Rescripted’s Revolution Glossary is our new series where we dive deeper into words which are part of the conversations about justice happening around all of us. The goal of this series is to provide a resource for people who want to expand their vocabulary around social justice topics, or people who want extra context and perspective on their word choices. Our hope is that this series can spark some important discussions, and help people jump into those discussions with enthusiasm.
Accountability is one of those words that pops up everywhere, but which means something slightly different everywhere it’s used. Phrases like government accountability, personal accountability, and community accountability bring to mind completely different concepts, but they’re all drawing on the same idea. They all relate to a person or entity’s responsibility for themselves and others, but also imply a mechanism which assesses and enforces said responsibility.
When organizers in movements for justice talk about accountability, they’re often talking about community accountability. To talk about that we have to take a little detour through the idea of transformative justice. Transformative justice is about challenging dominant ideas about finding justice when someone causes harm. Transformative Justice will eventually have a Revolution Glossary entry of its own, but for now know that transformative justice grew out of feminist movements against racism and violence anti-racist and anti-violence movements. Trom the 60s to the 90s, there was a slow accumulation of new theories about what caused and prevented violence, the relationship between violence and racism, and the role of the state in sanctioning violence.
In the 80s, mass incarceration emerged as an enormously destructive force for BIPOC communities. Academics and organizers documented and named its destructive effects, and questions which had always been present in BIPOC communities became urgent in a new way. Who does incarceration benefit? Does the criminal justice system do anything to help survivors of violence? How does the incarceration of a family or community member affect those who have lost their support? Transformative justice emerged as an answer which stood in direct opposition to the racist norms of the US Criminal Justice System. It rejects the idea that punishment and imprisonment can repair the harms caused by violence. It can be implemented in a variety of ways, but many of them rely on the community shared by those involved in a conflict or act of violence. One important difference transformative justice offers is an understanding that people who are close to a person who has caused harm are often the most invested in helping them change their harmful behavior, and they might offer support in that change which other people can not. In the same vein the people closest to a survivor are often the people most able to support them as they seek healing. This is where community accountability comes in.
One of the first groups to widely spread the idea of community accountability was INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Many of the ways people first envisioned community accountability were about communities becoming their own authority on holding their members accountable for violence. Organizers dreamed of ways that communities could position themselves to prevent violence, intervene when violence happened, supportively respond to survivors, and hold accountable those who had caused harm. Those organizers realized that how community members imagined their communities and structured their relationships also had to be informed by this idea of accountability.
Just as much as community accountability means prioritizing the healing of survivors, it also means prioritizing the voices of the most marginalized people affected in community decision making. In the same vein, community accountability means preparing ourselves to respond to violence without using more violence — but it also means preparing ourselves to respond to personal conflicts while valuing interpersonal relationships. It means holding people who harm members of the community accountable, but it also means holding powerful people accountable for exploiting, divesting resources from, or ignoring the needs of communities they affect.
Community accountability means care for those who have been harmed, but it also means creating a responsive and organized community. This community needs to understand and react to the many systemic roots of violence in order to prevent it. Ann Russo, a transformative justice scholar and practitioner (and my former professor and constant gender studies role model), puts this succinctly in her book Feminist Accountability: Disrupting Violence and Transforming Power: “…we must shift from seeing ourselves solely as individuals with individual relationships to seeing ourselves as members of communities who are responsible for the dynamics and patterns of the ways we relate to one another.”
But as I mentioned before, while community accountability is something that many of us are working toward, it’s not what everyone thinks of when they hear the world accountability. In many people’s eyes, the only fair accountability relies on black and white rules, and painful punishment. And for even more people, I’m sure, phrases like “keep me accountable” just remind them of their work deadlines. But now that we’ve taken the time to consider all of the things accountability can mean, take some time to think about what it means to you, and how you’ll talk about accountability in the future.
Looking for more resources? Check out:
Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators by Miriame Kaba and Shira Hassan
Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
Feminist Accountability: Disrupting Violence and Transforming Power by Ann Russo