I am thrilled today to publish this essay by my friend, Dr. Ann Russo. Ann is a professor in the gender and women’s studies program at Depaul University. She was formerly the director of that program and has now founded a new project called “Building Communities, Ending Violence” at Depaul. “Building Communities” uses peacemaking circles and safety labs to address violence. I’ve been lucky to publish another essay by Ann titled “Violence, Healing and Justice here. Ann is currently writing a book about community accountability and transformative justice. I am so excited about it that I can barely hold it in. Stay tuned for that book when it is done!
10 Strategies for Cultivating Community Accountability
by Ann Russo
My commitment to prison abolition grows daily in part because I see the possibilities for responding to abuse and violence without relying on punishment, shame, and more violence. The possibilities lie in building communities where community members – be they friends, family members, coworkers, or neighbors – rely on one another to heal, intervene, to take accountability, and to transform abuse and violence. That’s the essence of community accountability as envisioned by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Creative Interventions.
Community accountability can be creating communal support for those impacted, and/or collectively interrupting, challenging, stopping, and shifting abusive behavior and the underlying systems that support it. The key is working collectively in community rather than relying on external authorities and systems of oppression. It is not a formulaic set of responses, but grows organically in relation to the specific people and relationships involved. And like transformative justice, it seeks to address the underlying power systems that ultimately form the root causes of violence.
I work with the Building Communities, Ending Violence project based at DePaul University. We create spaces to build skills and expand our imaginations for community accountability and transformative justice. We engage in peace circles to build community, share stories of resilience and resistance, and create support and accountability. We create strategy sessions to brainstorm, imagine, and practice communal responses to everyday violations. And we use creative arts for communal healing and transformation. Here are 10 strategies we use to build skills and capacity for community accountability:
1. Shift from “what can I do” to “what can we do?” When faced with abuse and/or violence, people often are not sure what to do. Instead of feeling the burden of responding solely on our own, gather with others connected to the situation – family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, peers, etc. Recognize that each of us is impacted by the abuse/violence whether we are directly involved or not and that collectively our experience, knowledge, and skills could shift the situation. Together we can commiserate, analyze, strategize, and take action.
With a “we”, energy shifts and possibilities multiply – more support, ideas, and capacity. Each person has a unique role to play to shift any situation – some might be in a good position to support the person harmed, whereas others might be in a better position to cultivate accountability with the person causing the harm. Some might have material resources to offer, others might organize community support, and still others might offer perspectives on the underlying roots of the violence. With more people, any situation can shift toward healing, accountability, and transformation.
2. Strengthen communication skills. I’ve been in many groups that have fallen apart over conflicts connected to abuse and violence. We often did not have the skills to address the problems nor shift the dynamics. And because the problems were not addressed from the beginning, they deepened. Fear of conflict prevents intervention–we talk ourselves out of it, rationalize it, and decide to ignore it.
Making a commitment with people in our families, peer groups, and organizations to practice direct communication about everyday conflicts can create a solid ground for addressing more egregious behavior. Being open, honest, and direct about how we experience and witness one another’s behavior can prevent the escalation of abusive power relations, and can create more just relationships within our communities.
3. Practice Collective Support. Rather than think about support as something you individually provide to someone else, think about support as something that is collectively created. Build supportive community by gathering in circle to share stories, struggles, resources, strategies for resistance and resilience.
The Building Communities project shifted Take Back the Night at DePaul from a Speak Out to Support Circles a few years ago. Rather than individuals speaking in front of audiences, people gathered in small circles to share stories of trauma, resilience, resistance and self-care. All had a chance to tell our stories – whether we identified as someone who had experienced violence, witnessed it, or been impacted by it. At the end of the event, rather than feeling the collective trauma of each other’s stories, participants left feeling like part of a supportive community that each of us could contribute to, and hopeful about the possibilities for support, change, and transformation.
4. Share relationship experiences and resources. Create intentional spaces to share the ins and outs of relationships. When we invest in each other’s relationships, we are inclined to take accountability for support and intervention when problems arise. The potential for someone to isolate someone else for abuse becomes much more unlikely in such a community.
A few years ago, when a friend was struggling in an abusive relationship, a group of friends gathered to support her, and one another. We realized that the abusive treatment of our friend had impacted our relationship with her and with each other. Rather than trying to get her to leave or stay, or to label it abusive which she was reluctant to do, we created a collective space for connection and support. Using a circle process, we shared our own stories of relationships, those that felt more beautiful and loving as well as those that included emotional, physical and sexual violence. No one became the expert or judge of her or anyone else. Instead of lectures and advice, we told stories and commiserated. As a result, our friend talked about her relationship and her hopes for the future without the pressure of feeling forced into a decision. Our friendships deepened, rather than became more isolated and separate in response to the situation. And we agreed that whatever the future held, we would be in it together, not alone.
