Introduction to Transformative Justice

If you want help implementing any of these systems, I’m available to speak to your organization or to consult with you or to offer workshops. If you want to get more detailed content and see my work as it’s published, please sign up for my patreon. Currently I’ve done only a few actual processes but so far results seem good from all sides.

My approach to accountability is influenced by and most similar to CJIWR‘s approach to restorative justice. It involves a cyclical approach to tool use (influenced by Dr. Evelyn Zellerer’s take on peace circles).

  1. Suitability means the facilitator, mediator, coordinator, or other consultant first has to check in with all parties and decide if the suggested activity/tool is right for the situation and if the parties involved are ready for that activity.
  2. Preparation varies by activity and circumstance but usually involves at minimum discussing the situation and activity/tool with each party, understanding their goals and values. Why did they pick this activity? What values or approach allow it to function best?
  3. Activity success depends on how well Suitability and Preparation went. Some activities (like mediation) might be best done with a professional who is trained and experienced in that activity. Other, less serious situations, may be manageable by a mutual friend or compassionate community leader – though please exercise great caution if you are untrained as retraumatization and harm happen.
  4. Follow Up means assessing (ideally with planned check ins or written outcomes) how well the activity worked and how close the individuals and/or communities are to reaching their goals.
These four phases are iterative, meaning you repeat these steps until no longer suitable. The activity or tools may change but the four steps stay roughly the same. The tool may stay the same and more harmed parties might come forward as they see the success others have with the process. It’s hard to say. Growth and Accountability are lifelong processes. Still, that doesn’t mean these processes need to be formalized and facilitated for one’s entire life. Ideally as people learn the tools, they’ll do better at interrupting cycles of harm and providing a non-defensive approach to learning about the way their interactions land for other people who may be experiencing harm.

I. Resource Yourself

Setting up an accountability pod will help give you the tools to do the work. The coaching role is specifically important in trying to identify what behaviour could have led to the call-out and how you can modify that behaviour and be held accountable by that coach to avoid it in future.

Setting up a support pod will help give you access to feeding emotional labour. Support pods can include friends, family, and others. There’s even a worksheet to help you figure yours out.

Suitability for each pod member looks like asking: What can they offer? Why were they asked to join? What are they resourced to give?

Finally, pods receive training (Preparation) in the purpose, philosophy, and direction of the process. They ask questions and develop an understanding of what they’re doing and why it’s important. 

II. Impact Statements

Requesting Impact Statements is a way to show the community, you want to listen first. Rather than respond poorly to accusations, no response is better. To respond well, it might be best to focus on intentions of healing and closure and center the experience of the person reporting harm. Of course, this is all situational.

It should be said restorative justice doesn’t require participation of the harmful person. Impact Statements can still be a tool to help harmed folks heal and get closure. They can also be witnessed by the harmed person’s support pod or a trained counselor as an alternative to participation of the harmful person.

There are three primary functions of an impact statement. First, any harmed person can write an impact statement and that process can be an end unto itself (healing even if it’s not witnessed). Second, it can 

III. Witness (Understand Impact and Reflect)

Are there impact statements or are people willing to write out impact statements? Is there an accountability pod or coach willing to collect and work through the statements with the Witness? How knowledgeable, trained, or experienced in restorative justice is this individual?

If pods and especially coaches are on board with the philosophy, much of this work is done with them or with a skilled counselor. The goal is a clear understanding between cause and effect. The Witness comes to understand their role in how their behaviours impacted the current situation. Ideally the accountability pod and the Witness produce a tangible list of harmful behaviours or a set of blindspots or situations or power dynamics the Witness may have exploited (intentionally or unintentionally).  The list should include strategies to improve moving forward and how the Witness will continue.

False accusations are much less of a concern here than in court. There’s no punishment sought and the pod and/or coaches are working with the Witness such that they take everything seriously. They are looking for patterns and specific behaviours or actions moving forward. So even if a false accusation adds a behaviour to the watch list, if that person doesn’t have a problem with that behaviour, it’s unlikely to really cost much to watch for and check-in about.

IV. Allegation Fragility and Measured Responses

Intent does not negate impact. Folks reporting harm can’t tell an alleged abuser what their intention was. Reported folks can’t dictate their own impact on others’ lives to others.

Yet Allegation Fragility is common what with the current language gap between criminal sexual violence and simply causing sexual and psychological harm.

