – is that it allows us to practice outside of intense moments of violence. What does accountability mean in your workplace? What does it look like with your friends? How do you ask for it when you don’t have it? What does it look like when you’re not showing up? How can you get support to do better? I am learning, slowly, to ask these questions in my life. We try hard to practice them in the BATJC. Because we’ve found that flexing these muscles – taking accountability beyond the “process” – helps us prepare to meet the more intense moments of violence with creativity, alignment, and heart.