5. Build shared vocabulary. Create spaces to build shared language on what positive, loving, and caring relationships look and feel like as well as those with mistreatment, abuse, and violence. Often the terms we use – domestic violence, rape, stalking – call up legalistic definitions that require definitive lines of demarcation. They make it hard to talk about the everyday messy ways that mistreatment and abuse live out in our minds, bodies, and hearts.
Creating a shared vocabulary can shift us from debating whether an experience is “bad enough” to constitute abuse, for example, to being able to address negative behaviors without having to fit into the state’s definition. As a result, we don’t wait until it escalates to a more threatening level before addressing it. For instance, there are times when rather than using the term “domestic violence”, my friends name dynamics of possessiveness, jealousy, manipulation, and isolation as worth addressing early on in relationships.
6. Practice taking accountability. If taking accountability for harm became a daily practice, rather than solely something that we demand of others in egregious situations, then taking accountability would be less fraught with guilt, shame, defensiveness, punishment, and retaliation. It would create more compassion for one another when we make mistakes, when we speak and act in harmful and oppressive ways (intentionally or unintentionally), and/or contribute to harm in some way. And it would make it easier to admit wrongdoing.
When I have hurt my friends and/or loved ones, I too have suffered and felt isolated. It helps immensely to have a space to talk with others to gain understanding and to figure out ways to make things right. There are few spaces to talk about the harms we’ve caused and the systems of oppression in which we’ve been complicit. Mostly it seems that when confronted, we try to prove that we are not responsible – to prove our “innocence.” Or we try to blame others, or to claim that we are the real victims. Making it a practice of taking accountability and creating a supportive space where we can talk about our actions and/or complicity would go a long way toward creating more justice in our everyday interactions.
7. Create Space to Create Concrete Accountability Steps. In this society, accountability is often synonymous with punishment, shame and/or retaliatory harm. What if it became synonymous with taking responsibility for harm, making things right, being willing to understand, change and transform the harmful behavior and its underlying motivations. What would accountability look and feel like then?
It’s a great practice to gather together to brainstorm concrete action steps we might imagine for taking accountability for harm. In the Strategy Sessions of Building Communities, some common accountability action steps for abuse in intimate relationships are: taking responsibility for the destructive and painful impact of abuse, stopping the behavior, respecting the wants and needs of the person being hurt (including separation, ending the relationship, request for no contact, etc), getting support to address underlying issues (for example, mental health and/or substance abuse issues), learning about abusive behavior and its impact, and being willing to check in with community members about accountability steps. And through role-plays, we practice what it might look like for friends or family to communicate these action steps to one another. This builds our skills and capacity for building accountability into our relationships.
8. Practice everyday interventions. Practice shifting our core reactions when we witness small and large-scale violations. Our core reactions may be to fight back, to flee the scene, or to freeze and feel immobilized. All of us have stories of when we have regretted our core reaction to witnessing abuse and/or violence. We may have overlooked it, minimized it, felt helpless in the face of it, and/or responded aggressively and made the situation worse.
Shifting our core reactions requires skills and practice. Building Communities creates spaces to share stories of small-scale violations where we wanted to respond differently where we then collectively imagine and practice alternative responses. Role-playing these responses builds skills and expands our capacity for interrupting, disrupting, and/or responding to violence. A couple of years ago, after participating in BCEV, a student intervened in an evolving bar fight. After an initial flee reaction, he decided get a few of his friends to help him and they de-escalated the fight by diverting people’s attention away from one another toward addressing something on the television screen. This distraction shifted the energy within the group and the fight ended.
9. Create Collective Analysis and Action on the Roots of Violence. Often we respond to oppressive behavior as if it’s located within the individual, rather than it being linked to broader systems. Understanding the social roots of violence makes us aware that the problem is larger than any individual and that we are all implicated in the structures that cause the problems. This provides us with the ability and responsibility to work toward transforming the roots.
For example, when a friend was being harassed and stalked by an ex-partner who had been emotionally and verbally abusive, a group of us discussed the roots of his behavior and the obstacles for intervention. We recognized that many people may view the ex-partner’s behavior as a private personal problem, even common to heterosexual relationships, because these relationships are structured by patriarchy and capitalism. And that many may not recognize it as immediately threatening because there was no physical violence, and so may minimize the risks. Steps to dismantling these roots might include making our intimate relationships open to communal conversation (e.g., Far Out), building critical consciousness about the impact of sexism and misogyny on relationship dynamics, and expanding our understanding of the violence of emotional and verbal abuse.
10. Practice, Practice, Practice: To me the possibilities for cultivating accountability within our communities are endless – but what it takes is building skills through practice. With practice, we are more prepared with ideas for intervention. Most importantly, an emphasis on practice reminds us that it may not always turn out, it will more than likely be messy, and there’s no one answer . . . and yet it’s through the experience of trying it out that we learn what’s possible.