– allegation language gap and punitive responses to call outs

*separate post under construction*

– responding well

– restoring yourself

Overview to Learning

While mileage may vary, I think about creating/implementing/staffing community processes as happening in stages and with varying degrees of risk. First, it’s important to understand the material and then move on to fostering relationships and getting community buy in to shift the way the community manages conflict.
  1. Understanding the Research (Pitfalls, Changing Mindset). Decision makers review necessary research, learn about Pitfalls, and decide if their ideas are retributive or restorative.
  2. Soliciting Community Participation (Buy-In, Language, Values, Agreements). This is where the community or communities buy(s) into the process. This is what gives the process the authority it needs to function. Communities usually agree on some Language and definitions, describe a set of common Values, and come up with code of conduct or other Community Agreements.
  3. Organizational Design (Objectives, Roles) This is where the Accountability Process decision makers or planners set out the mission or Objectives this process has, the people or Roles that will be needed to accomplish them, and the Consequences they have the authority to use in order to accomplish those Objectives. Decide how to store information and maintain the security of e-mail and records. Start thinking about funding.
  4. Community Agreements  (Responsibility, Codes of Conduct). Decide which organizations are organizing your community. How are they responsible for their participants, members, educators, leadership, to other organizations, etc. What are their codes of conduct and how are they succeeding/failing? What consequences are triggered by bad behaviour? How is the privacy of harmed parties protected? Finally, what funding supports these processes?
  5. Describing Available Tools (Reports, Inquiries, Privacy, and Publishing). This looks different for every community and ideally includes every tool or intervention for every process. Usually as processes come up and new tools are built, they are added as case studies to the list.
  6. Implementation (Define Service Providers, Fill Roles) Decide on term, compensation, roles, etc. Publishing these systems to the public so as to maintain transparency and increase Buy In. Let people know the system is ready to use and prepare for the influx. Keep in mind, this must be done in a fashion that is legal and not defamatory (this system still operates within the frame of your local legal system). Finally, the privacy of records, archives, and email should be checked.

Agreements

The following questions are meant to prompt behaviours or conduct that is desirable or undesirable to assist you in creating a code of conduct.

Why do you want your Accountability Process?

Are transgressions happening? If so, what sort of transgressions seem to be happening? What are they transgressions of?
What community agreements are (in danger of) being broken?
Flesh that out: What are the things your community agrees to do?
Do you have community consensus on a Community Agreement that your Accountability Process will hold people accountable to?
How does your organization derive authority over your community? What sort of social contract do you have?

Funding

There are a lot of options for funding even though this is often the most stressful conversation. The community can create a Pot of money, make Regular Contributions, create a separate Organization, or just rely on volunteers. Spoilers: you get what you pay for. It’s not fair to ask skilled volunteers to do their jobs for free because you need it. Counselors are frequently kind and compassionate people who want to help and can get easily burned out in ways that may or may not impact their livelihoods. Please be careful with community <3.
 

Codes of Conduct

Setting clear expectations with codes of conduct facilitates Accountability. Making the code or getting everyone to sign the code increases buy-in.

I have contributed heavily or outright written a few codes of conduct in my tenure at various volunteer organizations. This one which I wrote for the Colourful Kinksters of Vancouver group draws on the one I worked on for the Metro Vancouver Kink board of directors.

The purpose of these standards is to set expectations of respectful conduct to facilitate a functional exchange of useful, progressive ideas focused on marginalized or othered groups.

    1. Truthfulness: I agree to practice honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth in all dealings here. I will not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information.

    2. Integrity: I agree to be forthcoming about conflicting, personal, and / or commercial goals of associating with this event (as well as mentioning potential and pre existing conflicts of interest).

    3. Kindness: I agree in good faith to try to avoid deliberately insulting or inflammatory speech or comments. I will not troll or deliberately upset someone. I will not bully, intimidate, threaten, attack, or otherwise harm others.

    4. Acknowledgement: I agree to give credit for ideas and words not my own and recognize original content creators. I agree to only share someone else’s story with their prior consent.

    5. Constructiveness: Other than in voicing my concern for the safety of the community or sharing my direct lived experience, I agree to not attempt to defame someone or damage their reputation in a deliberate or malign fashion.

    6. Accountability: While participating or shortly thereafter, I agree to do my best to practice courage and own my mistakes and my part in conflict in the spirit of resolution.

    7. Community Consideration: I agree to voluntarily withdraw from participation if the community decides it is not in its best interest that I continue to attend.

I acknowledge breaching this code of conduct may result in a decision by the volunteer organizers of this event to request I stop attending their events or take actions to prevent my attendance.

Documentation

First, support the reporter. One major point about accountability processes is that they should actively strive to not retraumatize the reporter or cause harm.
 
Typically reports start out verbal. There’s no need to direct the process to pressure the reporter to do anything.
 

The next consideration is to ask whether or not the reporter wants to submit a written report. They may tell you this. They may have questions. Action doesn’t need to be taken if a report is submitted and I think it’s best to allow anonymous reports. When assisting the reporter in crafting a submission, empower them as much as possible to write it themselves or use their own words.

Reports may call for specific restitution or even retribution. Reports may be angry. Ultimately, it’s up to those doing follow-up to offer respectful customer service even if they cannot  with the demands. It’s essential that people feel heard and acknowledged. Try to keep in mind they may have experienced a trigger or direct trauma.

