Community Accountability and Transformative Justice for Survivors
Illustration by Erin McPhee
Content Warning: This piece of writing includes topics of abuse, sexual assault, relationships to perpetrators and non-legal measures to deal with sexual violence.
*Words in italics are from a February 24, 2011 journal entry written by myself.
One of the most prominent questions media outlets asked me during the Ghomeshi Trial was regarding what the system could do to change the way sexual assaults were prosecuted in the legal system.
Time and time again, I would pull an answer out of my ass like ‘the system has tons of resources to collect evidence from sexual assault cases differently’ or ‘empower survivors by allowing them to have free legal representation’. But I actually believe that we need to dismantle the old system and create something new with survivors in leadership of this process.
Because the only system we have, and therefore understand, is the legal system as a response to sexual assault, it is hard to conceptualize anything else. It was when I was sexually assaulted but the legal system was not at all an option for me that I turned to look for other ‘solutions’.
When I was assaulted, it changed my world. I had just solo coordinated my first Take Back the Night. I was in recovery from a previous rape in 2007. I had stopped counseling and taking shifts on the crisis line. I thought I would lose my job. I drank too much. I was so angry and pulled everyone down with that anger. I lost the sexual self I was supposed to be. I became even more self-doubting than a queer brown 20-something already might be. Things got worse -, at a time in my life where I was hopeful that they would get better.
But (at least) I worked at a rape crisis centre; full of amazing mentoring, understanding queer/lesbian survivors, counselors, femmes and friends. I was able to be my fucked up self and not lose my job. In fact, my experience of abuse catapulted an option that I didn’t know I could ‘choose’ - it gave me the option of creating accountability; from the perpetrator, for myself, and for members of the community.
Why Community Accountability?
Most people think that ‘justice’ comes from the legal system and that when someone abuses us (partially because the legal system indicts us if we don’t), we should never talk to our abusers again.
The perpetrator of my sexual assault is still in my life and I see him in moments where we share community. I have had a myriad of emotions over the years: fear, sadness, anger, and judgment. I have behaved in ways that have been open, compassionate, loving, judgmental, mean, pissed off and punishing. I still know this person – they are my friend on Facebook and I have their number in my phone. I have made a choice about keeping them inside my community and friend circle and it has been one of the most challenging processes I have ever engaged in.
Actually never talking, or seeing our abuser again feels pretty real for a lot of us; natural, even normal. But, for some of us this is wishful thinking.
Some of us see our abusers at the family Christmas party, some of us still have to go to school with them, or our friends are still hanging out with them.
But, no matter the situation we often feel and are encouraged to ostracize this perpetrator from our respective communities, never to be allowed back in again.
What is Community Accountability?
Community Accountability (CA) asks us to reconsider some of the models that survivors have been encouraged to use like reporting to the police, going to court, and ousting perpetrators from the community. What is always included in the model of community accountability is that we put the survivor at the centre of their own healing journey (with community accountability being only one part of that journey) and continually asking the survivor “what do they want?”
This may seem obvious but I can assure you, the police, the legal system and perpetrators NEVER ask what we want as survivors.
According to the Incite Collective, “Community accountability is a community-based strategy, rather than a police/prison-based strategy, to address violence within our communities. Community accountability is a process in which a community – a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighbourhood, etc. – work together to do the following things:
Image via Wikipedia
Most community accountability includes some form of these concepts. Another group who has been working on transformative justice, has this way of defining it:
From Generation Five’s Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to Child Sexual Abuse and other forms of Intimate and Community Violence, “Transformative Justice responds to the lack of — and the critical need for — a liberatory approach to violence. A liberatory approach seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration and policing. We premise the Transformative Justice approach elaborated in this paper on three core beliefs, namely:
- Individual justice and collective liberation are equally important, mutually supportive, and fundamentally intertwined—the achievement of one is impossible without the achievement of the other.
- The conditions that allow violence to occur must be transformed in order to achieve justice in individual instances of violence. Therefore, Transformative Justice is a both a liberating politic and an approach for securing justice.
- State and systemic responses to violence, including the criminal legal system and child welfare agencies, not only fail to advance individual and collective justice but also condone and perpetuate cycles of violence.
Transformative Justice seeks to provide people who experience violence with immediate safety and long-term healing and reparations while holding people who commit violence accountable within and by their communities. This accountability includes stopping immediate abuse, making a commitment to not engage in future abuse, and offering reparations for past abuse. Such accountability requires community responsibility and access to on-going support and transformative healing for people who sexually abuse.” (Link)
Community Accountability or Transformative Justice processes are vastly different than the legal system and at the same time a very tall order for folks who have already experienced trauma and are replicating the systemic violences we all experience interpersonally by engaging in abusive behaviors.
So, it’s important to give a little leeway on the expectations that any one system, the legal system or an attempt at community accountability, will fix everything.
