Transformative Justice and Community Accountability: Changing behavior and justice

March 26, 2019 , Written by Leslie Wang

In anti-violence work and activism, people strive to end violence and uphold justice for Survivors. The difficulty is that the systems, structures, and dominant ideas we challenge are too grand and concrete to waver. So what could an alternative look like? Transformative justice and community accountability (TJ/CA) is an alternative means of violence intervention and prevention that is practiced by smaller, tight-knit communities. The model developed as a means to seek justice in a way that did not involve the oppression of the state and state violence. Its work is constant, difficult, and takes a lot of time, but the results that TJ/CA processes produce prompts individuals to unite together against violence and end it within their communities.

An Alternate Route to Justice

TJ/CA is somewhat difficult for me to explain. Raised in a society that opts to incarcerate and punish people who cause harm, I struggle to put into words how I have come to understand this radical concept. Growing up, I learned that there are victims and perpetrators; in order to protect the good of society, the perpetrator must be arrested and punished. And yet, so much of the time, we have seen that ex-prisoners are released, isolated from their communities, and left with few resources for support. Experts suggest that when alienated from their loved ones, their communities, and other networks of support, ex-prisoners tend to cause more harm (see link).

Instead of affirming the commonly recycled idea that perpetrators are monsters, TJ/CA posits that people who cause harm have also caused harm. Violence affects all of us. As Support New York write, “interpersonal violence is pervasive and cyclical” (see link). This does not mean that TJ/CA is not Survivor-centred in its practices. Rather, in order to create spaces for Survivors to heal, TJ/CA raises questions about why harm was caused; what conditions allow for violence to exist in cycles; what can we change in our communities that makes Survivors feel safe?

Its developments rooted in anarchist traditions and activism, TJ/CA is often practiced and advocated by prison abolitionists, anti-violence activists, anti-racist activists, and others. Its vision is to end all forms of violence by holding perpetrators of harm[1] accountable for their actions. Importantly, TJ/CA seeks to bring the community together in order to hold the perpetrator of harm accountable and in order to address how and why the community and members of the community uphold a culture of harm rather than one of care. A lot of folks who practice TJ/CA believe that harm is perpetuated partly due to community compliancy or the community’s lack of intervention. The idea is that by encouraging community members to practice accountability, respect, and safety, the community can help in holding the perpetuator of harm accountable for their actions and behaviours.

Carceral Feminism, State Institutions, and Ending Violence

When we discuss TJ/CA, we ought to discuss the forces we are up against. TJ/CA is an alternative framework of justice work. In many places, the dominant system of justice work is a framework called punitive justice which asserts that justice is served when a perpetrator of crime is punished for their deeds. Often, this means that they are sent to jail. Carceral feminism is an approach to feminism that sees incarceration, increased policing, and other forms of state intervention as solutions to gender-based violence. This may seem to make sense: again, many of us are raised to believe that true justice is an eye-for-an-eye. But we do not catch-on to the fact that this is violence served from the state.

Carceral feminism does not view state-sanctioned punitive justice as violent. It also does not address the idea that state violence disproportionately affects racialized communities, especially Black communities and Indigenous communities, poor communities, undocumented people, and other marginalized peoples (see link).

Certain forms of state intervention, such as the police, were developed by the white settler-colonial state to control and police groups such as Indigenous peoples and other racialized populations (see  link ). Some forms of state intervention may involve other institutions that further perpetuate state violence, such as foster care. When families are separated by the foster care system, oftentimes, children are subjected to more abuse at the hands of their foster homes, the foster care system, and other parties. Many argue that the foster care system does not actually benefit children (see link). Rarely does it help children heal and protect them from violence. Moreover, the foster care system has played a significant role in the genocide of Indigenous peoples (see link https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/05/28/Lessons-Care-Only-Flaw-System-Some-Survived/). By separating families, the foster care system severs Indigenous children from their culture and networks of support.

In contrast, TJ/CA, to some degree, offers an alternative way of approaching justice that keeps communities intact while keeping those who have been harmed safe. As in the name, justice is served when individuals and communities change to end violence. Recall that much of the TJ/CA process involves community members working together to change the way in which the culture of the community allows violence to continue. TJ/CA looks to the future and is optimistic that perpetuators of harm and the community can change, so that violence can be reduced.

Leslie’s Top 3 Resources About Transformative Justice and Community Accountability

I’ve been very interested in learning about TJ/CA, and for the past few months, some of my work at the SVSPO involves researching about it! Now that I’ve explained quite a bit about TJ/CA, here are three resources that I found helpful for how I understand this radical take on justice.

1.       TW: Mentions of abuse, sexual violence, and violence against girls, women, and femmes.

Gender Oppression, Abuse, Violence: Community Accountability Within the People of Color Progressive Movement (INCITE and CARA, 2005)

INCITE’s Gender Oppression, Abuse, Violence illustrates how accountability processes under the TJ/CA framework should look. It addresses gender-based violence in anti-racist activist communities and the need to end cycles of violence without the state. Thorough and firm in its tone, this resource is great for those who want to get a crash course introduction to TJ/CA. Although the document is almost 15 years old, the writings remain extremely relevant.

2. TW: Childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence.

Hollow Water (2000) (see link)

Sometimes, despite all of the writings and readings made accessible, it is hard to

imagine what an accountability process looks like. And if this is so, it may be even more difficult for us to imagine that an accountability process can be successful. Premiering in 2000, this film offers a real-life example of a fairly successful accountability process. The film focuses on Hollow Water, an Anishinaabe community ridden with childhood sexual abuse stemmed out of the intergenerational trauma of colonization. Though the film deals with emotionally-heavy subject matter, I have it to be informative and incredibly satisfying to watch. I would highly recommend Hollow Water to anyone who is interested in TJ/CA.

3. TW: Mentions of sexual violence

Taking the First Step: Suggestions to People Called Out for Abusive Behavior by Wispy Cockles (see link)

While INCITE offers some facilitation guidelines for an accountability process, and Hollow Water shows how this process could look like, we may wonder, what should the perpetuator do exactly to stay accountable? Wispy Cockles’ 12-page zine, Taking the First Step, offers some sound advice to those seeking guidance when they are the subject of an accountability process. Cockles acknowledges how scary it may be for people who have been called out to work in an accountability process. But he is also firm in his argument: the goal of an accountability process is to support the Survivor in their healing, not to baby the perpetuator of harm into hopefully becoming a better person. (This zine is formatted as an imposed PDF. It may help to read the pages not from left-to-right but diagonally.)

I find it somewhat difficult to explain what transformative justice and community accountability is, especially because many of us have been socialized to believe that the best course of action is to bring institutional intervention to end violence. But what is more is that many of us have found these options to be unhelpful. TJ/CA offers hope. This framework supports Survivors. It helps us understand the nuances of gender-based violence by humanizing people who have been hurt and people who hurt others. In doing so, TJ/CA brings people together to intervene in violence and to end it before the cycle of violence can grow stronger.

Leslie, Education Program Assistant, SVSPO   

[1] Throughout the rest of this blog post, when I discuss TJ/CA, I refer to people who have caused harm as “perpetuators” as to acknowledge that these people have likely been affected by violence and so perpetuate violence.