There are many ways to write reports. They can be strictly fact based with no feeling or subjective content. I don’t think that’s especially useful on its own. My preference if a report is written like that is to accompany it with an impact statement. I wrote a guide on writing impact statements.

Research Pitfalls: How It Can All Go Wrong

Many amazing and well-researched humans informed my creating an accountability pod. One of the catalysts that got me out of theorizing and into creating was my attending (as an MVK board member) a Community Accountability Processes workshop taught by Marty Dinn organized by Vancouver Consent Crew in March 2018. The Vancouver Consent Crew also influenced thoughts and quotes as well as informed my approach to Consensual Communication.

There’s a great essay on errors in planning and executing accountability practices called Accounting for Ourselves. Its ten most common pitfalls is probably the best cheat sheet for checking your process and asking if you have put something in motion that could *really* mess up.

“Accountability processes often do a lot of good but sometimes they just teach men how to appear unabusive when nothing’s changed but the words coming out of their mouth. Survivors and friends are left wondering if said male is no longer a threat. Eventually the issue recedes from peoples’ minds because they don’t want to seem overly reactionary and don’t know what further steps to even take and the perpetrator is able to continue on in their life without much changing…

“bear in mind that these pitfalls don’t imply that our accountability models are futile or doomed. On the contrary, because we’re invested in figuring out how to end assault and abuse, we have to be unflinchingly critical in examining efforts to do so.” – from Accounting for Ourselves

The take away from resources that detail how this process goes wrong is that it is very easy to implement these principles in a way that is not effective or efficient, that disappoints or misleads, that deludes oneself about safety, that sets poor expectations with little hope of meaningful follow-through. Just as we are fallible, so too are many of the plans and processes we create.

“Because social networks can vary widely on the basis of values, politics, cultures, and attitudes, we have found that having a onesize-fits-all community accountability model is not a realistic or respectful way to approach an accountability process… 

We try to develop a process of engagement with a person’s story of being violated, rather than thinking of the process as a fact-finding mission with an end goal of determining the Objective  truth of What Really Happened. It is almost impossible to prove a sexual assault happened – and when it is possible, it is incredibly time and resource-consuming. The reality is that a perfectly accurate account of an incidence of sexual violence is difficult to attain. Though everyone has an obligation to recount their experience as accurately as they can, sometimes survivors do not get every detail right or their story may be inconsistent. That’s understandable – the experience of sexual violence can be extremely traumatic, and trauma can impact a person’s memory and perception…

“Sometimes aggressors can have what seems to be a very polished account of what happened. That does not necessarily mean that they ought to be believed.” – from taking risks: implementing grassroots community accountability strategies

There will always be detractors who say the process can’t work or won’t work. Here is another great excerpt from which I was reminded how triangulation and  poor transparency could damage the process. This source is yet another listing pitfalls in a rape-specific context.

“We can’t provide survivors safe space- safe space, in a general sense, outside of close friendships, some family and the occasional affinity just doesn’t exist. Our current models of accountability suffer from an over-abundance of hope. Fuck the false promises of safe space- we will never get everyone on the same page about this. Let’s cop to how hard healing is and how delusional any expectation for a radical change of behavior is in the case of assault. We need to differentiate between physical assault and emotional abuse- throwing them together under the general rubric interpersonal violence doesn’t help…

“Here is the problem with using this model for emotional abuse: its an unhealthy dynamic between two people. So who gets to call it? Who gets to wield that power in the community? (And lets all be honest that there is power in calling someone to an accountability process.) People in unhealthy relationships need a way to get out of them without it getting turned into a community judgment against whomever was unlucky enough to not realize a bad dynamic or call it abuse first. These processes frequently exacerbate mutually unhealthy power plays between hurt parties. People are encouraged to pick sides and yet no direct conflict brings these kinds of entanglements to any kind of resolve…

“I have had sexual exchanges that were a learning curve for better consent.
I have the potential in me to be both survivor and perp- abused and abuser- as we all do.

“These essentialist categories don’t serve us. People rape- very few people are rapists in every sexual exchange. People abuse one another- this abuse is often mutual and cyclical- cycles are hard but not impossible to amend. These behaviors change contextually. Therefore there is no such thing as safe space.” – from Safety Is Illusion

While Accountability Pods and Processes certainly have their drawbacks and are no guarantee in and of themselves, I think it’s fair to say that a person operating in good faith is better off with a pod than without one (as is their community and any people harmed by them).

“Accountability is about making a commitment to the people in our lives to work through destructive behaviors, toward healthier, more egalitarian relationships. Accountability is about the willingness to receive input from and be responsive to the people around us, prioritizing their needs, safety, and emotional health in our actions.” from Thinking Through Perpetrator

There is a lot more to learn about restorative justice and I hope these readings have helped you get started on the first step. If you’re interested in a consultation, you can send me an email, and I’ll be happy to try to help you out. You can also sign up to support me on patreon.