In my years at the TRCCMWAR, I have engaged in a process of community accountability for various types of violence a handful of times. The members of these community groups were not solely the survivor and perpetrator but included everyone in the group, as each person would have their own relationship to knowing about the violence. Community accountability gives the opportunity to have all the people involved shape how we want accountability to happen. CA is a tool that empowers many voices that get silenced when violence happens. Because of that, we can already see the potential for ‘transforming justice’.
I was not ready to sit in a room with my perpetrator and ask for accountability from him in 2010. I had so many feelings back then and what complicated my situation was that the perpetrator was partnered with a volunteer from my workplace. I thought highly of this amazing feminist volunteer, but I also had mixed feelings that projected onto her. One of those projections was how could she forgive him? How could she stay with him?
Complication #1: Even now, looking back on this its still complicated to me… Was this the ultimate site of compassion – to stay in a romantic relationship with someone that assaulted your friend? Or was this heteronormativity playing itself out in the cruelest of ways (i.e. standing by your man)?
Complication #2: The majority of folks who engaged with the CA process with me were masculine of centre/butch women and trans men who were queer identified. Their leadership helped me understand this violence from a queer perspective and also helped me understand the impact on my queer relationship at the time.
Complication #3: Acting ‘normal’ versus being real: I didn’t want EVERYTHING in my life to change because he assaulted me. I wanted to continue working at a rape crisis centre. I didn’t want my relationships and friendships to change so I continued the relationship with the perpetrator and the volunteer (for months directly after the sexual assault). This messed me up big time because even though I wanted to act like everything was normal, that I could understand it was something this person did, not something that they are: I was not taking care of what I really needed, which was actual space from them.
The Community Accountability Process
Before I even began to envision a CA process I needed to figure out what I needed in the first place:
“So I began with the realization that what I needed was to not ever see the perpetrator again. Simple, yes, but not necessarily when you live and breathe in the same community and not to mention you live down the street from your assaulter. Which, I did.
This need ruptured my friendship with the volunteer partnered with my assaulter. I couldn’t believe she couldn’t figure out a way to just make it so that I didn’t have to see this person again. Imagine being in such a rock and a hard place – your close community member and her husband. Not to mention, she too, is a survivor.” -Deb Singh, February 24th, 2011
I remember one of the reasons we decided to embark on a CA process with others in our group was because it became so hard for us to communicate. I took everything out on her because I didn’t want to see the perpetrator and she would actually validate me and listen, so I came to over-express my anger to her:
“So I talked to her, I yelled, I cried but I continued to be angry and annoyed. She tried her hardest to understand, to stay, to listen but we both didn’t always know the right thing to do. It was hard but we thought we needed something more constructive than emails and fights on the street.” -Deb Singh, February 24th, 2011
This, then, birthed the process that we would call Community Accountability:
“…[W]e decided in our group to share our experiences of what happened for us. We decided to do the unspeakable act of raising our voices together. This took shape in a meeting at another volunteer’s home. We decided to talk about what happened for each of us, since I had been (sexually) assaulted. We sat in a circle, with lots of food and drinks, and we each took a turn answering the following questions: - What happened for me? - What were the judgments I made about myself at the time? - What was the impact of what happened for me?
It didn’t entirely go well. Other things got in our way. Like a shared definition of safety, my queer relationship with my lover, confidential information this volunteer had about me, things I feared she wouldn’t/couldn’t hold because our differences had become so vast between us.
I stopped talking to her. Just a break to cool off the anger, to show that I wasn’t ready to trust and moreover, to actually own what I could handle instead of what I was doing, which was pretending I was still the woman I was before the assault. At least, at the very least, I owned what I was capable of. I began understanding what I really needed and let myself start having that.”
-Deb Singh, February 24th, 2011
What eventually happened is that some of the volunteers in our group wanted to confront the perpetrator. This never ended up happening because group dynamics got in the way - not to mention this was daunting process to go forward with.
At that point I was still not ready so I chose not to be part of that process of talking about a potential confrontation.
I have shared my experience of the process of Community Accountability I engaged in because people cannot really envision what these processes could look like since we are so reliant on the legal system.
I have also shared it because all processes have their positives and negatives and while we could try to provide some forms of justice (emotional, physical, legal, spiritual) to a survivor, nothing erases the assault or the feelings we have about it. And, that’s a hard thing to live with; when so much of why we engage in any process is to not have to feel this way anymore.
But the truth is, I still hurt. I still get triggered. Sometimes I don’t manage my triggers, sometimes I don’t offer compassion to my perpetrator. Sometimes I live in fear. Does he live in fear? Has he ever been accountable to me? No. Not directly and has never come back and asked if he could. I was brave to go through a CA process but did it change how I can be with the perpetrator now in community? Yes. But I did all the work, with support from so many, and also completely on my own.
Being a survivor of (sexual) violence and engaging in a Community Accountability or Transformative Justice process is incredibly brave. There is possibility to shift how justice can be served and how survivors and perpetrators get treated in the world. Thus, CA gives us hope about how to change the occurrence of sexual violence in our own communities.
Screen shot of a Community Accountability letter that TRCCMWAR has sent to perpetrators on behalf of survivors